SCHOOL BOARD MEMBER ISD NO. 93 (CARLTON)Timothy J. Johnson • Randy S. Schmitz • Howie Gunderson • Brenda Tischer • Robert B. Walton • Julianne Emerson • Ryan Schmidt • Stephanie (Bahen) Gibson • Jill Hatfield
Question 1: How does your past experience, job or education qualify you to serve on the Carlton School Board?
Question 2: What specific criticism do you have of current school district policy or practice? How would you do things differently?
Question 3: Other than finding greater efficiencies, what areas would you look to trim first if there are unexpected budget deficits?
Timothy J. Johnson
My detail-oriented nature will assist in scrutinizing budgets, and reviewing options thoroughly before acting.
In working for Carlton County Abstract and Title for over a decade, I have become accustomed to working within the legal requirements of state and county requirements and statutes. I also have gained extensive experience in financial accounting on a macro level. This experience will support analyzing budgets, schedules and legal matters, and making sound decisions based on those analyses.
The current school board has allowed questions to go unanswered as the district has sunk deeper into debt each year. The school administration did not adhere to the original state-approved Statutory Operating Debt (SOD) Recovery Plan, and was not held accountable. Costly mistakes have been made due to misunderstandings, non-action, and lack of exhaustive searches for less-expensive alternatives.
In a school board position, I will diligently find the root causes of problems, and commit to remediate and eliminate them. I expect adherence to the new state-approved SOD Recovery Plan, and I promote exploration of alternative solutions.
The first thing I would trim is the top-heavy school administration. The position of superintendent could become a part-time position, or shared with another school at much lower cost.
Pairing and sharing with neighboring schools would provide an excellent opportunity to cut costs while expanding our available options. Budget cuts would target administrative positions and programs before reducing the crucial positions and programs that directly impact the students’ education and enrichment.
With 25 years of experience in the banking and financial services industry, I feel I would bring a perspective of how to operate a financially responsible school district.
While it is very disappointing to me that the school district would reach this dire situation, criticism is not going to solve anything. It will take a community and individuals in this community to bring the Carlton School District to a financially healthy district and bring it to its full potential. I would seek expertise outside of the district in dealing with our crisis and make sure that our community is informed of the school district’s financial situation. We have to watch every expenditure on a daily basis versus the current annual review. Plans have to be reviewed in a timely manner. Communicate with the constituents and employees of the school district about the school districts policies. The sharing of information within our school district is critical to creating involvement that is so necessary in our district. We have to understand the states Board of Education policies and utilize them to our advantage.
I firmly believe the first priority of our school district and any school district is educating our students. I believe we would have to look at areas that would have to be brought to greater efficiencies. Extracurricular activities, transportation and infrastructure services before combining any classes that would jeopardize a healthy learning environment for our students. The school district must be diligent in seeking funding that is available from areas other than the taxpayers that would be beneficial to the financial strength of the school district.
Prior to joining the school board, I had attended school board meetings for five years. I was not there to seek election to the board. I was there as a parent, curious about the education my children received; as a taxpayer, curious about how my tax dollars were being spent; as a community member, curious about the role the school district played in the community. There is a lot to learn once becoming a board member. The board has put in place personnel, and I have gained knowledge to carry the district forward into the future.
With the tough issues the district faced this past summer, many school district stakeholders attended board meetings. It became clear that better communication needs to take place with the community. The district did purchase a new website program, but I would like to see it evolve to a site parents and community members check daily. It needs to be fresh, current, informational and easy to navigate. It needs to show our Bulldog and community pride and help build a bridge to our community members without children in the schools. Carlton has a lot to offer. We need to sell ourselves.
The district has three SOD plans which are based on different sets of assumptions. Many hours of hard work went into these plans. I would follow the SOD plans, or entertain thoroughly researched alternatives which meet the financial numbers in the plans. I would, however, like to mention an efficiency. I would like to see the area school districts collaborate and work out a plan for busing open enrolled students so there aren’t buses from two or three different districts going down the same roads.
