Board ready for next level

by Jim Boyle

One of Jolene Jorgensen’s pet peeves with the Elk River Area School District when she got on the School Board in 2006 was that its administration and the board often acted like it was still the small school district that it once was.

She’s proud to report that it no longer does, and after being selected chairwoman of the Elk River Area School Board on Jan. 23 she hopes to bring operations of the board and district to an even higher level. She will be sworn in at the Feb. 13 regular meeting of the School Board.

“I can see us being more strategic as a board,” she said.

The School Board decided at the same organizational meeting where it elected Jorgensen as the chair and Jane Bunting as the vice chair that it would change its committee structure.

Gone will be the overlapping committee meetings on work session nights, when School Board members dug into the nitty-gritty details of the district’s operations. Instead, administrators from Superintendent Mark Bezek’s cabinet will provide updates on the district’s affairs during 5 p.m. sessions that will lead into 6 p.m. work sessions at the District Office. The entire board — if they can be there and make it on time — will hear everything.

“The main goal will be to take us out of such detail, and get out of the way (of our administration),” Jorgensen said.

The School Board, meanwhile, will be holding the administration’s feet to the fire for meeting goals and objectives laid out in a soon-to-be-completed strategic plan.

School board members expect to see the first draft of the plan in late May or early June. The product will have input from dozens of stakeholders.

“The board will eventually need to jump in and decide what we need to do first,” Jorgensen said, describing the board’s role as assessing the big picture, making policy and plans, and being less process-oriented.

The School Board is currently negotiating Superintendent Mark Bezek’s next contract. The board wants to see the superintendent stay and continue his good work.

There’s a desire to keep Bezek challenged and for him to stay healthy.

Based on this past week’s meeting, members of the School Board are looking to add incentives to keep Bezek here for the long haul, and avoid anything that would make it advantageous to leave. There will be no golden parachutes, several said.

“There are pretty big superintendent contracts out there,” Jorgensen said. “It will be hard to take the big leap, but we know we need to. We don’t want to lose Mark (Bezek).”

Jorgensen, a project manager for Anoka County, said other pressing matters for the School Board will be discussions about the need for a levy renewal, space needs in the district, and follow-up work related to Commissioner of Education Brenda Casselius’ push for district initiatives at the Minnesota Legislature.

Jorgensen sees opportunities related to the use of technologies in classrooms and to help students learn outside of school. She also points to the district’s need to focus on both college preparedness and other post-secondary options related to vocational careers.

She also said the parent-led Legislative Action Team, which she believes is vital to the success of the district, would benefit from even greater involvement. She has served as a board liaison to the team and is still a member of Parents United for Public Schools.

Jorgensen, who got introduced to school politics with her involvement in Parents United for Public Schools and related District 728 initiatives, said she plans to work alongside Bezek and the group to push for show solidarity for district initiatives.

Meanwhile, her expectation will be that each department continue to move the district toward its goals. The district no longer operates like a small school district after all. The district now has the infrastructure in place, a presence at the Capitol, better communications and will soon have an updated strategic plan.

“The main thing is the infrastructure in our three main areas of Business, Teaching and Learning and Human Resources,” she stated. “Each of these areas have gone through major transition over the past five years.  There are processes and procedures in place to address more needs of a growing district that weren’t there before.”

As for the district’s presence at the Legislature, it used to be non-existent.

“We sat back as a district and let the Legislature do what it may to our district,” Jorgensen said. “Now we have built relationships with our legislators and we get out front of the issues rather than react.”

And Jorgensen said the district is also focused on matters here in the district.

“We have re-focused on students and life-long learners,” she said. “Before Dr. Bezek, there was no plan and no focus.  We consistently refer back to the strategic plan and if a strategy does not help in meeting our goals, it is put on the back burner.”

Communications have been part of behaving like a big district, too.

“The value of great communications has played a huge role,” Jorgensen said. “We involve all stakeholders in our communications in order to build community.  Strong schools support so much in our economy and our way of life.

“Communications have been developed to ask for continuous input rather than just a way to inform the public.  We see the value now of “engagement” rather than just “listen to us.”
Most of the changes occurred in her first term. By the time she was re-elected in 2010, there were few vestiges left of the old regime.

Jorgensen hailed last year’s reorganization of the human resources department as wiping out the district’s last remnant of a small district mentality.

The human resources department is now aligned to handle the day-to-day operations, all while moving toward a 24/7-type operation for that. At the same time the department is also aligned to work on teaching and learning.

The department, which supports the district’s active workforce and a substitute workforce, as well as retirees and a robust stream of applicants, has been designed to move human resources projects along more quickly and take on more projects than in the past.

Pay equity is an issue that will be tended to this year. The development of a performance review system, a plan to address absences and health care initiatives are also on the docket.

Each department has its own list of things to work on, just like all the well-run big districts.
Jorgensen succeeds Sue Farber, who served three years as chair but did not seek re-election.
Farber said Jorgensen has provided immeasurable help to her and the board and said she has no doubt Jogensen will be up for the job.

One of Jorgensen’s goals as the chair of the board is to develop a teacher recognition program.
As for her own personal life, she has one daugher going through the college selection process as a senior at Rogers High School and another daughter preparing to graduate from college. She and her husband could soon be empty nesters.

“I don’t know whether to yell or cry,” she said.

Jolene Jorgensen
Residence: Otsego

Board post: Chairwoman and an at-large director of the seven-member Elk River Area School Board and the 2011 vice chair. She was first elected in November 2006 and re-elected in 2010.

Education: Bachelor of science degree in biology and education from St. Cloud State University. Graduate of Elk River High School

Family: Married with two daughters, one a senior at Rogers High School and the other a senior in college.

Occupation: Project manager for Anoka County