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Grand Rapids students improve in reading, but looming budget crunch places intervention at risk

RDNE Stock project via Pexels

Students are improving in reading proficiency with a different approach, officials say. But a budget-cutting proposal on the table could eliminate interventions if the referendum fails.

GRAND RAPIDS — “There's a definite reading crisis in our nation,” said Jennifer Sjodin, in a recent KAXE Morning Show conversation.

Sjodin is the gifted and talented coordinator in the Grand Rapids School District No. 318. Also in the studio was Ryan Debay, teaching and learning director for the more than 4,000 in Grand Rapids, Cohasset and Bigfork.

Together, the two laid out improvements in reading proficiency evident across their youngest students. The district has adopted a Science of Reading approach in elementary schools, and this change is responsible for the improvements, they said.

According to the National Center on Improving Literacy, the Science of Reading approach is based on decades of research and evidence and is not a specific program or curriculum. It involves identifying sounds and spoken words, how letters and groups of letters work together in spelling patterns, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.

A graph of data provided by the Grand Rapids School District shows improvements in reading proficiency among its youngest learners between 2020 and 2022.
Chelsey Perkins
A graph of data provided by the Grand Rapids School District shows improvements in reading proficiency among its youngest learners between 2020 and 2022.

"In grade 3 district wide, our students were 55.1% proficient in reading. And so that places us above our pre-pandemic scores in 2019, which is really quite phenomenal," Sjodin said. "In grade 3 across the state of Minnesota, the average was only 48%."

Sjodin talked about the district’s use of the Orton Gillingham approach, described as "direct, multi-sensory teaching strategies paired with systematic, sequential lessons focused on phonics."

“We are constantly evaluating how the students are doing on their pathway to proficiency, providing interventions and supports to make sure that they get there and and we start that at a really young age. We start that in Kindergarten,” she said.

While this means more than half of students are proficient in reading at their grade levels, Debay and Sjodin said they aren't satisfied with stopping there.

“It makes us hungry and thirsty for more and some of that we're seeing now," Debay said. "We have teachers that are seeing 90 (%) to 100% of their kids on track, and it's exciting.”

Grand Rapids District 318's Ryan Debay and Jennifer Sjodin in the KAXE Studios on a lovely fall day.
Heidi Holtan
Grand Rapids School District employees Ryan Debay and Jennifer Sjodin sit in the KAXE studios Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2023, during a Morning Show interview.

With the days dwindling ahead of the Tuesday, Nov. 7, referendum going before Grand Rapids School District voters, however, the pair expressed concern about whether that progress will continue.

According to a presentation by Superintendent Matt Grose to the Grand Rapids School Board, the district must consider a variety of alternatives to fill a $3 million budget gap in the event the operating levy fails to pass.

Among those is the option of eliminating the Alternative Delivery of Specialized Instructional Services, or ADSIS. This academic and behavior intervention program serves hundreds of children each day in the district, Grose said.

"It's been a really important program to those kids," Grose said. " ... Again, these aren't great options. But they're options we have to consider to balance the budget."

Minnesota legislation

Debay talked about the Minnesota Reading to Ensure Academic Development Act, or the READ Act. Signed into law by Gov. Tim Walz on May 24, the legislation's goal is to have every Minnesota child reading at or above grade level every year, beginning in kindergarten.

“I think our goal is, we'd like to see 100%,” Debay said. “The statewide goal is 90% with no subgroup below 85% in the state and that's what we're trying to achieve in our district. That's what we're after.”

Find out more about school reading levels on the Minnesota Department of Education’s website.

Advice to parents

According to Debay and Sjodin, teachers in the district have worked hard during school and in the summer to increase their skills as well, but parents also need to be involved.

“I would really just encourage them to make sure that when they're reading with their child that they're sounding out words," Sjodin said. "You also want to make sure from a very young age that the child is holding that pencil correctly and they're making those letters correctly."

