Dist. 88 Board, legislators discuss variety of topics

NEW ULM – The District 88 Board of Education on Thursday met with state legislators Sen. Gary Dahms (R-Redwood Falls), Rep. Paul Torkelson (R-Hanska) and Rep. Clark Johnson (DFL-North Mankato).

The board and the legislators engaged in an informal, free-flowing discussion on a variety of topics.

Some highlights of the lengthy conversation:

The legislators commented, upon request, on a recent piece of state legislation called World’s Best Workforce (WBWF).

The goals of WBWF are great: to attain the best we can, noted Torkelson. He noted, however, that the legislation reminds him of the No Child Left Behind approach.

“I’m a local control guy,” he said. “[Local educators] are the best judges of how schools should operate.”

Johnson, in turn, noted that recent legislative initiatives are shifting the focus away from high-stakes graduation testing – and toward assessing the growth of individual students holistically – which he sees as progress.

“The real prize is not how you do in class today but how you’ll do in the real world,” noted Johnson.

Dahms said what “concerns” him about the legislation are “the measuring tools.”

He also noted that a program may have lofty goals, but it needs to be given enough time for implementation, before something else is tried out.

The legislators, in particular Dahms, also addressed school funding equity.

Metro-area schools receive more than $14,000 per students per year from the state, while rural schools operate on less than $11,000, Dahms noted. Percentage increases in funding compound the disparity. According to Dams, the latest school funding increase has been more equitable than some in the past, granting a lower percentage to metro schools, but rural schools still receive less per-student funding.

Johnson observed that the picture is complex: inner-city schools work with student groups who may require more resources to get educated, and this is necessary, to ensure that the state as a whole has a good workforce in the future.

Citing the example of school facilities in St. James versus Prior Lake, Johnson also observed that a widely divergent property tax base is a major contributor to inequality.

When asked about funding withheld in recent years from schools as part of tax shifts to balance the state budget, legislators said that most of the delayed money has been repaid, and that school funding shift repayment is a priority for this Legislature.

The legislators advocated giving schools more flexibility and control on how to spend money.

They fielded some questions on alternative school funding sources (noting casino funding for schools is unlikely, in one example).

Local school administrators voiced concerns about the excessive time they are spending on record keeping as part of a pilot teacher evaluation model.

From a more strategic perspective, both legislators and local educators discussed the need to adjust to the digital era and the changes it is effecting on the way students learn and function – which generates a need for radically innovative educational solutions.

After the legislators left, the board briefly reviewed progress on strategic goals relating to school facilities, academic programs and individualizing instruction.

In one new development, school administrators have upcoming meetings with local industry leaders, to explore the employers’ needs and how the schools can help meet them and to examine possibilities for collaboration.

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