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Education commissioner hears Willmar concerns about special ed, prekindergarten

Linda Vanderwerf / Tribune Hallway artwork caught the attention of state Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker so she took a photo Wednesday while touring Lakeland Elementary School in Willmar.1 / 4
Linda Vanderwerf / Tribune Minnesota Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker listens Wednesday to Willmar school officials describe ways they are offering opportunities for a wide variety of students. 2 / 4
Linda Vanderwerf / Tribune Minnesota Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker, left, visits with Staci Wetterling, a special education teacher at Lakeland Elementary School. Ricker toured the school during a visit to Willmar this week.3 / 4
Linda Vanderwerf / Tribune Minnesota Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker listens Wednesday to Lakeland Elementary music teacher Garrett Aalfs talk to fourth-grade students at the beginning of class at the Willmar school.4 / 4

WILLMAR — Continued funding for voluntary prekindergarten programs is a concern for Willmar Public Schools officials, as is the inadequate funding and mountains of paperwork in special education programs.

Minnesota Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker told administrators and board members that she hears similar concerns in many districts.

Ricker was in the midst of a tour to listen to school concerns and learn about innovative programs going on around the state. She met with Willmar school officials Wednesday at Lakeland Elementary School and then toured the 1-year-old building.

Ricker said the administration of Gov. Tim Walz is concerned about the same things.

Willmar's current special education spending beyond federal and state funding, called a cross-subsidy, is about $2.7 milion. Walz has proposed placing a freeze on districts' cross subsidies.

Paperwork is a problem that seems to multiply with each funding level, Ricker said. Federal law requires states to monitor special education. Schools may add their own requirements, too.

"The working conditions of our special educators are untenable, and it's burning people out," she said. "None of us do our best work when we're feeling burned out." However, special needs students need teachers and paraprofessionals who are at their best.

If the Legislature doesn't approve prekindergarten funding, it could end at the end of the fiscal year June 30.

The Willmar district currently has 110 prekindergarten slots funded by the state. If the money stops, the number would be reduced to 30, said Scott Wallner, community education director.

All over the state, Ricker said, she has seen the way communities have embraced the prekindergarten program with investments in staff and infrastructure.

"I completely understand when you've made these investments to make voluntary PK a permanent part of what you offer a community, it's really nerve-wracking to think that these spots could go away," she said.

School officials in Montevideo told her their city considers prekindergarten classes a component of economic development, she said.

Willmar Superintendent Jeff Holm said studies indicate that a community gets $8 back for every $1 invested in prekindergarten.

The loss of the funding "brings challenges to us, because we've created programs that are effective for our families and kids," Holm said.

Administrators described numerous programs for Ricker. They talked about the 21st Century Learning grants providing after-school programs at the Middle School and Senior High School.

Senior High Principal Paul Schmitz told about several programs in cooperation with area businesses to teach young people about careers available in the Willmar area.

Ricker praised the school district after hearing about cooperation with businesses, between the high school and the Area Learning Center or between the secondary schools and Ridgewater College. She has heard similar stories in many communities, she said.

"All the students see is a seamless experience that gives them opportunities; they don't necessarily see all the hard work and the conversations that go into it," she said.

After the tour, Ricker spoke about the school districts she has visited. "A common theme is the ambition our school leaders have for their students," she said. "We need a state education budget that matches that ambition."

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