Winsted-Lester Prairie Journal, Sept. 18, 2000

LP talking to others about school cooperation

By Jane Otto

"With declincing enrollments statewide, it's a good idea for districts to share ideas rather than work separately," said Bob Buresh of the Minnesota Department of Children, Families, and Learning (CFL).

Buresh spoke to representatives of five area school districts about district cooperation and reorganization trends in Minnesota at Lester Prairie School's first cooperation committee meeting last Monday.

Along with Lester Prairie, districts represented were Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted (HLWW), Watertown-Mayer, Norwood Young America (NYA), and Glencoe-Silver Lake (GSL). The Waconia district was unable to send a representative.

Straddled with slightly declining enrollments and an ever-tightening budget, Lester Prairie's school board organinzed the committee to review what options are available.

Several times Buresh stressed the need for action well before a district's situation becomes desparate.

"If you wait too long, the need for rapid action will be far ahead of a community's willingness to make such changes. Also, the ability to negoitiate with neighboring districts can be more difficult," Buresh said.

Though Lester Prairie initiated the meeting, it also passed a budget in December 1999 that was $180,000 in the red.

Buresh also emphasized the necessity of good public relations.

"You need to keep your citzenry informed as to what your strengths and limitations are, so that they don't think everything is hunky-dorey and it really isn't," said Buresh.

The first step that the committee will consider is a management assistance study. The study will help local districts identify common interests and needs towards further cooperation or reorganization - essentially, what would the best fit be for those districts involved?

At a Lester Prairie School Board meeting in June, the board discussed such a study with consultant Roger Worner.

Supt. James Redfield said that Worner's costs were in the ballpark of $10,000 to $15,000, a cost that Redfield would like to see shared among the districts.

At one time the state funded these kind of studies, Buresh said, but the state is "no longer at the front end" of this. He added that there could be the possibly of grant money, but probably not from CFL.

"You would have better luck to go to the legislature and keep us informed. Depending on what it is you're asking for, you might get funding," Buresh said.

Bob Krcil, a Glencoe-Silver Lake board member, asked why all districts should share in the costs.

Redfield replied that all districts could benefit from the different levels of cooperation that might be possible.

Though no specifics were addressed as to how to pay for a management assistantance study, the consensus was "It's a good idea."

John Landgaard, NYA school superintendent, said his district will be looking at long-range planning in the near future and would certainly consider cooperative options from other districts.

"Being in front of the game is better than being under the pressure of it," he said.

Randy Heuer, a Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted board member, said the district is very interested in cooperative ventures with Lester Prairie and "wants to keep the door open."

Playing the devil's advocate, Krcil said that hiring a consultant doesn't necessarily provide the desired end results.

HLWW Supt. Riley Hoheisel agreed, but said that an outsider is necessary or it is "almost always perceived to be biased."

"Any entity will have some hestancy pointing out where its shortcomings are. That's where a third party can come in," Lester Prairie board member Barry Kyllo later added.

Faced with a possible building referendum, Hoheisel asked Redfield what kind of timelines Lester Prairie is considering.

No clear cut dates were given, but Redfield said that if a group of schools would be asking for state money, it would need to be done by the first of the year before the next legislative session begins.

Timeliness being a concern to Kyllo, he said that if the district waits for possible grant dollars and then moves forward with the study, that could be next summer.

"If the state pays for this, that's good, but we still have to put gas in the car," Kyllo said. "I'm sure other board members think I'm a bull, but I don't want to be here with six months left and have to figure something out."

Hoheisel, who said he hopes to have a new HLWW high school on the ballot this spring, could benefit from a more timely study rather than one completed next summer.

"Timing is an issue for us," he commented.

The HLWW district approached the Lester Prairie district about a possible consolidation in 1999, but at that time the community told the board it wanted to stay independent.

However, passage of an excess levy referendum in the fall of 1999 did not alleviate an ailing budget and prompted citizens to voice concern at board meetings this past spring.

Hoheisel asked if the "community has a set of expectations at this time. Are there any ideas of what Lester Prairie wants to get out of this?"

"Like most boards, no one on this board is in agreement on everything," replied Kyllo. "Yes, we have ideas, but we would like more information about how other districts work and focus on where to go and how to get better."

Consensus among the districts present was to discuss this with their respective boards and keep communication lines open.

The Lester Prairie cooperation committee, whose members are board members Bob Remer and Kyllo; teachers Cathy Houg and Greg Landkamer; non-certified staff Aura Lee Entinger, citizens-at-large Cathy Nelson-Messer, Tom Sovereign, and Marc Sebora; will next meet Monday, Sept. 25 at 7 p.m. in the media center.

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