School board sets budget priorities

MARSHALL – At this week’s board meeting, Marshall School Board members participated in a process to collectively identify some of the top budget priorities for the 2014-15 school year.

The process marked the beginning of discussions, which are expected to continue into the future.

“The board identified what they saw and envision as some of the areas that they would like to see the administration focus on for the budget,” Marshall Superintendent Kint Willert said. “It was nothing that the board took action on, but it was really an opportunity for the board to weigh in on a number of issues.”

Along with the six board members – Bill Mulso, Ken Wilson, Matt Coleman, Jeff Chapman, Curt Kovash and Karen VanKeulen – student board representatives Sydney Hey and Danny West also took part in the process.

“It was great that the students also participated,” Willert said. “They’re sharp kids. It was neat to see.”

The eight participants began the process by identifying a number of areas they believed were of the utmost importance. Then, each person was given three dots to vote with.

“It was a really good process,” Willert said. “This helps us really focus our conversation as we move forward, about our budget process for 2014-15 and how we align our resources to those target areas.”

Technology integration, more specifically moving forward with a 1-to-1 computing initiative, topped the list with eight votes, followed closely behind by the redesign of the district’s alternative learning system, basically the transition from Marshall East Campus Learning Alternative (MECLA) to Marshall Area Technology and Education Center (MA-TEC), which received seven votes.

“There was really a focus on putting a computing device in each of our kids’ hands,” Willert said. “And then the next point of emphasis was more about skill attainment and the transition from MECLA to MA-TEC and how we can try to create a customized learning environment. We talked quite extensively about the notion of mass customization.”

Willert noted that for some people, mass customization is a foreign concept. But he likened it to cell phone use in the world.

“There are millions of cell phones out there in the work place, for example, or even just iPhones for that matter, but no two iPhones are set up exactly the same,” he said. “That’s what we’re talking about with education.”

In addition to safety and security, teacher education received two votes apiece.

“We’ll continue to keep that conversation going because we know that our educational environments are different than they used to be,” Willert said. “We’re made aware of that with another school shooting in Colorado this past week.”

The ongoing emphasis on teacher education ties somewhat into technology as well.

“We need to help teachers understand how to utilize technology, to get the most out of the mass customization available,” Willert said. “There’s unlimited things they can do with technology.”

Strong financial condition (reserves) and math skills received one vote each, while facility improvements/upgrades, closing the achievement gap, Concurrent Enrollment, reading and more variety of activities/clubs were initially identified but did not get any final votes.

“This process helps us evaluate and assess if a program or a service aligns with or fits with our strategic plan or what the board identified as priorities,” Willert said. “We know our world is changing, and we need to be adaptive as a school district to what is going on in the world. This gives us a chance to do that.”

Willert recalled the comments from Chapman, saying that “we don’t farm the same way we used to, so why would be educate kids the same way we used to.”

A five-year strategic plan was developed a few years back and continues to guide board members and administration. The 2011-12 to 2015-16 strategic plan for the district was approved on Aug. 15, 2011.

The five goals were to improve student performance for all students, improve constituent satisfaction, commit to ongoing and continuous employee development, align support systems throughout the district to provide optimal learning environments and experiences and improve and maintain fiscal stability, accountability and alignment.

“We’re always refining that a little bit, and Minnesota last year enacted the World’s Best Workforce, so that legislation is really emphasizing schools to address a few key things,” Willert said. “Early childhood and school readiness is one key and reading well by third grade is another.”

Accountability 2.0 and the World’s Best Workforce legislation also expects schools to close the achievement gap among all racial and ethnic groups of students and between students living in poverty and their more privileged peers, as well as students receiving special education services and those who are not, have all students graduate from high school and have all students attain college and career preparedness.

“So we’re addressing all of those things,” Willert said. “Technology is a tool that will do that. Teacher training is also a tool. So we’re looking at those pieces and how they fit together, to meet the legislation, but more importantly, what our community and region needs.”

Though it is not a simple task, Willert said the district is planning to really develop the college and career readiness through MA-TEC instruction especially.

“Our region as a whole really needs quality, skilled workers, and we can play a key role in that process,” he said. “There’s a lot of talk about career and college readiness and that’s really driving the programming focus and improvements that we have going on in the schools because we know our kids have to be career and college ready.”

Even though the recent referendum failed, by fewer than 25 votes, it was apparent that nearly half of the voters were strongly in favor of technology integration and safety improvements for the district. Monday’s process brought up some of those same issues, Willert said.

“We’re very aware that we have identified some priorities, both in the referendum discussion and what was reflected in our budget priorities process,” he said. “I think the challenge is going to be taking what we view as being very important and recognize that it may require us to look at things differently than we’re done in the past. That’s why it’s important that our community is engaged in the process as well.”

Willert said that a community forum will be scheduled in the near future so that the community can also express its concerns.

“After the first of the year, obviously, we know that we’re going to really be building our budget, and there’s that opportunity for staff, administration and the community as a whole to weigh in and give us their input,” Willert said. “We want our priorities to reflect those of the community in terms of what needs to happen in the district as we go forward.”