By Jason Schmucker
Five of the eight candidates for the ISD 110 board of education met recently at a forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of Eastern Carver County. In attendance were Dan Conklin, Dana Geller, Gerald Hanson, and incumbents Cathy Thom and Ken Varble. Candidates Tabitha Laumann, Mike Myers and Chet VanBlaricum were not in attendance.
Candidates were asked a variety of questions on topics related their stance on policies should they be elected, or re-elected, to the school board.
One of the questions centered on what candidates believed was an optimal class size and how they would strive to achieve that student-to-teacher ratio.
“Certainly, every school has their challenges with class size. We’ve certainly had facility issues that related to class size previously, but that should be resolved here very quickly. That doesn’t resolve the issue of
operational funding, though. At the elementary levels, you really have to look at class size, even the difference between kindergarten, first grade and second grade. You can ramp them up slowly, but even to say that elementary students should all be 22 students is a poor way to look at that. In kindergarten , you probably want to have as close to 20-21 as you can, but by the time you get to first, second and third grade, that can be as much as 25 or a little over,” Varble said. “In high school, it’s very difficult because a lot of classes depends on the students that sign up for those classes. You try not to have teachers with 12 or 15 students in the class, but a lot of times that might be very productive for those specific kids. It’s difficult to really quantify that, I’d say.”
“I would tend to agree with him that in the primary grades, 20-25 students would be a good goal. As people start choosing electives and breaking off into different paths, there’s more variance in the process. The question under the question is how do we handle the growth part of this, if we are adding 100 students a year across 12 or 13 levels, how does that break out and when do you break into another section or classroom and do you have the facilities to do that? That’s a big piece,” Hanson said. “This construction cycle will finish and it probably won’t be that long before we will probably be looking at operational levies and space considerations again. So this question won’t go away.”
“We keep them as small as we can across the board, if you can. The primary grades, again, are very low-20s if you can keep them that way. You reach a certain tipping point and the teachers and the administrators know and they start another section. Hiring another teacher for it comes through the board process. Gerard is absolutely correct that this not – what we’ve done in the last four years, getting these facilities up and passed and running – is not the end. We still need operating dollars,” Thom said. “Our last operating levy – I chaired that campaign – was passed in 2007. By statute, they have a 10-year life cycle. What’s next year? 2017. We’re ready for another one, so don’t be surprised. They erode, they expire, so it is going to be another process. We cannot use building dollars for teachers, so we have to keep in mind space concerns and operational salary concerns, as well.”
“Volunteering at Bayview a lot, I get asked this question a lot – ‘What are we doing to reduce class sizes?’ I agree with everything everyone has said – in a wonderful, perfect world, we would have class sizes at 20 for kindergarten. It would be great to keep class sizes under 25 – ideally, probably 24 – for the other elementary kids. We’re not in a perfect world, unfortunately, we are in the real world,” Geller said. “It is all part, I believe, of the board process and how we come up with decisions. We may have to make some hard decisions and you want people in there that are well-versed in what’s going on in the background and you want people in there working for what I believe we all want, which is to keep the class sizes as small as possible.”
“I don’t claim to be an expert on class size, but where I would probably be more concerned is the learning outcomes that relate to capacity planning. The quality of education and the quality of meeting certain learning outcomes is dependent on how much interaction and the management of a workload for a teacher can be met. If that is compromised by the size of the class, the class size should be smaller so they can manage the grading and assessment they perform for each student to give quality education to each learner so they can have an engagement with them and keep them enthusiastic about their education,” Conklin said. “Therefore, I imagine there is a bit of formula and data around the quality of education as it relates to class size.”
The candidates also tackled the topic of diversity and how to handle a growing student population.
“Our growth will bring further diversity and there’s probably some considerations around that. I don’t know if it’s fair to bring this angle into that question, but one interest area I have is in our special education programming and our continuity of cases and how we handle that section of the student population from K all the way through 12 in some cases,” Hanson said. “I think we do have to welcome diversity, both as a community and a school district. I think there’s tremendous strength and tremendous learning opportunities by stepping into and understanding with an open mind diverse cultures within our community. I think the opportunity there does exist to make us a stronger school and a stronger community if we are open to that and enter into that.”
