After gaining voters' approval for a building bond referendum last spring, and seeing four board seats on the general election ballot, the Red Wing School Board started the new year with a new member and $2 million in major building improvement plans in motion.
"Our work this year is going to be more visionary, thinking of where we want the district to go and what we think the community wants for our school district," School Board Chair Janie Farrar said.
"This is the time that we will be deciding the next years for the district."
At the board's first January meeting, Farrar was elected for her third consecutive year as board chair. She swore in Pam Roe as a new board member, as Roe was one of three challengers on the November ballot.
In addition, Heidi Jones, a board member since 2009, was re-elected to serve a three-year term on the the Minnesota School Board Association's Board of Directors at the organization's annual leadership conference Jan 12-13. Jones will continue to represent the first district, which covers the southern portion of the state.
Operating referendum approaches
Set to expire at the end of the 2017-18 school year, the operating referendum will be a big player in the board's dialogue and strategic planning discussions, Farrar said. The distinction between the building bond (passed last spring) and operating referendums, she said, is that the operating referendum is what the nation or state would call a learning levy.
"These funds are directly linked to learning," Farrar said. "The programs and studies we offer, class sizes, they all come from the operating referendum which is a huge chunk of the budget."
That's roughly 11 percent or $3 million of the district's current operating referendum budget.
"Asking for money is a difficult position to be in, but what people need to understand is that the state funding has never caught up to what was promised and what we need," Roe said.
Across Minnesota, districts continuously struggle with unstable state and federal funding, with over 90 percent of districts using an operating referendum, Jones said.
"If the state money had kept up with inflation and cost-of-living adjustments, we would have roughly $550 more per pupil," Jones said. "That is a significant difference that the local taxpayer is constantly being asked to make up."
Jones pointed to an MSBA initiative targeted toward the state's special education cross-subsidy to illustrate the funding crunch.
"The largest underfunded mandate for Minnesota schools is special education. The state's responsibility for funding the special education cross-subsidy will be $543 million for fiscal year 2018-2019," she said.
Jones added that underfunding forces Red Wing and districts statewide to use general fund revenue to meet requirements.
"This is a state problem and it is state Legislature not understanding the problem," she said.
As the board looks at budget projections and the length of a new operating tax levy, Farrar said, without the funding, the district would be on the edge of a cliff.
"We would be cutting $3 million, wherever that would come from, the impact would be seen in class sizes," she said.
Changing socioeconomic patterns
Declining enrollment numbers and increased participation in free and reduced-cost lunch programs are measurable patterns illustrating change within the district.
"Red Wing is an aging population, we have known this for a while, but in the past five years we have really started to see the impact on our numbers," Farrar said.
The district has seen a 20 percent decline in student enrollment over 15 years and budget cuts followed. The free and reduced-cost lunch program has a roughly 40 percent participation rate throughout the schools.
"Classrooms are different, and families look a lot different these days," Jones said. "Teaching and learning has changed drastically. The education scene has changed to meet the child where they are at. We want to be able to provide a solid district that is a draw for people looking at Red Wing."
"We need to continue to be a district that good educators want to work in, because that also speaks to the quality of education," Roe said.
A strategic planning initiative, facilitated by TeamWorks International, is a key focus for the board in 2017. Board leadership said the goal is to build school philosophy and develop the vision for the district.
"We need to discuss and identify what is our definition of quality teaching and learning, because it is changing," Jones said.
The initial stakeholder meeting of the strategic planning process is 5:30-8:30 p.m. Feb. 15, in the Red Wing High School cafeteria. The board strongly encourages the public to attend.
"We need public involvement," Farrar said. "This is the time to get involved to impact our district's future."
The initial meeting is an "environmental scan." Organizers say it is an opportunity to bring voices together and perspectives.
"I love the opportunity for the community to weigh in where they feel our strengths and weaknesses are, and where they see our vision going," Roe said.
Farrar urges the public to call or email board members, or attend meetings to share thoughts and express concerns.
"We need active communication as we plan the future," she said.
Editor's note: This is the third in a series of stories with elected officials who are leading local government.