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Paynesville Press - Oct. 27, 2010

Paynesville School Board
Nathan Bork

Nathan Bork, 32, is a 1997 PHS graduate who is self-employed with Quantum Data Systems in Paynesville. He majored in eletrical engineering at the U.S. Naval Academy and St. Cloud State University.

Why are you running for school board? Since moving back to Paynesville, after my time in the Navy, school board activities have been one of the channels that I have casually been keeping my ears tuned to. During those last seven or more years, I have often felt that the board has been lacking in some areas, including financial restraint in spending; depth in research of issues; local support of businesses and organizations; adoption of proven technologies and curricula; separation of personal desires and public interests; a collective understanding of the community, economy, and world at large ("the big picture"); understanding of the inter-relational roles and psychology between parents, students, teachers, and the administration; and involvement of and communication with the community. I do not yet have any children and therefore do not have any personal gain or interests to satisfy by running for this board. However, I feel as if I am letting my community down, by standing on the side-lines and watching the school and student achievement degrade well beyond the level I felt it was at when I attended the school. I feel morally obligated to offer my gifts/abilities and be part of the solution. Therefore I am offering them for free. If elected, I would donate or deny any pay that I would be entitled to as a school board member for meetings attended. I see it as a community service, not a side job, and I would encourage all school board members to follow suit.

I also believe a school board has an obligation to the community to make every effort to spend within its means and avoid having to ask for more and more tax money every year. The goal should be to decrease the tax burden on the community. I also do not understand how any board member could say they didn't realize that a vote would increases taxes. Every single cent that a school spends comes from taxes in some form. Whether it's money from the state or federal government, it's all tax money (except the tiny amounts, such as parents paying for school lunches or admission fees at football games).

Describe your experiences with kids and explain how these will help you make decisions on the board? Throughout my childhood and until my mid 20s, my mother owned a large daycare/pre-school (over 25 years), and I largely grew up there and helped out when needed and sometimes baby-sat throughout high school. I also have many customers who have kids and observe how they interact with their parents and surroundings.

It is also important to note that I was a kid once and literally remember almost all of it. Although everyone has been a kid before, I am much closer in age to those almost-photographic memories of being a kid than all of the current board members.

I believe my insight into what motivates and discourages kids in this technology-powered Age of Information can be extremely helpful when it comes to deciding what actions would be more beneficial and encouraging to the students. My interactions with hundreds of my customers and/or acquaintances, (especially single-parent families, daycare providers and lower-income households, etc), gives me even more of a knowledgebase to draw from when gathering ideas and assessing problems with student achievement than most people. The fact that I have compassion for less-fortunate and less-gifted people and that I do not judge people based on their social status, resources, race, or any other factor, allows from me a very unbiased approach to helping the students in need of improvement as well as further encouraging the students that excel beyond our school's offerings.

What new ideas do you think you can bring to the school board? Students - Kids learn best when they can be excited and curious about the subject matter and when they understand the reasoning behind the teachings and the rules imposed on them. Quantifiable incentives and positive motivation are also very effective. Morale boosting activities and incentive programs could be implemented more often on a consistent basis.

Parents - Many kids cannot effectively achieve the levels that the state and school set, without some healthy out-of-school support and encouragement. The school needs not only to teach kids, but to remind/teach parents that the success of their kids greatly depends on their involvement with their kids. (Childless community members can also help out here, when willing.)

Teachers - for approximately seven hours a day, the teachers are effectively raising children/kids. Policies and incentives need to be put into place that will promote positive nourishment provided by teachers to their students so that they can treat the task of teaching their students as if they were teaching their own children. Teachers and administrative positions should be setting close-to-perfect examples for the kids. Done correctly, the kids will learn to give good teachers the respect they deserve. When teachers slip up just once, kids never forget.

Administration and board - the success of all three of the above groups depends on the efficiencies and effectiveness of the administration (principals, sups, etc.) and the over-seeing body (the board). The administration should be the firm hand of justice and the bright shining light of encouragement for all. They need to be professional at all times, always positive, the most intelligent in their field, the hardest working, the least biased, most friendly, etc. You get the picture. If not, they should be replaced. It is the board's job to make sure they are the correct person for the position, that they have the necessary tools to do their job and to give them incentives if they excel beyond their expectations. New or better programs can be implemented to achieve this with teachers, also.

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? How fast can a kid learn? Time is a huge obstacle. There are only so many minutes of class and so many days in a school year. Quality of text books and tools are also very important. Intelligence and ability of teachers to effectively teach is the key factor, since the teachers are the ones dispensing all this knowledge to the kids and need to be in control of the time during class. An analysis of cutting-edge curricula from other institutions and college entrance requirements should be evaluated constantly for adaptation into Paynesville's curricula Better selection of quality teachers (even if you have to pay them a little more) and more continuing education requirements would be first on the list. Wasted time in class and redundant programs need to be minimized. Better tools (textbooks, guides, labs, etc) for the teachers need to be looked for.

Attendance incentives and tardiness policies, etc. should be reviewed or reformed. I understand that each day missed is knowledge that most kids really never retain, even if they make-up the work. I don't think I ever missed a whole day of school, unless it was for a family vacation or funeral. When I did miss school for those reasons, I always could sense that I missed out on a little bit of knowledge that I didn't retain. Half-days, late-starts and holding students in the school just to meet minimum hours per day to qualify the day for state funding are all highly counter-productive and rob the kids of actually learning time. Shortened classes for a day are nearly pointless as learning is greatly decreased. Budget short-cuts should never be taken when it comes to teaching.

