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JR-2 approves new plan to recruit and retain staff

JHS Handbell Choir members perform during the school board meeting. Photo by Jay Forness

The Jackson R-2 School Board approved a new action plan to recruit and retain highly qualified faculty and staff members, as well as approve a new sick leave early notification plan and teacher retention grants, during its regular meeting on Dec. 13.

Making sure the district had highly qualified faculty and staff members was the top priority that came out of the district’s recent strategic planning process. “Every group that we talked to said this was a real priority for the district,” Associate Superintendent Janelle Pope said.

A subcommittee consisting of certified and non-certified staff members, parents, community members and school board members were a part of the committee that helped form the action plan.

To increase recruitment efforts, the district will expand partnerships with the Southeast Missouri State University field experience office, increase opportunities for student teachers to work in Jackson R-2 buildings, create a “grow-your-own” initiative for current high school students, include team members when hiring staff members and implement ways to celebrate new staff during the on-boarding processes.

“Traditionally, teachers have wanted to come and work here,” Pope said. “We have seen a slight shift in that over the past year or so, but we really want to bring that back.”

To demonstrate that the district values its faculty and staff, the plan advises the district to increase compensation overall, as well explore ways to compensate teachers for extra responsibilities and for longevity in the district.

“We have not been able to give the same amount of a raise that neighboring districts have been able to,” Pope said. “This committee said that needs to be as much of a priority as possible.”

The plan also asks the district to explore non-monetary measures to increase support for staff members, including reducing class sizes, eliminating the distinction between personal and sick days, allow for greater teacher autonomy and avoiding the use of prep time for other meetings or duties.

The plan also provides steps to ensure that faculty and staff members have a voice in the district – including improving the exit survey process, continuing the partnership with the Community Teachers Association (CTA) and sending regular surveys to staff members.

Lastly, the plan includes measures to increase faculty morale and promote a positive school culture. The plan recommends expanding a system that emphasizes the mental and physical health of staff members, more professional development for building leaders and increasing support for new teachers.

A new sick leave policy was approved where teachers who knew they were leaving the district at the end of the school year through a resignation or retirement could receive more reimbursement for their remaining sick days if they told the district they were leaving by Jan. 10.

Staff members who submit a formal notification of retirement or resignation before 4 p.m. on Jan. 10 will receive $100 for each remaining sick or personal day.

Currently, staff members do not receive reimbursement of remaining days unless they were with the district for more than 10 years. If they were employed for longer than 10 years, they received $30 per sick or personal day.

If someone leaves the district after this school year, but does not submit notification during the early notification period, the current sick leave policy will still be in place.

Superintendent Scott Smith said the district currently pays $110 for a substitute, so the new payout will still cost the district less than if the staff member used the leave.

“This will be a benefit for the district, as well as the teachers,” Smith said. “This allows us to start our recruiting efforts sooner and start trying to get quality candidates hired.”

Smith said this will be a pilot program, and the district will reassess the new program next year.

The school board also approved $200 teacher retention grants for certified teachers in the district. To qualify for the grant, teachers needed to attend training on health and wellness, where they also learned more about their health insurance benefits.

Teachers received the grants before winter break. The district will be reimbursed for the grants by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

In other action:

• The school board also approved another action plan on building relationships and partnerships with the business community.
The plan included creating more opportunities within the school setting for the promotion and practice of employable skills – including communication skills, dependability, accountability, interview skills, problem-solving, work ethic, resiliency and goal setting.

As part of this subcommittee, the district created the Jackson Opportunity in Business (JOB) career fair at the high school.

Around 30 businesses and organizations met with students in the event center to talk about different career paths.

“Several of our students that day were able to set up connections and interviews that could lead to potential jobs at this age already,” Chief Marketing and Communications Director Merideth Pobst said. “We think that will continue to grow, and we already know of areas we want to expand for the event.”

The action plan also promotes internship and externship opportunities for students and staff members teaching business classes, facilitate employment opportunities for students and evaluate current course offerings.

• Jeff Stroder from Beussink, Hey, Roe & Stroder presented the district’s annual audit report, stating the district had received a clean audit report on the district’s financial records from the 2021-2022 school year.

Stroder said the financial statements audited were fairly stated, though he added that the end-of-year bank reconciliations were not finished until November – after the audit process had begun.

“There were some difficulties in balancing the reports to the actual financial records,” he said. “There did not appear to be any inappropriate transactions or anything like that which led to this. I think the bulk of the problem was with the actual software itself.”

Stroder recommended that more work be done to be able to record all transactions in the district’s software as soon as the transactions take place. The audit also found 13 credit card transactions without receipts, totaling $2,300 in transactions. “I know this sounds pretty big, but in my experience with the number of transactions that go though the card, this is actually a pretty small amount,” Stroder said.

Stroder also recommended the district make sure to amend the budget before any expenditures are made above the budgeted limit. The district amended the 2021-2022 budget in September to account for actual expenditures, three months after the end of the school year and after some expenditures over the budgetary limit were authorized.

The district is also required by DESE to post information regarding receipts and discernments to the district’s website at least once a quarter. Stroder said this information was posted monthly for the first five months of the 2021-2022 school year, but it was not posted the remainder of the school year.

The district received a qualified opinion, rather than an unmodified opinion, on the district’s child nutrition program because it did not comply with one of the federal government’s requirements for the program.

“Some years you will operate at a loss and some years you will operate at a surplus, and that’s normal,” Stroder said. “They allow for certain surpluses, but the surplus must be limited to no more than three months average expenditures.”

The district’s surplus in the program amounted to $1.4 million last year, around $400,000 more than the district’s three-month average of expenditures. Stroder said some of this may be COVID-related, and he recommended the district use more of the program’s income on allowable expenditures.