More on the Nov. 7 referendum

Voters will be asked to consider three ballot questions, which the district says will stabilize its finances and restore programming.

The primary ballot question seeks an $1,100 per pupil operating levy. This would add $4.6 million annually to the district's budget and help to avoid deeper budget cuts, according to the district.

If this question fails, the others will automatically.

Question 2 asks for a $2.5 million annual capital projects levy to restore programs and provide for school safety, technology and school buses.

And Question 3 seeks another $300 per pupil to maintain small class sizes, enhance career and technical education, and more. This question only passes if the second does.

On a home valued at $200,000, the tax impact of the referendum would be $19 per month on Question 1, an additional $6 per month with Question 2, and $5 more with Question 3.

"It makes us hungry and thirsty for more and some of that we're seeing now, we have teachers that are seeing 90 to 100% of their kids on track and it's exciting.”
Ryan Debay, Teaching and Learning Director for Grand Rapids District 318

If all three ballot questions pass, a home valued at $200,000 would see an estimated property tax increase of $30.75 per month starting in 2024. A home valued at $300,000 would see an estimated increase of $46.75 per month.

Grose said budget cuts would be on the horizon for the district in spring 2024 and beyond, if voters disapprove of the questions.

To start, balancing the budget would likely mean eliminating or delaying the purchase of new curriculum, buses and technology; eliminating some student activities; and building hour reductions.

Beyond those, Grose said four scenarios would be under consideration, including the potential to temporarily or permanently close Cohasset Elementary School, staff reductions ranging from 15-23 positions or moving to a four-day school week.

"None of these options are great," Grose told the board. "They all have a cost, whether it's to student opportunities or staff experience and opportunities. So, significant."

Tune in to the KAXE Morning Show on Wednesday for full election results.


Some residents in the Grand Rapids School District are lobbying their neighbors to vote against the referendum, citing recent tax hikes from other jurisdictions they say are becoming too expensive.

Among those are the voter-approved sales tax to fund the Itasca County Jail, the voter-approved building bond referendum previously sought by the school district, and the voter-approved sales tax in Grand Rapids to fund improvements to the civic center, now known as Yanmar Arena.

A digital billboard between Cohasset and Grand Rapids implores people to vote against the referendum. And a flyer is also making the rounds. According to a local parent, a stack of these flyers was inside a Cohasset day care for at least a week, next to the check-in area. Some copies say they're paid for by John Scott Casper of Grand Rapids, while others list Anthony Kotula of Grand Rapids as the source.

The flyer characterizes test scores in the elementary schools as pathetic and says many district officials are paid 3 to 5 times more than the average local salary.

"Cut your own staff and take some pay cuts before you dare ask for another tax increase!" the poster states. " ... Send a message to the administration: 'Stop mismanaging our tax dollars!'"

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median household income in Itasca County between 2017 and 2021 was $58,393. The Minnesota Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board reports during the 2020-21 school year, the average salary of a high school principal in the district was $128,286, while the average teacher earned $72,051. The principal salary is about twice the median household income, which could include more than one earner.

Casper is no stranger to tax opposition. In 2020, he was arrested outside the Itasca County Courthouse after he urged people inside not to pay their taxes and had an altercation with law enforcement outside. According to the criminal complaint, a sheriff's sergeant recognized Casper on security camera footage because of "numerous verbal altercations with said sergeant, department heads and county commissioners."

He pleaded guilty to a disorderly conduct misdemeanor in 2021 and his unsupervised probation ended in 2022.

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Heidi Holtan is KAXE's Director of Content and Public Affairs where she manages producers and is the local host of Morning Edition from NPR. Heidi is a regional correspondent for WDSE/WRPT's Duluth Public Television’s Almanac North.
Chelsey Perkins spent the first 15 years of her journalism career as a print journalist, primarily as a newspaper reporter and editor. In February 2023, she accepted a role as News Director of KAXE in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, where she's building a new local newsroom at the station.