‘It’s a team effort to have an excellent school district,’ said Tormanen
By Kristen Miller
For 18 combined years, Richard Tormanen has proved to be a “proponent of quality education” and an “asset” to the Dassel-Cokato School Board.
Having served on the board since 2003, along with six years from 1990-96, Tormanen decided not to seek re-election this year.
His decision made for a number of reasons, he said, first being his age.
At 72, Tormanen said he is at the point where he wonders how much more productive and active time he has left. He and his wife, Anne, enjoy traveling, and they are also building a vacation place in northern Minnesota.
The last few years have also been challenging to serve on the DC School Board. “I believe my integrity was challenged,” Tormanen said.
He referenced the board meetings last year which attracted standing-room only, where community members questioned the school climate and the board’s decisions as a whole.
Trust is an important aspect when serving as an elected official, Tormanen explained, adding that his constituents didn’t believe what he was telling them.
“All the years I served on the board, I feel that everybody I served with, from the board to administration, had the best interest of the students in mind,” Tormanen commented.
There were several positive aspects, however, that Tormanen reflected on during that time serving on the school board.
In addition to having seven children who were either in the school district, or graduated, Tormanen was involved with the school district and community, and serving on different committees, such as the extra and co-curricular activities committee. This helped lead him in his decision to run for school board in 1990.
Tormanen’s cousin, John Hannus and his uncle, Nilo Raisanen were also serving on the school board, and both encouraged him to run.
“It wasn’t because I had an ax to grind,” Tormanen affirmed.
He also had a computer consulting business, and at the onset of computer technology, “I felt they could use my expertise,” Tormanen said.
In fact, Tormanen remembers one of the first actions he ever made on the board was voting against a proposal to purchase, what he cited as outdated computers, that would have made up the district’s first computer lab.
He spoke up, Tormanen recalled, and told the board that it would be wasting money on old technology, especially when technology changes so quickly.
Tormanen’s input was considered, and the board sought bids for new computers.
During his first two terms (until 1994, terms were three years, rather than four), Tormanen and the board faced some unexpected hardships, including a natural disaster.
In 1992, a tornado touched down, destroying much of Cokato, including severely damaging the elementary school.
The district also sought voter approval for a bond to build a middle school, along with a district office and the early childhood family education center.
Tormanen recalled budget cuts as being part of the equation during his first years.
“I remember it being a difficult time on the board,” he commented.
In 1996, Tormanen chose not to seek re-election, and instead, chose to focus on his computer consulting business, which was requiring more travel.
“I’m not going to do something half-way,” Tormanen assured.
Then, in 2002, he was faced with the decision to run for office once again.
He recalled being at his daughter’s house, when a student there encouraged him to run for election.
“I don’t think my wife would want me to run again, just because of the time commitment,” Tormanen responded.
He remembers his wife saying from the other room, “I’ll pick up the application.”
“She felt they needed me on the board,” he noted.
Tormanen didn’t rush into it. Instead, he left it in God’s hands, he said.
It was the last day to file, and Tormanen had been driving by the school on his way home from work in the Twin Cities. “It was five minutes to 5,” he said.
Craig Kay was the superintendent at the time, and was waiting for him in the district office, Tormanen recalled.
“I didn’t even have a dollar (to cover the filing fee). He borrowed me a dollar,” Tormanen laughed.
Again, it wasn’t because of any issues he wanted to “deal with,” Tormanen said; he just felt he had something he could contribute, particularly where technology was concerned.
Technology upgrades an accomplishment for Tormanen
“I did feel they hadn’t been making as much progress with technology as I would’ve liked to see,” Tormanen said.
DC High School’s Media and Digital Learning Specialist Paul Beckermann has known Tormanen for the 28 years he has worked in the district, and regards him as being not only a “great supporter of schools and quality education,” but “a valuable member of the district technology committee.”
“He comes from a technology background and understands the importance of technology integration in education,” Beckermann said of Tormanen.
