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Paynesville Press - Oct. 27, 2010

Paynesville School Board
Ashlee Anderson

Ashlee Anderson, 31, is a stay-at-home mom for four kids (Prairie, 4; Piper, 4; Jorgen, 2; and Ryker, infant). She also serves as the office manager for Anderson Building Movers, which she owns with her husband Neil, and teaches an an adjunct English professor for North Central University through its Heartland Master's Commis-sion in Cold Spring. She earned her bacherlor's degree at St. Cloud State and is running as a write-in candidate.

Why are you running for school board? I feel that the local school board is one of the shaping factors for individuals and, as such, for communities. Each decision that a school board makes affects the students and their families in a personal way and slowly molds them. Those students grow up and (hopefully) become productive members of society. Our community is thus directly affected by the outcome of each of those decisions made by the school board. The decision to run for the board, then, is both for the best interests of my own children and for the best interest of the local taxpaying community.

Describe your experiences with kids and explain how these will help you make decisions on the board? I have worked with all age groups in many different capacities. I worked at the Boys and Girls Club in their after-school program. I've directed full musicals with children from preschool age through high school. I have taught classes as a volunteer for my church. Currently, I teach an undergraduate college class to students just out of high school. Being exposed to students in a wide range of ages and settings has given me an understanding of students' needs from their own perspective. I am also able to directly see the effects that their education is having on their development. I can't imagine being able to be on a school board without ongoing contact with actual students; they give insight that is impossible to get any other way.

What new ideas do you think you can bring to the school board? I don't think any school board needs a new member to come in, swinging an axe of change, and declaring how much better they can make it. I think what this (or any) district needs is simply a challenge to the status quo. Having just recently (five years ago) made Paynesville my home, I am just learning all the intricacies and challenges with which this district has to contend. I bring two major components to the table: thoroughness and balance. I don't vote for issues until I feel I understand them in full. And I'm not afraid to ask questions and do research to get that understanding. Also, since I have children entering school but am also a taxpaying citizen and am married to a business owner, I represent a wide range of interests.

The district has not made Adequate Yearly Progress in three years (and in four of the past seven years) How should the district improve its curriculum and test scores? As I understand it, especially in rural communities, not making AYP can be nothing more than lagging by one subgroup in one area and is not necessarily an accurate barometer of the educational quality of the district. Having said that, I am now teaching students just after they've graduated high school and am sometimes taken aback at the amount of material with which they are unfamiliar. My best solution to this dilemma is to pump quality resources into the basic fundamentals. My 96-year-old grandmother only made it through 11th grade, yet was taught subject matter that I didn't receive until my final years of college. We make a mistake when we underestimate our students' abilities and potential.

What measures should the board take to deal with declining enrollment? This is an issue that is very near to my heart. I do not believe that declining enrollement is a necessary component of a rural educational district. Among my neighbors, there are several parents choosing to homeschool, and two that are driving their children to another school district for "better" educational opportunities! Dealing with the impact of declining enrollment becomes secondary to dealing with the actual declining enrollment! No matter the size of the district, or the budget with which to work, a school should be attractive enough to compel the local community to invest in it Š with their time, resources, and children. The best way to instill that trust with parents and the public is to be forthright with the issues at hand. Lately, there seems to be a lot of noise about how decisions have been made by the board, not what those decisions were. I want to help bring that trust factor back and be a bridge between the parents, the public, and the school.

How important are strong extracurricular programs to our school district? What should the board be doing to encourage and enhance these programs? One of the biggest regrets I hold regarding my own education was my lack of participation in extracurriculars. I am proud to say that I was involved with the speech and drama departments, but I wish I'd challenged myself to enter into some athletics. Having married an athlete, I can see many positive results of that participation, and it confirms my commitment to strong extracurricular programming. A school board needs to make difficult decisions in pouring limited resources into these programs, and, again, the key is openness. Strong arts and athletics programs are a boon to the community (and to the students individually) and should be pursued with all available resources.

For the past four years, the district has exceeded its goal for a general fund balance (more than $1 million). What should the district maintain as a healthy fund balance? Like any business, it is wise to keep at least two months worth of operating expenses at hand for that proverbial "rainy day." Some would argue that $1 million is just hoarding taxpayer money and that, with today's economic climate, today is the rainy day. Personally, I tend to be more conservative with finances. However, if there is an obvious excess it needs to be addressed by both the public and the board. When the district has set a general fund balance goal, anything above that needs to be distributed as necessary.

