District 191 forum ranges from achievement gap to budget gaps

10 seek four School Board seats

Candidates in a crowded District 191 School Board race addressed topics ranging from closing the achievement gap to closing budget gaps during a 90-minute forum Oct. 2 at Diamondhead Education Center.

Topics included hiring a replacement for Superintendent Randy Clegg, who was singled out for criticism by candidates Mark Traikoff and Tom McCasey, both of Burnsville. Clegg is retiring from the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage district next June 30.

Seven candidates, including incumbents Ron Hill of Savage, Sandra Sweep of Burnsville and DeeDee Currier of Burnsville, are running for three four-year terms. Three, including incumbent Robert VandenBoom of Eagan, a board appointee, are running for a two-year term.

Traikoff and McCasey provided most of the fireworks in the wide-ranging forum, arranged and moderated by Burnsville business owner Tom Taylor.

Both have been fierce critics of the district in the wake of the controversy over the buyout of Tania Chance, the ex-human resources director who resigned in February under a separation agreement that paid her $255,000 for not working the last 18 months of her two-year contract. The buyout angered many residents and teachers who pressed for details of the district’s split with Chance that board members said were protected by data privacy law.

“I am running for school board to help clean up the mess, to assist in earning back public trust and to demand accountability, disclosure and transparency,” said Traikoff, a former substitute teacher in the district who calls himself Mark “MR. TEAK” Traikoff after a nickname he said his former students gave him.

Most candidates didn’t target Clegg, but they were asked what they’d like to see in a new superintendent.

Hill, the board chair, said a collaborative nature, experience in a multicultural environment like District 191 and deep knowledge of curriculum and instruction are his top priorities.

“Our district is a little bit  concerned about the changes that are happening,” said Seema Pothini, an equity and diversity facilitator who’s seeking a four-year term. “We need someone who can come in and make people feel good and make them feel empowered.”

Said McCasey, “I just want to remind the taxpayers, the current school board is what got us Mr. Clegg, who failed.”

Sweep called for the superintendent search team to include a representative from each school.

“Our district is not one-size-fits-all across all our buildings,” she said.

Asked about recurring annual budget shortfalls that could exceed $15 million over the next four years, Currier said a new budget format that breaks spending down by program area will help the public form ideas about spending priorities.

Joshua Mathews, who’s seeking the two-year term, said he favors using some of the district’s historically high $10 million budget reserve to help cushion the blow.

“And this is what people don’t want to talk about – you have to look at cutting costs,” Mathews said.

The fund balance shouldn’t be used to help balance the budget, said Mark Korman of Burnsville, who’s seeking a four-year term. Families have to cut back, and so should school districts, he said. Perhaps the district could start an incentive program to encourage teachers to “do more with less,” Korman said.

“The money that’s in the account right now is for something unforeseen, and it should stay there,” said Korman, who has twin sons in the autism program at Rahn Elementary and said special education is a high priority.

“But the pattern, as we well know in education, is being asked to do more with less,” responded Steve Dove, a former assistant principal and athletic director at Edina High School who teaches graduate school at the University of St. Thomas.

A review of possible budget reductions and revenue boosters should precede tapping the fund balance, Dove said.

Closing an elementary or junior high school – ideas some residents have suggested and the board has considered – are not budget panaceas, with estimated savings of $300,000 to between $500,000 and $700,000, respectively, Hill said.

“The final kicker when you close a building, there’s a boundary change,” Hill said, noting that the district is considering a variety of facilities options, including repurposing some buildings.

“We have everything on the table,” VandenBoom said. “We’re looking at buildings, we’re looking at mapping changes, we’re looking at school choice.”

Traikoff argued that the district under Clegg has wasted money building an “overbloated district administration.” He offered as evidence appointment of separate directors of curriculum, assessment and instruction, and the district’s communications department.

“You fund the classroom. You fund the teachers,” said Traikoff, who claimed the number of administrators in the district grew from 51 in 2008 to 60 in 2009 while the ranks of educational assistants were cut by 10 percent.

The district disputes Traikoff’s claims on administration numbers and says the number of administrators in the Teaching and Learning function is comparable now to what it was in 2008.

McCasey cited as an example of wasteful spending the “failed” Envision Academy of the Arts, one of several magnet programs the district chose to launch in 2009 as part of a state-mandated plan to reduce racial imbalances between 191 and the nearby Lakeville Area School District. McCasey said the “thousands upon thousands of dollars” could have gone to fund classroom teachers.

However, the arts school was funded by a combination of state money and local taxes earmarked by law only for integration programs.

Candidates were asked how the district can narrow achievement gaps affecting minority students and students learning to speak English.

“Lots of districts are dealing with that,” Dove said, adding, “All-day kindergarten is a tremendous positive step toward making progress on the achievement gap.” The district made its all-day kindergarten program free to all students beginning this fall.

Also encouraging, Dove said, is the district’s launch of the Parent Institute for Quality Education program. PIQUE involves working with families to elevate the importance of learning.

“I can’t talk enough about getting parents involved with their students,” said VandenBoom, who called for new avenues of outreach to parents who “are just uncomfortable” getting involved in the schools.

Hill said a “joint partnership” must evolve between schools and state health and human services, some of whose functions now fall to schools.

“When children come to school with issues that are beyond the control of the school board, those issues have to be addressed,” Hill said.

Pothini said educational equity and diversity are a personal “passion” and said the district must equip all teachers to handle all students. One of the moderator’s questions pointed out that district magnet schools have contributed to higher concentrations of poverty in some nonmagnet schools.

“I think that discussion itself will show the inequities we have in our district,” Pothini said.

It was asked whether the district should consider attendance-boundary changes to create equity across a district in which the number of students receiving free or subsidized meals ranges from 20 percent at one school to 72 percent at another.

“I’m in favor of looking at boundary changes,” said Mathews, who said he wants all schools across the district to be funded equally. The more diverse schools get more funding, he said.

Schools with high free and reduced meal concentrations – such as Sky Oaks Elementary, at 72 percent – do get more in state compensatory funding, Sweep said.

But the cost of extra English-language instruction is “very significant,” Sweep said. She noted that compensatory funding is being used to fund the districtwide all-day kindergarten program.

The Sky Oaks Parent-Teacher Organization is sponsoring another candidate forum from 7 to 9 p.m. Monday, Oct. 29, at the school, 100 E. 134th St., Burnsville.

The Oct. 2 forum will be replayed on the district website (www.isd191.org) and on cable channels in Burnsville, Eagan and Savage. To obtain a DVD copy, call the district at (952) 707-2000.