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School Board contracts with member to do PR work for district

WILLMAR -- The Willmar School Board has OK'd a contract with board member Linda Mathiasen to do public communications work for the district.

The board approved the contract unanimously Monday, with Mathiasen abstaining. The approval came after a woman representing a local conservative group objected to the arrangement.

The board's contract with Mathiasen hires her as an independent contractor to produce a public information flier for the operating levy election planned for this fall. "There is nobody on staff who has time to do that," said Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard.

Over the next year, she would also develop several issues of "Cardinal Connection," an informational newsletter to be sent to all households in the district.

"There's a lot of good things going on here that people don't know about," he said, and the newsletter will help the district get that word out.

Mathiasen prepared the district's levy brochure last year before she was elected to the board.

The cost of the contract is not to exceed $6,200.

Kjergaard said he had spoken with the district's lawyer, who said it is permissible for a board member to work as an independent contractor.

Linda Kacher of Willmar, representing an organization called "Willmar-StudentsFirst," spoke to the board at the beginning of the meeting. She objected to the contract with Mathiasen and asked the board to negotiate a new contract with its teachers before asking the public to approve an operating levy.

"You have the public trust," she said. That trust could be eroded if the board doesn't complete a teacher contract before a levy vote, so the public has full information about the school budget, she added.

Kacher objected to Mathiasen's position of serving on the negotiating team and being the district's "media director." She said she didn't think a board member should be paid to promote the operating levy, either.

Kacher distributed a position paper to the board asking for support for education legislation now in the Legislature and suggesting a number of changes, including a pay freeze for school employees through June 2013.

Board members rarely respond directly to a member of the public who speaks at a meeting. Instead, they may address some issues as they come up on the agenda.

During scheduled reports on board committee meetings, board member Mike Reynolds said the Negotiating Committee has met informally with teacher representatives.

"We can't begin significant negotiations until the Legislature and governor are done," he said. "We all kind of agreed that we're going to wait until we have more information."

Board member Eric Roberts said the Legislature is considering changes to teacher tenure and other education policy matters. With so many issues still undecided, he said, it would be difficult to begin negotiations now "despite other groups thinking we should start now."

Legislative update

Kjergaard and Business and Finance Director Pam Harrington offered updates on education issues in the Legislature.

The state constitution requires that the Legislature adjourn on May 23, but Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders have yet to come to agreement on a new two-year budget. The 2012 fiscal year begins on July 1.

Public schools receive more than three-quarters of their funding from the state, and thus can't plan well for the next year until they see the state budget.

Kjergaard said the board must vote by Aug. 26 on the wording of the levy question for the November election ballot. Until the budget is adopted, there will be no way to know how much money the district may need and no way to tell voters how a new levy might affect them.

A levy proposal failed last fall, but the board plans to try again this year. A current levy providing $498.49 per pupil will expire after this year. If the levy is not renewed, the district would lose $2.4 million a year in revenue.

Harrington said school finance directors have been told that the House and Senate both propose adding money to the basic education formula. However, they also cut a similar amount from other sources.

Kjergaard said some of the changes on the table would require more teacher evaluations and place new limits on teacher tenure.

It would be difficult to complete all the evaluations proposed, because the district doesn't have enough administrators to do it, he said.

The evaluations would be based in part on test data, but "there's no clear picture of what student performance data they are going to use," he said.

Kjergaard said he was frustrated with the Legislature's slow action on the budget. "They're spending a lot of time dealing with constitutional amendments," he said. "That's time they should spend talking about budgets."

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

(320) 214-4340