Three areas of focus
As a member of the Board of Education, there are three areas I am focused on for our district in this coming year:
Opportunities for students
We have course offerings that districts three times our size wish they could offer because we have the professional expertise in culinary, technical education, video production, advanced courses and on and on. We are aligned around the vision of meeting each student where they are and helping them reach their potential. We have much to celebrate. We are not perfect, but we are striving.
Partnership with the community
This is our school district as a community. We celebrate together. We solve problems together. We take on our challenges together. We are capable of coming together as a team to collaborate and support the district. Fostering trust and communication will be key components to acting as One Brainerd.
Fiscal challenges and planning
We cannot rely on the state to be consistent or predictable with funding. We will need to get creative in how we solve our budget conundrum with the rising prices for staffing resources, products, and services on likely a pretty flat budget. Strategic planning will help us prioritize where we want to invest.
Three strengths of District 181
There will always be opportunities for improvement, but before we jump to condemn or criticize, it is important to celebrate and praise. Our children have opportunities many of us couldn't even imagine - from flying planes to making videos, to learning about the universe in an actual planetarium. Our community and school district have many things to be proud of, including:
1. The people who work in the district and their everyday commitment.
They push each other to be their best. Students see that extra effort. Families see that extra effort – teachers who not only love kids but have a heart for the work and motivation towards continuous improvement in their own classrooms. The strategic planning each school is working on, based on data, is creative, thoughtful, and collaborative. The plans connect to district objectives. I recognize these last couple years have likely been the most challenging of their careers and they continue to show up with energy and creativity.
2. Our commitment as a district to prioritize student success.
There are many things districts are working towards with technology, facilities, systems, and just dealing with the world around us right now that would make it easy to lose focus or be distracted from our primary goals – which always have students at the center. Our district does an exceptional job of not letting the development and evolution of those projects overtake our primary purpose of supporting student success.
3. Our community is engaged and cares.
Our families and neighbors are very committed to the success of the district. In the last building referendum, there was a clear message from businesses and community members that quality and environment of education is important to us.
Three opportunities in District 181
The challenges for school districts are many. Those of us who have spent time on the Board understand the complexity of running a multimillion-dollar organization that is regulated and funded by mechanisms that don’t necessarily take into account the realities of educating children in a modern world. Some of the top opportunities we have as a district include:
Budget and financial stability
When the legislature left their work unfinished in the last session, they left schools, county programs, cities, etc. all in a very difficult spot to anticipate funding and create balanced budgets without demolishing existing programs. The 2% increase in state funding doesn’t cover the 9% increase we are seeing to existing expenses. This fact only amplifies the challenges with school funding - that it is not consistent, that money is sometimes tied to mandates that don't make sense, and are oftentimes not reflecting real-time situations and impacts on schools.
For example, some of the ways schools receive funds and some of the implications:
1. Compensatory funding. When families fill out forms to receive free and reduced lunches, the number of those eligible are used to calculate compensatory funding. When lunches became free due to federal funding during COVID, there was little incentive for families to fill out the forms and our compensatory funding took a major hit. The same thing happened at every school district in the state. There is work being done to find another way to calculate student need or give some sort of grace (use last-year's numbers, etc.,) to reinstate the funding, but as of right now there are no solutions and no funding.
2. Special Education funding. More than 20% of our student population qualifies for some sort of special education services. I believe the state average is around 15-16%. The formula for reimbursing the actual cost of the service continues to not keep up and now covers about 55% of the actual cost to deliver it. With a higher-than-average population needing these services, it puts us in a tough spot. We are mandated (and want to) deliver the services, and it is hard to keep up with the expense to do so.
3. Levies or referenda. Governments and schools technically can't have debt. It happens - they go into statutory operating debt, but they can't really take out "loans". They can generate funds when voters approve issuing bonds and raising taxes. The legislature decides how much each district can levy through amounts and types of property tax levies each year. Each year the district sets the levy based on what the state allows and proposed district expenses. Cities, counties, etc. also go through a similar process. This is different than a special building or operating levy that must be approved by voters on a ballot. A few years ago, when we asked voters to support building projects, they voted to okay a limited tax increase for funds that could only be used for building expenses. It was a vital project to make our buildings more efficient, address neglected and deferred maintenance, and provide safety. Our district is one of the few in the state trying to manage financially without an operating levy, which, unlike a building levy, would supply funding for programs and staff. These funds also need to be voter approved.
