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Willmar School Board discusses regional cooperation possibilities

WILLMAR -- Area school districts might be able to improve efficiency and even increase opportunities for their students in the future, but there's a possibility that emotional ties to local districts could get in the way of it.

The Willmar School Board discussed an ongoing study of regional school cooperation at its workshop meeting Monday.

The board and 16 others in the region have been taking up the study at their local meetings. The ideas they generate will be forwarded to a meeting of the 17 districts in early December at Ridgewater College.

The effort to look into opportunities for future cooperation began as a gathering of superintendents from the region. That led to a September meeting in Maynard attended by administrators and board members from the participating districts.

Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard and Willmar board member Wayne Lenzmeier participated in the September meeting and will take ideas from Monday's discussion to the next meeting.

Lenzmeier said he has appreciated the chance to brainstorm about people's hopes for the future. "We're talking about what could be," he said.

"In 10 years, the state won't look the same," Lenzmeier said. "This is a way to get ahead" of changes that could be coming.

The board included in the discussion two of the three newly elected members of the board, Dan Croonquist and Linda Mathiasen. The other new board member, Nathan Streed, was not at the meeting.

Kjergaard used a list of questions to guide the discussion. They covered technology, common curriculum, teacher performance, district boundaries and shared services.

Board members discussed a number of opportunities available in using technology to link districts. They talked about saving money through regional purchases of Smart boards or other equipment.

Many districts make use of classes or online field trips offered by the Little Crow Telemedia Network, said Chairman Brad Schmidt. The classes allow smaller districts to share teachers and offer students advanced courses or foreign language instruction.

Willmar participates in online field trips, allowing students to watch autopsies or surgeries, for example, but does not offer classes through the network.

"We offer a significant number of courses," Kjergaard said, so the district has less need for the courses than a smaller district. Willmar has 300 students in Advanced Placement classes, he explained, while some high schools in the area don't have 300 students.

The schools involved in the regional planning study have more than 16,000 students. Four districts -- Willmar, Hutchinson, New London-Spicer and Montevideo -- have about 10,000.

Board members discussed the ways larger and smaller districts could learn from each other and help each other. Mathiasen suggested smaller schools would have ideas for mentoring new teachers.

Board member Mike Reynolds said he was concerned that "small districts are going to feel lectured to" by the four largest ones.

Others agreed that could be a hurdle to the discussions, but Lenzmeier said it didn't have to be. The discussions at this point are theoretical, he said, and many ideas discussed could help students in all districts.

Board member Mike Carlson said he saw the potential in doing what some small rural churches are doing. They are working in clusters to share some services and personnel while each church maintains its own identity.

"What we're talking about is not closing schools but expanding opportunities," he said.

Kjergaard said the aging population of rural Minnesota will affect schools in the future. "I think the demographic is going to shift how we educate kids more than boundaries," he said.

Board members brought up possibilities, like sharing textbook purchases, online learning opportunities and possibly personnel. They also talked about a future with some specialized, or magnet, high schools drawing students from a broad area.

But in the end, several of them suggested that emotional ties people have to their home school districts could be a stumbling block, regardless of the size of the district.

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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