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School board talks with Torkelson

NEW ULM — The District 88 Board of Education held a discussion with Rep. Paul Torkelson (R-Hanska) on 2020 legislative policy.

Superintendent Jeff Bertrang summarized that the board wanted Torkelson to just say “no” to new policies. Most of their legislative concerns were maintaining the status quo.

Board member Amanda Groebner raised concerns about course requirements. A bill coming through the Legislature requires schools to have a designated civic course.

“The issue with the state mandating specific courses is that might take away other opportunities the students might have,” Groebner said. She suggested if the state wanted a certain educational outcome, it should be built into the state standard and allow individual schools to implement it. By forcing a civic class a school might also double up on a specific topic.

Torkelson believes this bill came out of a concern people do not have an understanding of how government works. He said this bill does not have universal support.

Board member Melissa Sunderman asked about permanently extending the School Safety Act. This act was approved last legislative session as a one-time act. This law provided for Minnesota schools to adopt school policies to protect students. Many districts used it for mental health resources.

“We should have a licensed clinical phycologist that is in each district,” Sunderman said. The schools struggle to provide for students with mental health issues. She cited a statement on the National Alliance of Mental Health for Minnesota website that said half of all chronic mental illnesses begin by age 14.

“Mental health is certainly a topic gaining attention, not just in school environments, but all environments,” Torkelson said. He acknowledged it was a growing concern, as the availability of mental health professional resources continues to be a problem, especially in rural districts.

The board supported keeping the tiered licensure system as is, rather to amending it. The legislation only went into effect in 2018. Bertrang suggested waiting three years before making changes. The board wanted time to work out the kinks in the programs rather than abandon it.

Other changes, including the Wage Theft Law and family/sick leave mandates, have put extra pressure on the school district. The schools already had master agreements in place for this issue, but new state regulations added requirements.

A policy change the board supports is an early start option in 2020. Principal Mark Bergmann wanted an answer on whether the school year could begin before Labor Day next year. Labor Day 2020 is Sept. 7. School starts after Labor Day and loses a week of class time in September.

Bergmann said a yes or no answer was needed from the legislators before May to allow the school to begin scheduling.

Torkelson said he supported local control on school start dates, believing the schools should be allowed to decide. He said the resistance from starting before Labor Day came from the resort industry and industries that depend on young people for summer employment. These industries do not want to lose their help before the Labor Day holiday.

Levy referendums were another difficulty for the school. Board member Matt Ringhofer said the school boards are the only entities in the state required to go before the voters to raise an operating levy.

“It is wrong and it is frustrating,” Ringhofer said. The board is continually forced to justify a levy to constituents, and other government entities do not.

“These are operating levies, it is not a new building or construction, it’s just to exist,” he said. “People have a right to know where that money goes. You have the truth in taxation, it is explained through that.”

Levy referendums are especially difficult to pass in rural districts. Bertrang said the district had a 50% approval rate of referendums over the last 20 years. No operating levy has ben needed in the last few years, but two previous levies are reaching the end soon.

Torkelson said he did not have enough knowledge on the issue to have a position.

Superintendent Jeff Bertrang said the school is looking at Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs and different ways to resource them or provide more opportunities to students.

“We have seen the reemergence of technical education, which I think is great,” Torkelson said. He would be willing to support CTE efforts for the schools.

Torkelson thanked the board for their input. “Education in Minnesota is a big deal,” he said. “We invest heavily in education and I don’t think anyone regrets that. We know how important education is to our state.”

The board closed with truth in taxation meeting. The school district’s 2020 proposed property tax levy is an increase from the 2019 actual property tax levy, by 3.56% or $289,022.

No comments were received from the public during the meeting. The board will make the final certification of the levy at the next regular board meeting at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 18, in the District Offices.

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