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Positive, neutral, negative input

The objective was to gather as much non-biased input about the Perham schools as possible-in a one-hour time frame.

The mission was accomplished Feb. 15, at Mulligan's, as nearly 70 people from a broad cross-section of the Perham school district huddled around a dozen tables.

Noticeably-and intentionally-absent were officials from the school board and administration.

The only administrator in sight, Fred Sailer, politely left the building after a few brief introductory comments. He explained that the goal was to foster totally open, unrestrained discussion about the Perham schools-which may have been hindered if school officials were present.

"Positive, neutral, or negative...We want to use this input to build a strong public school system," said Nick Theroux, who acted as facilitator of the group discussions. He was assisted by Nikky Doll.

The "focus group" sessions have been in the works for nearly two months. A secondary goal with the sessions was to keep two-way communication open. All of the comments made will be summarized and assembled into a report, which will be available to the public.

The sessions were prompted, in large part, because of the two failed levy referendums. Voters rejected two measures that would have injected much-needed operating revenue into the Perham Public Schools. As it stands now, the school district may slip into an operating deficit in less than two years.

"The future of the schools may be determined by what we say here today," said Theroux, as the small group discussions were about to commence.

The format featured small groups of five or six, each discussing seven broad topics. A recorder was named at each table. The comments were wrote down by the recorder, and were then submitted to be incorporated into the summary report.

The East Otter Tail Focus newspaper was on hand to observe the sessions, but agreed not to publish direct quotes and names-in an effort to keep the dialogue open and confidential. A more detailed report will be published in the newspaper when the summary is completed.

The questions and topics for discussion included:

--What do you consider the weaknesses of the school district?

--It is clear that the state is not in the position to bail out any school district, now or in the foreseeable future...How would you propose the school increase revenue and reduce expenses?

--What are your expectations as far as the following: Food service, transportation, health services.

--What are your expectations as far as arts and athletic programs?

--What is your perception of our staff, administration, teachers, support staff, and school board?

--With the funds our district will have available, what are the most essential programs and courses that students must have for the 21st century?

--What are you proud of when you think about your school?

A unique aspect of the sessions was three poster boards at the front of the room called the "parking lot." If a subject came up during the discussions that was pertinent to the school, but off the subject at hand, participants were encouraged to write their question or concern on a sticky note and put it in the "parking lot."

"It is a way to keep the group discussions on track and focused on the subject-but still allow additional comments," said Theroux.

Parked in the lot was an interesting array of comments and questions:

--Term limits for school board members?

--Is there a legal reason students are not allowed to state the pledge of allegiance?

--What percentage of high school students are taking advanced placement and college-level classes?

--At the rate of change and advancement in technology, will there even be a need for public school buildings and facilities?

These were but a few of the comments in the parking lot.

A full summary of the group discussions will likely be compiled and released in about a month. Stay tuned.