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R-P’s last legislative “hurrah”

By Kirsten Zoellner

Fri, Mar 21st, 2014
Posted in Rushford Village Education

In a continuation of discussion from the March 11 work session, Superintendent Chuck Ehler again sought guidance for the direction of the district in regards to facility improvements and upgrades. In the last six years, R-P has gone through a series of task work sessions, task forces, a dizzying number of legislative testimonies, bonding tours, and a referendum vote which was split in the community. Now, the board is looking to make a recommendation to the community, but not before the district appeared before the House Education Committee March 19.

“What direction do you want to go?” asked Ehler. There are currently two bills that could assist the district in funding, but there is little confidence in the outcome. There may be some relief for the district through debt equalization, but it is also not guaranteed. Some funding is available from the district’s New School Initiative and potentially assistance through the Health and Safety Fund.

“I still need to know exactly where the state is at,” responded board member Greg Smith. “I don’t know what to recommend to the public if you don’t have funding. We need to look at all options.”

The district is contemplating a major overhaul to the existing facilities, which includes an elementary and high school facility in Rushford and a middle school facility in Peterson. “One problem we have is where do you start and where do you finish,” added board chair John Linder. “We still have an old facility. How much do you want to spend on it? It’s $14-15 million to do what we have to do. Every option is on the table at this point. We’ll know shortly whether or not there’ll be help from the state, but ultimately [we] have to make a decision.”

Board member Taylor Peterson questioned whether or not the district could do something similar to other districts that are conducting upgrades with little to no tax increase. “They started with what they needed most. They’re not beating around the bush,” suggested Peterson. “Thinking back on a new school, all the money that was spent on architects and engineers; in six years, we’d have a darn good start. We keep exhausting people with votes. We’ve got to start something.”

The district, which has no current debt and had not had a bond issue since 1967, has had two referendums in the last decade. “I understand the concern,” noted Ehler. “We’ve had two facilities task forces met and came up with the same results. If we’re going to stay in this building, let’s get at it. This is our last hurrah with the legislative process. We can’t afford to sit and wait. It’s a tough position as a board. Nobody has that crystal ball.”

“The last vote [was] very encouraging,” added Smith. “There’s definitely support to do something. We just have to find the right something.”

“It’s important to keep moving forward,” added board member Angela Colbenson. “Whether we fix up, build new, or build a portion of new, we need to keep putting options in front of taxpayers and let them decide.”

Also discussed at the March 17 board meeting were potential changes to evaluation method for the superintendent. Currently, the district uses a model format from the Minnesota School Board Association. At least two board members, Julie Koop and Taylor Peterson, liked the idea of using evaluation by staff in addition to the current method of evaluation by board. “It’s a tool the school can use to try and help evaluate and direct [the] superintendent in the right goals,” noted Koop.

The MSBA does not recommend having staff review the superintendent and several of the board members felt the process could be opening a can of worms for the district. In the area, only one district, LaCrescent-Hokah, uses this method. “My concern, long-term, is that at some point we’ll be hiring a new superintendent and I don’t want them to cater to every teacher’s needs. They have to be a leader and make tough decisions for the benefit of the school district,” noted Colbenson.

A motion to make the method a two-part evaluation was defeated 4 to 2. For now, the board will table the matter, pending further review of current practices, and revisit it at the April meeting.

The Budget and Finance Committee has been renamed the Fund Balance Committee, but for now, budgeting will remain in the hands of the district administration. There was an effort to have budget preparations incorporate whole board. In that scenario, the committee, led by superintendent, would bring a recommendation to board for discussion and changes. “Ultimately, what I’m trying to get at entire board should be involved in setting amounts for things we have to budget for,” noted Peterson.

The majority of the board disagreed. “It’s our job to approve it. I don’t think we need to go through setting amount,” responded Smith. “We hire the superintendent to be our financial advisor. Basically, he’s our CFO. I’d like to get a budget, look at it, and approve it. It works if we trust our superintendent, which I do.”

“I’ve done school budget and it’s a lot of details,” added Colbenson. “I understand both points of view, but I don’t think we need to get into the nitty gritty as a whole board. I’m not afraid to ask questions if I have them.” Colbenson recommended that the district provide budget assumptions in January, during the organizational meeting, prior to the setting of the budget in June.

The next regularly scheduled board meeting is Monday, April 21, at 5:30 p.m., in the high school biology room. The public is encouraged to attend.

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