When I taught in a metro school, the community approved an operating levy that enabled all kinds of top-notch education programs and staffing. A nearby district took a hit to the quality of their programs and eventually enrollment because they did not enjoy the same kind of community support, nor could their economic base of voters afford the same kind of support. Allowing schools to operate this way has its pitfalls. It creates districts of haves and have-nots based on the economics of your community and not the state you live in. It is good and necessary to have the right balance in local control and funding vs. state and federal. The community is proud of our schools and should have the opportunity to invest through levies, but it should not mean the difference between a quality education or a substandard education. Right now, local funding accounts for about 30%, state 60%, and federal about 8% of the general fund spending in our district.
Those are just a couple examples of school funding challenges we face. Regardless of the unpredictability and inconsistency of school funding mechanisms, our district has some tough financial decisions ahead and it will be important to have a community interested, connected, and invested in how we move forward to continue offering the standard of education we expect and support in this community.
Prioritizing our equity focus
Our education mandate as a district is to ensure all students achieve their individual potential. Our goal is to build a school system that works for and provides opportunities for all students. Modern education has identified this looks different for each student. Recognizing and celebrating differences has been a hallmark of our country since the time my great-great-grandparents came over from Norway and settled in South Dakota next to their German neighbors. They learned from each other, they forged new ways to create and be a community that depended on the varying experiences of the whole and not the same experience of many.
When students come to school, before they can open their mind to learning, they must feel safe. They must feel they have a place to belong.
The equity task force is leading efforts to create a framework, create priorities based on the student experience, and keep the community involved in the conversation.
This is incremental work, and we need community partnership to make it happen. We are all on this journey of uncovering our individual biases, how they shape our world, and the need to engage with empathy. It is small things. As a child we had grandparents’ day at school – and all the kids in my class who didn’t have grandparents, their experience that day was very different than mine. A small change to invite kids to instead bring their favorite grownup could mean all the difference in a child being included or excluded. I don’t want any child in our district to feel like they are on the outside looking in.
In recent years, we have become very quick to jump to conclusions and fill in the blanks with worst-case-scenario details. For humans, this is actually programed into our DNA for survival. I know I can do better, and try to be intentional in assuming best intent. Yes, spite and malice exist in world. And, there is no one with malicious intent sending communications about my child’s class schedule change. It is safe to assume they had good intentions, offer some grace, and reach out for the additional information I need.
We all want transparent, timely communication. And, we all want it when we want it, in the channel that fits my personality and lifestyle, and in the bite size bullets that fit the amount of time and energy I have available. In a time when information on social media is immediate, the communication systems of old cannot keep up. And, the necessary information that comes from classroom teachers, coaches, district administration, building administration, and school volunteers becomes a patchwork of communication channels and styles. The school district recognizes the need to create a more concerted communication plan. Superintendent, Dr. Hahn is leading the charge to create a strategy and facilitate execution. I am eager to support and supply input as we hear feedback from families.
Listening to the community, our stakeholders
We have a diverse set of stakeholders in this community. We have businesses who benefit from a smart, well-trained workforce and being able to offer recruits high-quality education for their children when they relocate to our community. We have families who are experiencing the district real-time who have students in school. We have educators and staff in the district who are engaged and empowered. And, community members who are invested because our education systems create a climate of community pride, a big part of our identity and our future – the quality of life we all enjoy.
Living and participating in the community alongside our many stakeholders is important to be able to represent the voices and perspectives and to truly understand the challenges. I relish attending school events, community activities, and being accessible.
Everything we do, we do together. We all experience the reward.
It struck me one time when I heard a comment about the pinch we are experiencing with bus drivers. Someone said, “They need to do something. They need to figure this out…” I was processing that and thinking, there is no, “they” in this equation. It is all, “us.” This district is our district as a community. The good, the bad - we have to be in it together. There is not enough energy and resources otherwise. This bus driver pinch, it continues to be our issue as a community invested in this district. And, the community is responding - parents stepping up to get trained and licensed, community members sharing the need with their circles of influence.
When I promote ill on the district, I promote ill on my own child’s learning, and the adverse domino effect on the future of my own community. I am prepared to do a better job in calling people up to that challenge – calling myself up to that challenge. Our mutual goal as a district in partnership with the community is to ensure all students achieve their individual potential. That happens inside and outside the classroom. That happens in our homes and community as an extension of our schools.