MARSHALL - Area superintendents and other southwest Minnesota school representatives voiced their educational concerns to a handful of state legislative candidates Wednesday in a candidate forum hosted by the Southwest/West Central Service Cooperative at the Ramada Inn in Marshall.
The conversation included a variety of issues, such as the flexible learning year (FLY), school readiness programs, funding, teacher evaluations, broadband accessibility, property tax and state mandates, though the message conveyed, received and supported the most seemed to be that school districts deserved to have more local control.
Cliff Carmody, executive director for SW/SC Service Cooperative, asked the opening question regarding support for or against the FLY for the consortium of 25 school districts in southwest Minnesota.
Photo by Jenny Kirk
Cliff Carmody, executive director of the Southwest/West Central Service Cooperative, spoke during a candidate forum for area legislative candidates Wednesday at the Ramada Inn.
"Do you support a legislative change, allowing local school boards to establish the learning year for their students, or do you side with the tourism industry and state fair position that school must start after Labor Day?" Carmody asked.
One by one, all five candidates - District 16 Sen. Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls, James Kanne, Al Kruse, Ted Suss and District 16A Rep. Chris Swedzinski, R-Ghent - announced that they were for increased local control for individual school districts. Kruse is running against Swedzinski and Suss is up against Dahms in next month's election
"I think it should be allowed," Swedzinski said. "I think there are districts that have joined in and done it and feel it works for them. There's also (those) that feel that maybe this isn't the best fit. Allowing some fluidity, of going back and forth if it's something they want to try and do, I think is common sense."
Kanne said he'd like to see the school year longer, stating that he felt students needed "more contact hours, not less." Kruse said he believed that it was time to abandon the agrarian calendar.
"There's no physical reason to be tied to the system that we've been doing for the last 100 and some years," Kruse said. "The farms don't require the children to be helping on the farm like they used to. It's time that we look at a new calendar, that we lengthen our school days and lengthen our school year and use that to improve the educational outcome."
Dahms said in talking with some of the "folks involved in FLY," that they seemed to feel that the experience had been a good opportunity. The bottom line, Dahms said, was that children needed to get the best education possible.
"In order to do that, I think that we need to give our local school districts the opportunity to make these decisions," he said. "I think we need to give them the control. And if a local school district or a group of local school districts feels that they can do a better job of providing education to our children by having a flexible learning year, then I think we should allow them the opportunity to do that."
Canby Superintendent Loren Hacker said he couldn't agree more.
"I think the Legislature needs to get out of the school districts' business in so many ways, and this is one of them," Hacker said.
Along with Hacker, area superintendents, Chris Fenske of Lakeview, Dan Deitte of Minneota, Klint Willert of Marshall, John Cselovszki of Sleepy Eye and Rick Ellingworth of Redwood Valley, joined other school representatives from Tracy Area High School, Westbrook-Walnut Grove, Dawson-Boyd and Lynd at the forum.
Kanne said he'd heard that the FLY accommodated the schedule of post-secondary students, but he asked for verification on the matter. Willert said he'd be happy to speak to that issue.
"The culmination of the advanced placement (AP) exam coincides very nicely now with the conclusion of the calendar year," Willert said. "So there isn't that lull of two or three weeks after the exam, where you're trying to figure out what to do educationally. For us, it's a 90-minute block. We're talking 900 minutes of educational time that gets impacted for those students that are in our advanced placement classes. That's a big deal."
Dahms then asked what the "downfalls of the program" were if there were any.
Dawn VanKeulen, a Minneota School Board member, said she was a 4-H parent, so she felt strongly that she could speak to both sides of that issue.
"Some parents will say they don't like having their kid miss school to go to the (state) fair," she said. "And, some parents worry that fair attendance will go down. But if you go look at the numbers, it was actually up. So don't listen to that. Being a 4-H parent, I will say that kids have to come back and make up their work, but I will also say that the kids that are in 4-H aren't typically the kids that have a problem making up the work. So I don't think that argument flies, personally."
Cselovszki said he also didn't feel that students missing school to attend the state fair was pertinent because parents often take their children out of school for vacations throughout the school year, he said.
"We clearly communicated to our parents, that if you want to go, please go," he said. "We value the 4-H program. I think it's an awesome program."
Suss, who adamantly supported local school boards having "absolutely 100 percent of the control," went one step further, saying that school boards should have control on other issues, besides the flexible calendar options, as well.
"I think there should be absolutely no limits as to when you start school, end school, what days you have school, what days you don't have school, and that spills into a lot of other school related issues," Suss said. "Whether the FLY shows fantastic improvement, no improvement or a decline, is irrelevant to me. The local school board ought to have the authority to operate the school when they feel it's in the best interest of that community, the students, staff and the families in that district. And that doesn't just stop with the calendar. There's a whole range of issues, where we need to give a lot more authority back to the local schools."
Suss pointed out that he thought the state mandates had gotten out of control in the past two years, especially, and that it was time to do away with some of those mandates.
"We need to re-think about the structure of our education system," Suss said. "I don't think that the Legislature dictating a one-size-fits-all solution for every community in the state is the right way to have that happen. The state mandate approach, in my opinion, is going to strangle K-12 education. We need to open it up and have a little bit of opportunity for creativity and individual-by-district program offerings."
After all, Suss said, Minnesota is known for its education system.
"Minnesota built the best public education system in the country, which probably made it the best public education system in the world during the '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, with no state tests, no state mandated curriculum, no state textbooks," Suss said. "How did we do it? We put a lot of money into teacher training, administrative training, with the philosophy that if you had good people, you could give them the tools to do the job and then let them do the job."
Willert expressed his frustration about the extent of reporting that schools have to do, wishing that there was a better level of continuity and consistency from the Minnesota Department of Education.
"We're told that we need to educate kids and prepare them for the 21st century, where we need them to be entrepreneurs, we need them to be interconnected, we need them to be all of these things," he said.
While some of the candidates have currently been in office and others are seeking first-year terms, all seemed to validate concerns that everything should be done in the best interest of the children in Minnesota.
"We need our children educated to the best of their ability and have opportunities and go into careers that we don't even know exist yet," Kruse said. "We need them educated to do that, so we have to figure out how to do that. And that will come as we give more independence to our schools to be able to adjust and adapt."