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The difficult conversations school districts face

In a book about marriage (Committed) author Elizabeth Gilbert discussed porcupines - or more correctly, Gilbert discusses someone else's book about porcupines. Gilbert explains that in cold winter temperatures, porcupines huddle together for warmth. Given porcupines' exteriors, huddling is as unnatural as it is a necessity. The cold motivates porcupines to huddle, yet once in the huddle, the irritation they inflict from their quills motivates them to separate again. Having moved a safe distance from their kin, porcupines find themselves too cold, and they re-huddle, only to feel the pain of the quill which forces them to separate.

Gilbert's metaphor provided by the porcupine works well for independent school districts (ISD's) trying to survive in this formidable financial climate. Independent school districts are by nature, design, and name as independent as every mom and pop resort, each private business, and every church lining the streets of our communities. On the one hand, independent school districts must reach nationally defined standards of excellence; on the other hand, school districts must be a reflection of the communities that build them and support them.

When inflation is factored in, student aid has been cut by $1,440 to $2,000 per student over the last decade; thus, independent school districts must huddle, seeking brutal fiscal efficiencies found through shared services. Finding these brutal efficiencies is a common sense demand, in my opinion, but that does not make them easy to determine or configure. Why the difficulty? Because ISD's must balance brutal fiscal efficiency with an equally important necessity: local control.

Local control is what allows a school district to reflect the communities it serves. Let's use the poor old porcupine example one more time. In Perham schools, we offer a small animals class as part of our ag ed program. A large urban school district may have little use for or interest in an agricultural education program. Because agriculture is still the backbone of this country, ag education is still a significant offering in our high schools. Few of us who like to eat would wish to see agricultural education eradicated. But if school districts lose their independent status, they may or may not continue to be reflections of the unique communities they serve. It is frightening to consider loss of local control which builds that unique and independent school district. When local taxpayers lose local control, school districts may become big box stores, as impersonal as...well, big box stores.

All that being said, winter in Minnesota is still cold and the fiscal climate school districts face is still brutal. Sharing services to find efficiencies is a necessity. For decades, every school district around has participated in shared purchasing of a multitude of supplies from paper to food to health insurance to inspections to software for payroll and accounts payable and more. In Perham - Dent Schools, we continue to examine where and how additional services might be shared. For example, we share a business manager with other area schools. We are studying a shared payroll specialist. On the one hand, we believe we owe it to the taxpayers to find all efficiencies that exist. On the other hand, we owe it to the taxpayers to maintain local control to avoid the void of big bureaucracy. What results from these opposing demands is often termed, "the difficult conversation."

These difficult conversations take place in very public settings because Board meetings are public meetings. Sometimes a snippet of a Board's "difficult conversation" is reported and repeated out of context, creating a porcupine/quill drama. For example, last week a comment about being an "elite school" was accurately reported. But the conversation was never about other school districts as less elite; other school districts were not part of the conversation at this point. The discussion - which can never be reported verbatim - really was about this: because an independent school district is created through local control, hard work, vision, and leadership, a substantial change must be made only through careful examination. And that involves often clunky and difficult conversations. The Board must first define what it has ("We have an elite school") and what may change ("What do our students stand to lose and to gain by sharing X, Y, or Z?"). Each Board in each ISD asks the same set of questions. Boards then become better tooled to make decisions around "what is best for the kids in the long run" as the top priority. But make no mistake, these are neither clean nor easy conversations; independent school districts' quills will inflict unintentional irritation in the huddle. That being said, the hard work of the huddle is Board work. They were elected to do no less.