Lastly, Stroder stated the district did not have sufficient procedures in place to make sure the district did not do business with companies suspended or disbarred from receiving federal funds.

“We had no instances of noncompliance here,” Stroder said. “We didn’t do any business with any of these folks, but we didn’t have a specific internal control that was in place.”

Districts are required to check any vendor that would receive more than $25,000 of federal funding. Stroder found instances of these vendors being checked too late in the year and one instance of a vendor never being checked.

The school board approved the audit report. Assistance Superintendent Matt Lacy said the district has implemented an action plan or already corrected each of the audit’s recommendations. “Frankly, most of these have already been resolved,” he said.

• A district calendar for the 2023-2024 school year was approved by the school board. The calendar includes a full week off at Thanksgiving, unlike prior years, and continues a full week off for spring break. Winter break is shorter next year, lasting from Dec. 22, 2023, to Jan 2, 2024. Aug. 21, 2023, will be the first day of school, and classes will end on May 23, 2024. The Jackson High School Class of 2024 graduation is planned for May 17, 2024.

• The board approved a bid from Mark Aufdenberg for the use of farmland owned by the district off of Old Toll Road in Jackson. Aufdenberg submitted the highest of three bids, with Austin Brock and Brian Timberlake also submitting bids.

Aufdenberg will use the eighty-four acres of land for growing corn and soybean. Aufdenberg will pay $10,526 in rent for use of the land in 2023, with the district having the option to extend the contact for 2024 and 2025 for the same amount of rent.

Assistant Superintendent Keenan Kinder said the district would extend the contract next October unless the land is used for a new district project.

• Representatives from Jackson Junior High School spoke to the board about the school’s new use of the NWEA Map Growth tests – which provide data on student’s learning growth in math, ELA and science.

“We wanted to ensure that when a student walked into our building and they exited, that we have a way to ensure they were learning and gaining growth over the time period,” JJHS Principal Bryan Austin said.

Students take the online assessment three times a year – at the beginning of the school year to provide a baseline, at the end of the first semester and after MAP testing in May.

This is the first year the test has been offered at JJHS. Austin said the test has been challenging for students, because it pushes even the most advanced students to their highest possible score.

“If you get a correct answer, it moves you up a level,” Austin said. “If you continue to get correct answers, you are getting harder questions as you go. If you are not getting correct answers, it moves you further down.”

The tests provides the school information about how each student compares to others across the country, as well as specific standards where they may need additional support. The test can even show the student’s predictive ACT score if they stay at their current level of growth through high school.

Austin said the test has already improved parent-teacher conferences, where teachers can now print out progress reports for parents on how their child has grown over the course of the semester.

In addition, Austin said the test will be used to help determine class placement for advanced and below average students in specific subjects – including accelerated algebra, advanced STEM, math strategies and reading strategies.

Teachers can also compare classroom scores during collaboration periods and get help from other teachers who excelled in teaching a particular topic. Austin said the data can also lead to curriculum adjustments in areas where students have weak scores school-wide.

“For science, the last time we get state data on these kids is in fifth grade and we don’t get it again until the eighth grade,” JJHS science teacher Joseph Spurgeon said. “I teach seventh grade, so this is the very first time we have data.”

Spurgeon said he couldn’t think of a better way for teachers to use their time than in administering and looking at the NWEA data, adding that students are also enthusiastic about the test and have come up to him after the test to know exactly how their score compares to their last score.

“They are excited about this, they like it,” Spurgeon said. “When have you ever heard of a kid asking about their standardized test scores? Maybe my junior who is taking the ACT but never a seventh grader.”

• The board approved six updates to board policies – updating policies related to school board votes, releasing district information, federal programs, career and technical education, curriculum development and nontraditional instruction options.

• Representatives from the elementary encore curriculum team presented on the work they have done reviewing and updating the district’s elementary curriculum for music, art, physical education and libraries.

Instructional Technology Specialist Brandon Brazel, who worked with teachers in all four encore subjects, said the curriculum teams have spent over a year putting together the new curriculum documents.

The curriculum teams reviewed Missouri learning standards and identified the priority standards for each grade level. The district also brought in representatives from DESE to help the teachers during this process.

“We started this work because these encore teachers want to support our general education classrooms, but we knew they need to also be firm in deciding what their priorities are,” Brazel said.

Teachers Kelly Crawford, Sarah Hopson, Amanda Bourner and Ryan Heaton talked about the curriculum development for each subject.

• The board approved an evaluation of the district’s special education program, updated with new data from DESE. The district has increased by 76 students and 7.5 staff positions since two years ago.

• The Jackson High School Handbell Choir held their last performance of the season at the beginning of the school board meeting, playing Christmas songs for the school board and those in attendance.

The handbell choir is open to any choir or band student at the high school, with rehearsals taking place once a week after school during the first semester. The band is led by choir teacher Beth St. John, who performed in the choir when she was in high school.

“This is kind of a unique thing to high schools,” St. John said. “Usually you see handbell choirs at churches, but Jackson High School is unique in being one of the few, if not only, high schools that have a handbell choir.”

St. John said the handbell choir has been a part of JHS since the 70s, when it originated in the school’s German club. When the German club disassembled, the handbell choir then became part of the school’s choral department.

Each student in the choir has one or two bells, with each bell representing a single musical note. The handbell choir performed during the Madrigal Feaste, in addition to performances at local nursing homes and elementary schools.

Jay Forness covers education, county government and community events for The Cash-Book Journal. He graduated from Southeast Missouri State University with a degree in multimedia journalism and has lived in Jackson for the past five years. He can be reached at

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