As district funds allow, where do you see funding needs in the school district? Again, this is an area that needs to be addressed by the community. As a school board member, it would be my job to listen to those that are speaking and make sure they are heard. As of late, people have objected that their concerns are not being addressed by the board. Obviously there are needs which must be met, including basic improvements to health and safety. There will always be a tug-of-war in a school district as to where the funds should go. ItÕs important to fund those areas that will bring/keep the school in state and federal compliance. Beyond that, it is important to me that the kids in our district go to a school with a positive reputation for all three As: academics, athletics, and arts.

The school board approved a $16.5-million renovation and repair project in August that includes a $14 million tax increase Why did you vote for this project and tax increase? Wow. I think the community was taken aback by the numbers in this project. At first glance, it didn't even phase me Š IÕve become so desensitized to new tax numbers in this economy. On closer inspection, it seems unbelievable that a board of half a dozen members, under the direction of a private company, can affect the entire community's pocketbooks so unambiguously. I understand that there are necessary improvements to be made to the schools, but when I mentioned this number to others, their surprised look said it all. More than one responded, "You could build a whole new school for that!" I haven't read through the contracts, but passing this much of a tax increase under the guise of "health and safety" without need for public voter approval (or even awareness!) seems to be in bad form at best.

A proposal to raise the district's operating levy was rejected by voters in November 2009. Do you support asking voters to increase this tax in November 2011? Why or why not? YES! I am not saying that I unilaterally believe in tax increases for school districts, though I've nearly always voted for them. The taxpaying public should have a voice in what local taxes they will be undertaking. It is up to the district to come up with reasonable numbers and a reasonable plan to propose to voters. It is crazy to believe that voters wonÕt ever vote for a tax for their school or to chalk it up to people being Ņanti-kids.Ó I have kids in the school district, but I want to make sure that if I'm voting for a tax increase it is for a good reason that will positively affect their educational experience. My opinion is: ask away! The whole point of democracy is that people arenÕt forced into taxes, but are able to express their wishes through organized voting.

What is the proper role of of the school board in making personnel decisions? The school boardÕs role in making personnel decisions can become tricky. Although they have the power, sometimes the need to delegate authority should come into play. One of the most important things a board can do is to listen to the voices around them. For example, if the students/parents/public are clamoring for, say, a coach to be replaced, it is the school boardÕs job to address the situation directly. I am not saying that the board needs to capitulate to a mobÕs demands, but usually there is wind of the mobÕs approach before it needs to reach that level. If the board is not going to do what the public is demanding, the board should at a very minimum acknowledge the demand, give a response with an explanation, and set a date to re-visit the matter if there is a continuing problem.

How much weight should board members give committee recommendations? Having served as a planning commissioner in the last city I lived in, I can say that committees serve an invaluable purpose: without a committee, each board member would have to research the minutia of each issue and that is simply impossible. Having said that, there are times when recommendations from a committee should be more thoroughly reviewed by the entire board. If I were on the board and a committee had placed a thumbs-up on the largest tax increase in district history, you bet your bottom dollar (donÕt worry, with me it would be a safe bet!) that I would have questioned the details and understood the numbers before placing a vote.

Should school board meetings be televised on the local Channel 8? As school board meetings are open to the public, I see no reason (aside from expense) that they shouldnÕt be openly broadcast publicly. As I understand it, the option to do so is currently available for free. In fact, I would go one step further Š I live outside of local cable access, so IÕd love to see the meetings be available for podcast download to anyone with Internet access. There is access to the meeting minutes through the Internet and the local paper, so this is simply the next step (and the way that a lot of meetings are headed). I know there needs to be closed-door meetings for certain issues, but for those meetings that are already publicized, it would help further the intentions of the board to include the public. Any requests for less publicized meetings just add an air of ŅsecrecyÓ that detracts from the publicÕs willingness to trust the board.

How should the school board -- and the school district -- encourage and maintain community support for the Paynesville Area Public Schools? Community support is arguably the most important part of a school district. ItÕs the community that makes up the students, parents, teachers, coaches, administration, etc. The community should want what is best for the school because what is best for the school is best for the community. ItÕs a circle. The best way to build that circle is to encourage trust between each point in the circle. I feel that I have a unique advantage in bridging each point, as I am interested in my own childrenÕs education in Paynesville, I work in Paynesville, I co-own a business in Paynesville, and I pay my local taxes in Paynesville. The public thus has the advantage in that I represent so many viewpoints. It is important to me to find a balance between these roles when making decisions so that we can all live in the best Paynesville possible.

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