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Regional schools' study group discusses survey results

Consultant Greg Vandal, standing, discusses the results of an online survey with area school superintendents and school board representatives Tuesday at Ridgewater College in Willmar. (Tribune photo by Gary Miller)

WILLMAR -- When the Willmar and Montevideo school boards voted this week to share the services of a food service director, they followed New London-Spicer into a new era.

The three schools will begin sharing a food service director next fall.

The contract may not have come about if not for the group of superintendents and school representatives from west central Minnesota that met Tuesday evening in Willmar. They reviewed the results of an online survey answered by more than 2,600 people in an area from Ortonville to Glencoe.

The group of 17 school districts and three related organizations has been meeting for a year.

The group has been studying ways schools could work together to face the challenges of tight finances and changing demographics. The goal has been to cooperate where possible so that schools could maintain their identities.

Districts in the area already work together in different ways. Most school districts belong to educational service cooperatives and to technology consortiums. Many have also signed on to group purchasing plans and sought other ways to save money.

The group began meeting informally a year ago, and then received grant money to hire a facilitator, Greg Vandal, a retired superintendent from Sauk Rapids.

Vandal led the group through a review of the 42-question survey. The answers indicate that many people support their school districts and are open to some degree of change, he said.

Respondents also showed a strong interest in studying alternative school calendars and in having a common schedule of professional development sessions among districts in the region.

Vandal pointed out that survey questions with the words referring to cooperation between districts were popular. "When we hit that 'collaborate' word, the numbers go up," he said.

Many respondents said they would favor a pre-Labor Day start to the school year, something that is currently not allowed by state law.

Vandal had the group develop a list of the top priorities they felt they saw in the survey and then to rank them.

The top priority was to work to share academic programs. The following priorities were to develop regional staff development opportunities, second; work on a common evaluation process for teachers and administrators, third; find ways to share more services, fourth; and create a common calendar, fifth.

The group's steering committee will meet later with Vandal to narrow the list to three priorities they want to work on first.

Willmar Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard, one of those who helped start the group, asked if people wanted to continue with the process, and all raised their hands. Kjergaard and others said they didn't want to work on the idea for a year and then let it drop.

"Hopefully, it will make a difference for the kids in this region," he said.

New London-Spicer Superintendent Paul Carlson said he thought the group's discussions were already leading to progress. The agreement to share a food service director would not have come together as smoothly without the regional talks, he said.

Montevideo board member Maggie Kluver agreed. "It swayed my decision," she said, as she had been leaning on contracting with a service. The discussion of sharing resources in the region persuaded her and the board to share with Willmar and NLS.

Kluver said she hopes the group can continue to meet periodically to discuss issues of cooperation and sharing. "I think this was a wonderful process," she said. "These things benefit our students and benefit our districts."

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

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