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Education co-ops positioned to help schools control costs

Regional education cooperatives may be an increasingly pronounced factor in local school budgets, as school boards struggle with skimpy increases in state aid and taxpayer reluctance to pay more for schools.

For Perham-Dent schools, the board forged an agreement with Lakes Country Service Cooperative for contract business management.

For the Pelican Rapids and Parker's Prairie school districts, Lakes Country is providing computer and technology services on a contract basis.

Confronted with tight budgets, state aid cuts and declining enrollment; regional cooperatives can provide services to schools, basically on an "outsourced" basis. Rather than hiring employees for certain positions or tasks, cooperatives can offer those services for less.

"We help keep money in the classroom," said Jeremy Kovash, director of the Fergus Falls-headquartered Lakes Country Co-op and himself a former faculty member in the Perham schools. Kovash spoke at the Dec. 16 Perham-Dent School Board meeting.

With 35 schools across nine counties, the Lakes Country Co-op also creates a larger buying group, which can enable schools to purchase supplies at the same price in Perham that it is in Los Angeles, said Kovash.

One illustration showing why cooperatives were formed in 1976, by legislative statute, was outlined by Kovash. If a school had one blind student, it could hardly afford to educate one student. With cooperatives, education specialists can work at multiple schools-with expenses shared by all of the districts.

Special education teachers are a prime example, as they can serve several districts. The cooperative also offers personnel and human services expertise.

Perham's former business manager, Kristi Werner, was hired by Lakes Country. In turn, the cooperative offered Werner's services back to Perham schools-but at a lower long term cost than if the school had a business manager on staff. Meanwhile, Werner can provide similar services to other districts as well.

Perham School Board Chairman Jim Reiber said that contracting a business manager can be an advantage, because of the broadened experience of working with other schools. A contract business manager gets more exposure to different ideas and practices that local board members and administrators hadn't thought of, noted Reiber.

But the bottom line, said Kovash, is that in difficult financial times, the cooperative can provide specialized services at a lower cost-enabling administrators to spend the precious dollars they have in the classroom-directly to education.

Interestingly, the Lakes Country Cooperative has expanded from servicing schools to working with counties, ­cities and non profit organizations, noted Kovash-for the same reasons as the schools.