Beckermann’s wife, Pam, has also worked with Tormanen during her time as the middle school’s media and digital learning specialist. “He has been instrumental in providing DC with the technology tools necessary to prepare our students for the 21st century,” Pam commented.
Part of that has included equipping each classroom with SMART board technology, a project that began in 2008, following an approved referendum. The project was completed in the fall of 2010, when every traditional classroom had a SMART board.
“That was a major accomplishment,” Tormanen said, noting that DC was one of the first school districts to do that.
Tormanen credited the Beckermanns both having been recognized by the state as being leaders in technology for their effort in finding creative ways to fund the SMART project, such as securing grants, and utilizing free software.
The PAC a dividing issue in the community
During and following his election to the board in 2002, Tormanen was faced with an issue that divided the community.
The decision, which would later come before the voters and pass by only three votes, was whether or not to build a performing arts center, along with additional gym space and classrooms.
Before re-election, Tormanen was involved in the bond campaign as a proponent of it.
Tormanen speculates that the reason it was such a controversial issue was that some community members felt that the bond was being “pushed” by the arts association, and didn’t see the benefits to the students. He added that there are people who believe that education is only in the classroom, and a performing arts center is for entertainment purposes only.
“It was an issue that really split the community,” Tormanen said.
From his perspective, Tormanen said the vote to approve the building bond, which included the DC Performing Arts Center, “was one of the best things our community has done,” adding that it’s a “wonderful facility.”
Trends in education
Keeping up with the latest trends in education was also a challenge Tormanen faced while serving on the board of education.
“It seemed like we were in continual change in philosophy on how to educate children, and constantly changing curriculum to meet new requirements set by the federal and state governments,” Tormanen said.
From outcome-based education to the new philosophical trend of creating the “world’s best workforce,” Tormanen said the changes can be “a real challenge.”
Now, he said, the state understands the importance of a “broadened education,” and preparing students for a multi-faceted workforce, not only a four-year college education. “Especially in this community,” Tormanen said. “We have a lot of students in the trades and technical fields.”
Making tough decisions
When it comes to overseeing an entire school district, there are plenty of tough decisions to make along the way.
For Tormanen, budget cuts made that list.
He remembers the board making the decision to cut the family and consumer sciences program for the 2004-05 school year.
At the time, it seemed like a reasonable cut, but the board later realized it had been a mistake, as it left less elective options for female students who were not necessarily college-bound. The male students still had shop classes, Tormanen explained.
Two years later, the program was brought back.
The 2007-08 cuts were also a challenge, Tormanen recalled.
The state had cut its funding to school districts, “We had no choice; we had to cut,” Tormanen said.
With input from the community, the board made the decision to make cuts at the top, and combine some of the administrative duties.
“We didn’t want to cut teachers or curriculum,” Tormanen commented.
Negotiations are also difficult, Tormanen noted.
“[Districts] are very restricted in how much revenue it has to play with,” Tormanen said. With only so much money to spend, the board is faced with considering raises for employees (during negotiations) or possibly eliminating a position somewhere else.
Former school board member Karen Ness remembers Tormanen being “a stabilizing force of calm and common sense.”
Kevin Dahlman, who retired recently from the school board after 24 years, served a bulk of that with Tormanen.
“Richard and I were on the same negotiating teams and spent many long hours together wrestling with many challenging decisions,” Dahlman said. “I highly valued his patience, skills, and insights into working toward a consensus.”
“Richard always had the students’ best interests in mind,” Dahlman said, adding “Dassel-Cokato schools are better off because of the service of Richard.”
While there are many aspects to serving on the school board, Tormanen said it’s important to have “good people involved,” who have different skills and backgrounds to offer.
“It’s a team effort to have an excellent school district,” Tormanen said. “It’s a huge responsibility being fiscally responsible to your taxpayers, but still providing an excellent opportunity for education to your students.”