Robert B. Walton
I served three years in the Army learning new skills and forming the ability to work with people. I then earned a bachelor’s degree from UMD. At the same time I served in the Minnesota Air National Guard which turned into 20 years of gaining both knowledge and skills working through stressful situations with people from other states as well as other countries. This work included planning, supervising and communicating. My current career at WLSSD has provided the opportunity to serve in a union as a chairperson and steward. This experience serves me well to understand all facets of labor relations.
One observation I have had as a citizen watching the Carlton School District function is the vast number of professionals doing an outstanding job, but there has been a lack of a coordinated and unified effort in certain aspects. I would like to work on improving labor relations between the board, administration, teachers and staff. This effort will open communications and allow for more cohesive planning for the district. These efforts will allow for better decision making which directly affects our programs. A more effective group will create savings and promote students educational opportunities.
Each decision must be made with the priority of education first and secondly to inform affected parties of the potential of impending cuts which will directly affect their lives. With each cut to the budget come consequences. The tightrope school districts walk today is to balance cuts to programs while sustaining enrollment. One of the best ways for the Carlton School District to offset cuts is to work together to promote our programs and opportunities to encourage the community based school to thrive. In turn this will provide for a sustainable student population and we will be less susceptible to cuts outside our control.
I am a business lawyer with nearly 10 years experience in finance, negotiation, civil litigation and administration. I have been both an employer and an employee. And long ago, I was deputy clerk/treasurer for the city of Scanlon, under a wise person who taught me accounting and organization in a municipal setting. In addition, I have worked in the Carlton School District as a paraprofessional, alongside the teachers and staff of this great school. I feel I have the experience and training in both the private and public sectors to assist in creating an environment of transparency and accountability.
The school district failed to be accountable and transparent. They were, and continue to be, disingenuous in their treatment of this community and district employees. Difficult decisions have to be made – the constituency and employees of this district are intelligent enough to understand that – they deserve the respect shown by open discussion and humble listening. As a lawyer, it is my obligation to explain all options to my clients, including options they do not wish to hear. I will do the requisite research needed to inform my decisions and be accountable for those actions. I will put the students first.
I would first look to faculty or staff who are close to retirement and consider a buy-out of their contracts. I would then focus on those extraneous areas of the district which appear to have been ignored by the current school board, namely administration (including the board itself). Over and over it has been shown that the single most important influence on a child’s education is the teacher. I do not believe that we should start with cutting teachers or sabotaging their ability and desire to teach by failing to negotiate in good faith.
Stephanie (Bahen) Gibson
The most important experience I have to bring to the Carlton School Board is that I understand this district from many different perspectives. My husband and I are both proud Carlton Graduates and I understand what it is like to be a student in our schools. We are also parents of children attending Carlton schools, so we have seen first-hand the great things that are happening in our buildings right now, as well as the things that could use some change. We are also homeowners and taxpayers in this community, so we understand the financial impact of raising our taxes and the importance of spending our money wisely. I understand the balance between providing an excellent education for all our children and the importance of being responsible with your tax dollars; they are my tax dollars too.
I appreciate the education that I received at Carlton and now it is my turn to make sure that we give all of our children those same opportunities. I loved growing up in a small town and attending a school with a family atmosphere. One of the great things about Carlton is the ability for all kids to participate in any or all extra-curricular activities – we turn out some very well-rounded kids. I received an education from Carlton that prepared me academically to be accepted to a top private college and to be awarded thousands of dollars in scholarships to pay for that college. The education I received at Carleton College, as well as subsequent graduate degrees from UMD and UWS, have allowed me to spend the last 16 years working in public education as a School Psychologist and Elementary and Middle School Counselor. This experience has allowed me to see what works and what doesn't work in other school districts. It will help me to bring fresh ideas and creative thinking into improving our own district. The skills that I will bring to the board include the ability to listen to and understand other people's points of view and work effectively as part of a team. I also work on a daily basis with numbers, data, research and statistics, and will bring that knowledge with me to the issues the board faces. I enjoy researching educational issues and will do the leg-work needed to find solutions that will allow us to balance fiscal responsibility with quality education.
