By Blake Spurney
NEWTON—The Newton School District has joined a group that is challenging exorbitant gas bills that came in the wake of Winter Storm Uri in February.
Finance Director David Decker told the USD-373 Board of Education on Monday that the two bills totaled about $187,000, or roughly five times what the district normally pays. He said he was high-fiving Superintendent Fred Van Ranken when the first bill of about $35,000 arrived because he thought it would be much higher. However, the second bill came in last week. The total for Walton Rural Life Center alone was $35,000.
“It’s something we do not have budgeted for,” he said.
Decker said his “ingenious plan” for paying the bill was to join a consortium of 137 school districts and colleges in hiring lawyer James Zakoura to challenge the bill. He said Zakoura of Overland Park would conduct an investigation of about six weeks while looking into allegations of price-gouging related to the February storm. The district will pay a $500 fee to join the Kansas Joint Utility Management Program.
Meanwhile, Decker said the district would pay its normal rate of $35,000 while Zakoura litigates the matter, a process that could take months. He said Zakoura seemed confident that he could get the bill reduced. He said the main point of contention was that the district didn’t receive the amount of gas that Symmetry claimed it did in the bill.
Decker said he planned to pay an amount that would ensure gas service continued while staying in Symmetry’s good graces. He said he would ask for the board’s permission down the road to pay the remainder out of contingency reserves.
The board received an action plan for improving the Summit Learning platform. The plan calls for monthly benchmarks that must be met. A minimum of 70% of students must be on track, with cognitive skills above 70%. The plan states that 80% of students must have contact with their mentors within the previous two weeks.
Superintendent Fred Van Ranken said he would have more of a plan for the next school year at the June meeting. He said principals from Chisholm Middle School and Santa Fe 5/6 Center had met three times since the last board meeting.
“We feel good about what we have right now,” he said.
In other business, the board:
•approved the appointment of a team of administrators to represent the district in hearings for expulsions and long-term suspensions. Van Ranken said having a team hear cases instead of one hearing officer helped protect individuals a little bit more. Three members from each team of administrators will hear a case. Board Member Luke Edwards said he was concerned about consistency in rulings. Van Ranken said he wasn’t, because a lot of districts had a similar setup.
•approved early graduation for Opportunity Academy students who are on pace to meet the credit requirements.
•approved new rates for employee health insurance for the 2021-22 school year. Decker said the district was sticking with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas. Employees will have four different price points from which to select their coverage, with deductibles ranging from $1,000 to $5,000.
•approved about $19,000 in gift requests from six donors.
•went into executive session for five minutes to discuss non-elected personnel.