Divided board approves full slate of change

• Jorgensen, Walter fought for protecting eighth grade health and music, art and physical education

by Jim Boyle, Editor

The Elk River Area School Board approved Jan. 27 all of its delimiter proposals, including the controversial ones that were proposed at the elementary and middle school levels.

The delimiters were voted on separately by category. When it came time to vote on the middle and elementary school portions, School Board Members Jolene Jorgensen and Tony Walter had made and seconded motions to protect eighth-grade health in the middle school and the current rotation of art, music and physical education specialists in the elementary school.

The amendment  for the elementary school proposal would have eliminated a proposed technology literacy course.

The amendment for the middle school proposal would have forced the administration to come up with a plan to keep eighth-grade health by eliminating something else. Jorgensen and Walter did not suggest what would have to be eliminated to protect the health course.

Both amendments were defeated on 5-2 votes, and the subsequent votes to approve the delimiters were approved by 5-2 margins with School Board Chairwoman Jane Bunting and School Board Vice Chair Holly Thompson as well as board Directors Dan Hunt, Shane Steinbrecher and Sue Farber voting in favor.

Delimiter proposals for the senior high schools, special education, business services and human resources as well as teaching and learning were approved unanimously.

The Community Education delimiters, however, were approved with an amendment.

An effort to expand the Discovery Learning Extra program for at-risk 4-year-olds was limited to the amount that school district officials were willing to expend District 728 Community Education dollars from Fund 04. The program will grow to 72 students in the next school year.

School Board members balked at committing dollars out of the general fund to grow the program even more. It was agreed to look at this prospect after the budgeting process for the upcoming school year is complete.

Farber, who called the program phenomenal, said it has too many funding tales (added unfunded costs), including uncertainty over where the program could be housed in Zimmerman and especially Rogers.

“I suggest we expand with Fund 04 dollars as far as what the 04 Fund will allow but not use additional 01 dollars,” Farber said.

The proposal and its amendment passed on a 6-1 vote with Jorgensen casting the lone “no” vote.

Jorgensen did not speak to her vote on the community education delimiters, but she tried hard to garner support for her amendments on the elementary school and middle school proposals.

“I address you fully knowing that I am in the minority of the board with my thoughts on this resolution,” she started her plea to save eighth-grade health. “I appreciate Sue (Farber’s) idea to separate the delimiters by area instead of as a full package so that we could discuss and vote on them separately.”

Jorgensen also clarified her position on proposed middle school changes, saying that she supports the coding class and the middle school foreign language contrary to what was reported in the Star News.

She said she takes issue with the proposal to eliminate eighth-grade health and that should come as no surprise because she had said early on that cuts to health classes should be avoided.

“Our kids are learning about nutrition, drugs, mental health, sexuality, tobacco, bullying and refusal skills,” she stated. “These are the things they talk about and want to learn about. It’s about them and relevant.”

She said concerns over heroin use and helping kids develop the tools to deal with stress and mental health issues are some more reasons.

“This is such a critical point in a child’s life in eighth grade,” Jorgensen said, noting the district is sending mixed messages to have overhauled the district’s food service program, shut down pop machines during the school day and emphasized wellness at the welcome back session at the beginning of the year.

She said there are reasonable ways to save health classes, like perhaps doing away with study halls or looking at other classes that are offered multiple quarters. She said exactly what needed to be done to save it should be left up to the administration.

Walter supported Jorgensen’s motion, although he didn’t speak to it.

As for the standalone technology class at the elementary school, she said that goes against the grain of the process of embedding technology that the district had endorsed for years.

“Best practice for technology is embedding it and not making it its own curriculum,” she said. “Technology is a tool to help students learn quicker, be project-based and to drive their own learning.

“We have so many great examples of teachers already using technology. If we have teachers that are not on board with technology, then we get them more training and hold them accountable. We don’t take away from art, phy ed and music to do this.”

Superintendent Mark Bezek addressed the technology literacy course later in the meeting, saying it’s not about giving kids more screen time. It’s about teaching children to be good digital citizens.

“They need to be respectful, responsible and use technology ethically,” he said, noting his principals spend a great deal of time dealing with the ramifications of cyber-bullying.

“We’re giving them the greatest gift of international and global opportunities. We’re also giving them a tool that can create harm.”

Jorgensen spoke of the positive effects that physical education, music and art have on children. She said active children are more ready to learn and less anxious. She said music could be considered another language and it is useful for teaching about other cultures and helps children improve in math and reading.

“Lastly, these items we call specials don’t get the credit they deserve,” she said. “They contribute to the psychological well-being of all of us. They can relax us, make us proud, help rid us of stress, inspire us and bring us together.”

Walter, a manager and bus driver for Vision Transportation and the clerk/treasurer for the board, said his support for protecting art and music came down to the children he drives to school.

“They’re so  honest, and they’re thrilled to tell me what they like about school,” he said. “They’re so thrilled to tell me everything.”

Music and art are at the top for many children, he said.

The Elk River City Council Chambers were packed for the meeting.  Nine people spoke at open forum, encouraging board members to not proceed with proposed changes to curriculum.

They applauded Jorgensen’s pleas and Walter’s comments. Farber said to the crowd during the meeting she realizes it’s hard to believe, but for everyone at the meeting expressing staunch opposition, there are people in support of the delimiters as they were proposed.

Bezek thanked School Board members for allowing the process work.

He said each of the 35 result statements developed as part of the district’s strategic plan may only be a sentence long, but every word has significant meaning and will take much effort to achieve all of them.

The delimiter process will return, he said.

“The delimiter process is not a one-time process,” Bezek said, noting the process will be evaluated at the next core planning team meeting.