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Perham-Dent school board seeking public opinion on sharing superintendent, four-day week

The Perham-Dent school district board of education is seeking public input on finding a long term solution to budget woes.

The board invited businesspeople from the community to a work session on Feb. 21.

Questions on the table were administration restructuring, moving to a four-day week, sharing superintendents between school districts or even merging school districts over time.

Need for leadership

Business professionals spoke out in favor of having an administrator in every building for accountability and leadership.

"Would I even consider operating a building without a senior leader?" said Chuck Hofius, CEO of Perham Memorial Hospital and Home. "Absolutely not. I would never do that from a business standpoint."

Hofius also expressed concern about finding candidates to fill a compacted position.

"I worry about recruitment," he said. "If these jobs are so compounded, who's going to apply? Perham is not near the top of the list for salaries."

Jan and Mike Parta, owners of Hoot's Sports, also stressed the importance in leadership.

"If one person is spread too thin, less will be left in both positions," Jan Parta said. "Leadership is key."

"Schools aren't a business like making potato chips," Mike Parta said. "If a chip is bad in schools you can't just throw it away. Teachers need support from above."

Having one person manage the district's students, staff and budget also concerned Perham City Manager Kelcey Klemm.

"Working with a $15 million budget with no business manager would bother me," he said.

He also cautioned the board that merging the superintendent and principal positions to help get a levy referendum passed isn't an answer.

"People don't just vote no for one reason," Klemm said. "There will always be another excuse. Take out one, they'll just put in another one."

Sharing a superintendent between neighboring districts has also been discussed.

Hofius said in his experience, rivaling communities sometimes have a difficult time sharing.

"People feel like they're getting the short end of the stick," he said. "I've seen too many places where they've done it and went back."

Superintendent Tamara Uselman agreed that finding a person to take on as much as part-time business manager Kristi Werner does, mixed with the responsibility of managing students and staff is quite daunting.

Uselman said Werner is contracted to attend six board meetings out of the year, but attends all.

"We'll either have to redo that contract and pay more for that service," Uselman said. "It's only doable now because Kristi devotes her time."

Uselman said that administrative expenses in the district are right at or below the state average.

"There is potential to redesign with several school districts," Uselman said. "It'll have to be eased into over time. We aren't prepared to do that tomorrow."

Options over time

To do that, school board member Jim Rieber said bus routes will need to be made more efficient and common curriculum should be looked into. While Rieber said he isn't convinced sharing a superintendent would work, restructuring is worth looking into.

To get the process started, Uselman suggested hiring an outside, independent facilitator to bring the districts together and set benchmarks.

"An outside facilitator would be key and I think you'd make definite progress over time," she said. "We also need to educate the public about the jobs we do and hearing from them about what they want for change."

Klemm and Hofius suggested looking into grants such as West Central Initiative funds to pay for doing so.

Merging school districts was also discussed as a possible outcome of the meetings over time. Uselman said that the citizens decide whether to do so, and Rieber added the state helps fund schools that are consolidating.

Other options

Board member Sue Huebsch asked for input on the much-debated four-day school week.

Hofius asked if the savings of about $200,000 a year, based on Pelican Rapids' system, is enough of a saving to be worth it.

Board member Myron Roe said the four-day week concerns him as it would cut the salary of the district's lowest paid staff and parents of younger children will have to pay for daycare on Fridays.

Jan Parta said she was worried about children retaining information.

"Some kids struggle day to day," she said. So if they're missing three out of seven days, I'm wondering what's happening to their learning."

Rieber said that there is not enough long term data on academic performance.

Roe also suggested looking to the local community and technical colleges for possible interns to work as support staff to save the district money.

Increased online classes were also discussed, but Uselman said that it costs as much to offer online classes as it does to have a teacher.

There was also talk of raising activity fees. Activities Director Fred Sailer said the district has the second highest activity fee in the region. Sailer went a step further and suggested having a community discussion about keeping activities.

"Our community needs to decide if we need these programs," Sailer said. "I personally believe it's the cheapest form of social services we've got. We've got to change something dramatically or we'll lose our school. We're stuck in between a rock and a hard place and it's only going to get worse."

A meeting with staff and the school board in closed session was set for Monday, Feb. 28 at 4 p.m.