Our school is on the verge of having to close its doors. Mistakes have obviously been made. Rather than wasting time and energy pointing fingers, what we need to do is assess where we are at as a district right now, and move forward. One issue that I am very concerned about is our high school class sizes. We have, by far, the smallest High School class sizes of any area high school. Our High School Teacher-to-Student ratio is 1:12; in comparison Cloquet's is 1:20. This sounds great and should be a huge selling point for our school, except that we simply cannot afford it; we are the only area school in Statutory Operating Debt. Another concern I have about this issue is that research has clearly demonstrated over and over again that you get the greatest bang for your buck by having your smallest class sizes in grades K-3. The administration and school boards in nearly all of our neighboring schools understand this. Yet we have smaller class sizes at our High School than we do at our Elementary School. I do not believe in or want large class sizes, but we do need to be responsible and smart with the few dollars we have. Extremely small class sizes at our High School are simply a luxury that we cannot afford right now. Increasing our class sizes to appropriate levels is not going to win me many votes, but I hope being responsible with your tax dollars, and being honest with this community will. Over the years our enrollment has dropped, in addition we have 294 Carlton residents who open enroll to other districts, and we have not made the corresponding adjustments to our staff. Class size is not the only area I will be watching, I will also examine the workload of all district staff including administration, support staff, custodians, bus drivers and cooks. We need to look closely at ALL areas we are spending our money on; this IS the job of the school board; a job that needs to be done to keep our doors open.
The real answer to this question lies outside of the box; we need creative solutions, not more of the same. Instead of asking “what can we cut”, we need to be asking “how do we increase our revenue”. We need to work to attract students back to our district. We need to make sure we are receiving all available funds from state and federal programs. There are often many hoops districts need to jump through to get all of the money they are promised and we need to make sure that we are jumping. In addition, there are many pockets of money that are available when you are willing to put the effort into finding them and applying for them. I would make sure that we were accessing all available funds correctly and maximizing the dollars coming into our district.
At the same time, we need to be very smart and strategic about any cuts that we do need to consider. Our primary goal should be to provide our kids with an excellent education, and it would be great to focus on nothing but that. However, the reality of open enrollment forces us to also focus on how we keep students enrolled in our school. We need to be careful that we are not making decisions that will drive more Carlton students to attend other schools. For example, cutting extra-curricular activities is not the answer because it would lead to a mass exodus out of our school. A four-day school week is not the answer because many parents have already publicly stated they would pull their kids. Assuming that the student-to-teacher ratios above have been addressed, cutting teachers and having overly large class sizes would also lead to a loss of students. Any loss of students means loss of dollars, only compounding our financial problems.
The future of this district hinges upon passing the current referendum and correcting the errors that got us to this point in the first place: lack of leadership from previous administration, lack of research into what is best educationally for our kids and lack of appropriate teacher-to-student ratios at our high school.
I have 12 years experience as an account manager in a clinic setting and seven years experience as the executive director of Volunteer Services of Carlton County, Inc. Managing this large nonprofit allows me to work with every school in our county and I have my finger on the pulse of our communities. I have experience managing budgets, contracts, personnel and grants. I have 10 years experience as a director on the Carlton Youth Baseball and Softball Association Board; four years in the position of Treasurer. I have worked in two school districts in Special Education as an occupational therapist.
Staff, parents, students and constituents of the Carlton School District deserve to receive transparent communication from the board. I plan to listen and respond to the concerns of those who placed me in office. I believe that experienced leadership will be imperative to the survival of the Carlton School District, but it needs to be NEW leadership. Our current school board has openly admitted in a letter to the Minnesota Department of Education that they “failed to make sound financial decisions” and “failed to plan.” I intend to oversee the budget line-by-line and spend money like it’s my own.
First, I would look at offering voluntary early retirement to teachers. Second, I would look at all other potential sources of cuts, including administration. Our teachers, the very heart of our district, would be last to go. We are losing too many students to other schools through open enrollment, which is money out the door. We need to develop a strong curriculum and an environment that will maintain our current enrollment and attract students from other districts. We need to set a budget, based on historical trends of actual data, and stick with it.
Randy S. Schmitz did not reply.
Ryan Schmidt is unable to hold a school board position due to employment with the school district.