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Focusing on the future of Perham schools

Positive, neutral and negative comments about the Perham school system have been compiled and summarized, following the "focus group" sessions held in January and February.

The February session, attended by more than 70 people representing a broad cross-setion of the community, generated ten pages of comments-some of it complimentary, some constructive criticism.

"Like I told the school board last week, there is a spanking in there for everybody...and there is a compliment in there for everybody," said School Superintendent Tamara Uselman, after reading the focus group report.

None of the administrators or school board members participated in the focus group session.

"The intent was to disassociate themselves from the process," said Nick Theroux, who acted as moderator for the sessions. By encouraging open discussion at the sessions, in the absence of school officials, it was hoped that the dialogue would be more objective," said Theroux.

Reducing the number of administrators, term limits for school board members, maintaining class sizes and the high costs of maintaining buildings were some of the predictable themes

Results were transcribed and summarized by Theroux and Nikki Doll, school staff member with community education. (The complete transcription and summaries appear on the website.)

"Our community has never been shy about voicing their opinion; we take that to mean concern and an expectation of excellence," wrote Fred Sailer, activities and community education director, to the focus group participants.  "Any criticism that came out of the meeting is an opportunity for our board and employees to improve, to revisit why we do what we do."

The process was prompted, in part by the second defeat of a levy referendum asking for increased operating revenue.

Given the anti-government, anti-tax attitude among voters, Theroux doubts the school will entice a clear and strong majority to vote "yes" on a levy increase.

The 2008 vote ended in a failure by more than a 2-1 margin. The 2009 levy vote narrowed to a 1,746-1,622 defeat.

"The school won't ever woo 70, 80 percent of the voters," said Theroux. Changing the opinion of enough voters to approve a levy will be a challenge. "Turning that last one or two percent they need to approve a levy increase will be the toughest.

"There is a certain contempt for government and taxes. I feel it, I hear it from people," said Theroux. "It's not necessarily an attack on our school, but where else but a school referendum do voters really get a chance to 'say no' to taxes and government?"

As an onlooker, Theroux believes the school has gone as far as it can, as far as cuts.

"They've cut the non-essential; the non-classroom expenses; they've cut para-professionals, they've cut all those costs around the edges," said Theroux. "They're at the end of their rope."

From Superintendent Uselman's perspective, there were a few observations drawn from the report:

-A "loud plea" not to lower academic rigor and standards, said Uselman. "We've worked hard not to do that, despite $4 million in cuts."

-Cutting administration was frequently suggested, but "I also saw that we have to be careful not to cut so much that it impacts operations," she said.

-Tenure for teachers and other union criticisms were raised. "But we need to educate the public on is a legal process, and our job is to follow the law."

-Perceptions differ considerably whether or not individuals have kids in school. "If they haven't been in a school since they or their kids graduated, they tend to think of school as it was 30 to 40 years ago," said Uselman. "Expectations of public education are so different now...radically different."

"The collective compliments are valued as well (as the criticisms). Knowing that you support the process of public education in this community is a motivating factor," said Sailer. "We should never forget that in the end, we are public servants with an incredible responsibility and opportunity. "

In the end, said Uselman, the feedback suggests that improvement demands more improvement.

"People seem to respect the work we've done here, but they're saying 'don't get wasteful, don't get lazy, keep on improving,'" said Uselman. "And that is good feedback...We can tend to get defensive, but that's what people want for their tax investment-they want constant improvement."

Sailer thanked all those who assisted with the focus group project.

 "We have a saying at the Area Learning Center," concluded administrator Fred Sailer, 'we are all teachers and we are all learners.' You have provided us with an opportunity to learn and improve."