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District Superintendent Deb Olson meets with mayoral candidate Ed O’Neill following her presentation.

Decreasing enrollment, a shifting population and a few outstanding legal and fiscal issues aside, the Clinton Community School District continues to excel, according to Superintendent Deb Olson. Speaking at the annual “State of the District” event Tuesday morning, Olson commended the district’s staff for improving test scores and other positive developments in the midst of a difficult economy and education reform.

“I don’t think there’s any finer district to work for in the state of Iowa,” Olson said.

The presentation, held at the Tuscany Events center over breakfast, began with district news throughout the past year. The ongoing court case against former district business office supervisor Denisa Babcock, who was convicted of embezzling up to $1.2 million from the district but has not yet been settled, was discussed. Olson said that $1 million of embezzled funds had already been covered by the district’s insurance policy, and that the U.S. attorney overseeing the case has assured her that the remaining money would be returned at some point after Babcock’s sentencing. Babcock faces up to 10 years for the crime.

New safeguards have been put in place since the incident, according to Olson. Transactions and other activities with district funds now include at least two employees, and monthly financial check-ups are now conducted.

“We have learned from our past so it won’t be repeated in the future,” Olson said.

She also mentioned the ongoing case between the Clinton Board of Review and Archer Daniels Midland Company (ADM) over property taxes for the company’s cogeneration facility. With a decrease in the plants stipulated value as part of a partial settlement in the ongoing case, the district would lose about $760,000 in funds over the course of the year. Olson said she would keep the taxpayers apprised of new developments.

Potential boundary realignment was brought up, as Clinton’s population continues to shift north. Though it’s only been three years since the previous realignment, another may soon be necessary. At the upcoming meeting of the school board, Olson said she will ask to form a task force to consider the possible need for new school boundary lines.

Olson reviewed academic performance throughout the district, measured through various standardized tests. Overall, the district has seen steady improvement, and was even honored with a statewide recognition for improvement in special education test scores for middle school students. The district also does not see a significant performance drop off between students not eligible for free or reduced lunches and those who are. According to Olson, this is a rare accomplishment for school districts.

“That says volumes about the level of education being provided by our staff and our administration,” she said.

However, the number of students who require free or reduced price lunches is above the state average. About 59 percent of Clinton Community School District students receive free or reduced price lunches, compared to about a 38 percent average statewide. Olson said many students are even considered homeless, which she said makes breakfast and lunch services even more important.

The district has also made strides in meeting federal standards, according to Olson. The district has been removed from the District In Need of Assistance (DINA) list for math scores, and several schools in the district have been removed from School In Need of Assistance (SINA) lists.

“That’s incredible folks,” Olson said. “That is due to the hard work of our staff.”

Olson also gave an update of the in-progress construction projects. The Harding remodel, which will outfit the closed school with the necessary improvements to house district administration, will be paid for predominantly through contingency funds returned after a bond was retired. The Clinton High School upgrades are still in progress.

Work on the new middle school is a bit more tenuous, Olson said, as the district is unsure of exactly how much funding will be available for the project. If only $20 million is available, the building will house seventh- and eighth- grade students. However, if $23 million or more is available, it will serve as a full middle school with sixth, seventh and eighth grades.

Following the presentation, Olson took questions from attendees. When asked what single thing could be done to help improve education in the area, Olson responded with a simple answer.

“Take interest in a child,” she said. “Our children need to feel loved and need to feel secure.”