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Willmar School Board retreat looks at communication issues

WILLMAR — Willmar School Board members discovered that they are already on the path of being an effective board, though they still have some work to do.

The board and Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard spent more than three hours in a mini-retreat Tuesday evening discussing the characteristics of school boards that work well together.

Communication and honesty were overriding themes during the discussion, led by Ken Dragseth, a retired superintendent from Edina.

Board Chairman Nathan Streed said he thought the retreat could “remind us as a board what our role is and to bring together the board.”

Dragseth, who frequently conducts board retreats, said the board is already doing some of the things that state and national associations for school boards recommend.

For example, the board already conducts workshop meetings once a month, something Dragseth praised.

All employees are included in meetings, not just teachers. Dragseth said that can be a source of friction in some districts.

Board members said they felt they are good at having board members at school events without a formal assignment system. All have children in the district’s schools and attend numerous events.

Members of the board don’t need to agree on everything, but they need to be able to trust each other and work together despite differences, Dragseth said.

“Avoid cliques on the board,” he said. If a segment of the board splits off from the whole, “it disrupts the trust and function of the board.”

People in the community will quickly notice and “start choosing up sides,” he said, leading to an even broader problem.

Dragseth recommended some things. The board does not do an annual evaluation of itself, and he said it might be a good way to set goals and chart progress toward the goals.

Some boards also assign a board member to each school building, to attend staff meetings and other events and be aware of issues in that building, Dragseth said. Willmar has not done that in the past.

Board members made their own suggestions for improvements the board could make.

“I feel we haven’t done a good job of celebrating achievements,” said board member Linda Mathiasen. She said she liked the idea of a board evaluation, too, to give the board more time for reflection.

“We hire one employee,” the superintendent, said board member Mike Carlson. “I think board members should make time to meet with our one employee.”

Following the chain of command is important for a school board, Dragseth said.

Board members who hear from a parent should refer that parent to an administrator or the superintendent, he said. If a board member has an issue concerning a child, the place to start is with the teacher, as any other parent does.

Streed contributed to some of the more uncomfortable moments of the discussion, when he raised his opposition to board members working part-time for the district.

Several board members have been approved to work as substitute teachers in recent years. The practice is legal as long as the income is below a set amount and the board approves. In recent years, the board has approved work for several board members. A former board member was a coach.

“To me, it creates a conflict,” Streed said, particularly in contract negotiations. “If you’re part of a group, it makes communication with groups more difficult.”

Dragseth said the perception could be there, but it would be difficult to tell a person how to make a living if it’s legal.

Mathiasen’s business has a contract to do marketing work for the district. She asked if it applied to her contract as well. “I have the same concern across the board,” Streed said.

The contract was approved unanimously in July, she said.

“I don’t feel comfortable proceeding if people have a problem,” she said. “Has the comfort level changed?”

Streed said she should continue unless the board rescinds its approval.

Carlson said he thought the issue came down to one question: “Can we as a board look at each other and know we have the district’s best interests at heart.”

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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