“We are a growing district, we have a lot, probably, of new students coming in. We will have to face a lot of issues with a growing population. Specifically, what I do for that, I’m not sure. I want to be real honest about that,” Geller said. “A lot of the times, I feel like when you get into a situation, there’s a lot of research that gets involved and there’s a lot of things you that you need to do to look at where you’re going to go with that. Do I have a specific plan right now to help the growing population? No, probably not, but we do need to address it and we need to look at what we are going to do as a district going forward.”
“Our school district needs to adapt to accommodating the various different types of people who participate in this community. That might mean there needs to be customized programs that need to be developed, or specialized strategies to meet particular needs, particular learning outcomes in student success,” Conklin said. “I can’t speculate as to what that is because I don’t exactly know what the particular issue is. Hopefully, through activity on the school board we can address that issue by knowing more.”
“Diveristy, for sure, is growing in our community. We have already made changes to our Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. The board is aware, I guess, and staff as well, that we need to be open and listening to those folks in our community that really – in this case, the holiday affects them much differently than a lot of us perceived it to be, so we had to make changes to that and we are happy to do so,” Varble said. “We really need to develop cultural training for staff and cultural opportunities for students.”
“We are increasing in diversity, but diversity comes in many forms. There’s cultural/racial; there’s the learning levels and behavioral needs of special ed students, as Gerard said; there’s also socio-economic diversity that is happening in our community,” Thom said. “I’m the senior member of the policy committee, and we deal with this quite often. Many of the policies regarding these issues have to be reviewed annually. A lot of them are statutorily-driven, so we can do what we can as a board to listen to our community and tweak those and make them unique to our community, but we still have to stay within statute as a public school district.”
Candidate also discussed the pressure of providing programming with limited funds and staying in line with state statutes.
“I would have to say a lot of that type of question and that type of policy is something that comes up when you’re on the board and working with other people on the board and you are researching what type of funds you have. You are looking at a lot of different factors, like where is that funding coming from – is it coming from school district only or is it coming from other funding sources,” Geller said. “It’s a balance, of course, with everything. When you are looking at funding options for different things, there are sometime tough choices you have to make and there are sometimes things that come up that you don’t always want to do even though you have restrictions with funds.”
“It’s kind of a learning outcome-driven exercise, I think, and we have to be able to prioritize our budget and our program and our content and delivery to get the most important learning outcomes accomplished first – generally that will be around the academic outcomes. Those are the skills and competencies that our children most need to succeed in their next chapter of life, so that would probably be the priority in most instances,” Hanson said. “I think we probably all have some level of appreciation for the importance of a well-rounded education, too. Activities, athletics and curricular and extracurricular activities have a true and valuable educational component to them. We would have to prioritize with what we have, and I think we would have to guide prioritization around the most important learning outcomes.”
“One of the biggest surprises, I guess, for new board members is typically how little funding the board gets to manage, to be honest with you. In our school district, I’d say about 80 percent of our budget goes to personnel. After that, by the time you work with your academic programming, when you start to talk about after school activities and co-curricular activities, there’s very little funding – to be honest – in school districts,” Varble said. “Essentially, what you do is you try to be fair to all your kids. After that, you try to make it fair to all the parents that are paying fees for their kids to do these things.”
“Not only is a lot of your funding personnel-driven, so much of our funding and what we can do with our money is state formula driven and state statute driven and basically dictated to us. What’s left, though, Gerard is absolutely right – you prioritize and you squeeze every ounce of blood out of that orange that you can and do the best that you can,” Thom said. “There is certain fund balances that are for certain things that you cannot touch. It’s all part of the learning curve of being a school board member and it’s very confusing at first, but it’s something that once you get your mind around it, we all dig in together.”
“It takes a lot of practice to know how to maximize your dollars and make certain trade-offs. Of course, our top priority is academic achievement, so I think you always have to look at that as your core objective,” Conklin said. “Thereafter, of course student success is a component of that and that’s about students building to learn and achieve in totally different ways than academics obviously measure, and that involves other co-curricular activities.”
Election Day is Nov. 8.