What measures should the board take to deal with declining enrollment? Declining enrollment is not a problem unique to our school district. It is a phenomenon throughout many parts of the country, especially in rural areas. So, the very first step would be to identify the numerous causes behind this phenomenon.

One of the biggest causes of the decline is that we are getting toward the end of the baby-boomer age and there are less school-aged kids per capita. Furthermore, in rural Minnesota there has been a trend of the younger, recently-graduated young adults moving to larger cities at a higher rate than ever before. This is not offset by the rate of kids that are being born in rural areas. Given that we cannot control the rate at which babies are being produced (or at least shouldn't), we must look at all the reasons for the mass exodus of recent graduates and young-family-starting couples to larger cities. The only way to do this is via research, including studying existing surveys by other organizations. Other research that we could do would include simply asking some of our recently graduated young adults why they choose to move away and/or why they decided not to move back to the area after graduating college. Even better would be to conduct in-school surveys in the last couple years of a student's time at PAHS in order to anticipate approximate numbers of graduates and the reasons why they may decide to move out of the area. These numbers can then be extrapolated into the future to estimate the impact on enrollment years down the road as they begin to create families. Once enough data is collected, and analyzed, possible remedies to prevent further exodus of our past students can be discussed and implemented.

An easy place to begin, without having to do much initial research, is by using common sense and asking ourselves: for what reasons might we move away - lack of jobs, cost of living, negative community atmosphere (gossip), lack of entertainment or opportunity for artistic expression, high property taxes? There are likely hundreds of other little reasons.

So what can the school do to help improve these things? The school has a direct link into the minds of the students. If students are taught principles such as how to become active in their community, properly apply for and train for jobs, nourish a business idea and start a successful business, respect and treat others equally, express their talents or artistic abilities in an effective way, and the benefits of shopping local, they might just realize more opportunities and benefits of sticking around the area in the future. With more involved parents in their child's education, a parent may even realize an opportunity in the area that they otherwise may have overlooked. A friendlier community, more entertaining atmosphere, and new businesses being started will attract more people to the area, thereby increasing the number of taxable properties, the number of jobs available for graduating students and ultimately, the number enrollments. This concept creates a cycle of positive growth and revenue and will decrease the amount taxed, per property.

In the meantime, asking for the maximum levy every year is not a financially responsible approach and degrades the local economy, creating a negative growth cycle. At some point, the school and community will deteriorate to an unrecoverable level. The district needs to buckle down and not ask "What measures should be taken to deal with the declining enrollment?" but instead ask the question "What measures are we taking that are helping enrollment to decline and how can we turn that around to increase enrollment?"

How important are strong extracurricular programs to our school district? What should the board be doing to encourage and enhance these programs? Quality of extracurricular programs is essential to mold children into well-rounded adults that possess a strong spirit of teamwork and respect for others. Variety in the programs will give more students more options to pursue the interests they individually desire. Not every student likes football. With that said, all students and their desired programs should be equally considered when it comes to appropriating resources to extracurricular programs.

I personally believe - while sports have huge health, fitness and team-building benefits - academic and artistic programs have more merit for future career development. Don't get me wrong, I was very athletic in school and still maintain an above average athletic/fitness level, and there are a good number of football scholarships (and other sports) given out from colleges. Let's just not alienate the non-sport extracurricular programs.

To encourage quality and variety, why not just ask the students for any new programs they would like to see, what they see as lacking in the current programs, and then encourage them to become more involved in fundraising for the programs they are in, which reduces the expense to the school. Involve them in the budget discussions for the particular extracurricular program they are in. (It's largely public information, anyway). This teaches the students in that program how to save money, reduce waste and work toward goals for the things they want. (i.e. New football helmets for the football team or chessboards for the chess club). Kids strive for attention almost constantly, in all areas of their lives. They want to be involved, so we should give them that chance. A very successful fundraising program to research and adopt would be the program that the Prior Lake district uses.

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? In light of the recessed economy, large planned building improvements, parent job changes/losses on the rise, and countless other outside factors affecting revenue sources, there could be many fluctuating and unforeseen expenditures, emergencies, or enrollment changes. These things can undoubtedly affect more than just the general fund balance. I would vote to increase the goal, slightly to account for these possibilities, maybe $1.1, $1.2 million, based on the information given. There is nothing wrong with having a little extra money, as long as it is not negatively affecting the learning environment by not spending it in those areas. Being a little more frugal and efficient in other areas can help meet higher budget goals. Beyond that philosophy, I would have to see more detailed numbers and forecasts to give a more complete answer.

As district funds allow, where do you see funding needs in the school district? It would be wise to spend some on needed building infrastructure equipment upgrades and efficiencies (boilers and "greener" technologies) and some duct tape in other areas. Learning materials, including newer text books and more consolidated and efficient technologies, such as software and computer upgrades/replacements, would be warranted. Security enhancements (cameras/swipe cards) are important, which should also include school patrol equipment.

I hear a lot of comments about needing a better looking and more functional website. As a web-designer myself, I think there should be a multi-semester/multi-year elective or extracurricular program that teaches web-design and have the students help make changes to it - sort of like the yearbook is run. In the off-time the teacher (who would be a seasoned pro at web-design) would fill in the gaps as part of their teaching duties. I am not offering to do it. Sorry.

I am sure I am missing a few things of importance, but the school looks better and has much better technologies and enhancements compared to other districts than when I was in that school. So for now, in this economy and times of uncertainty, if the "district funds allow," extra monies should be used to pay down more debt or saved for future planned expenditures, at least until the board gets a handle on the declining enrollment issue. I believe the length of this recession is under-estimated by many and to think about increasing funding in too many areas at the same time will put undue burden on the whole system.

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? My initial answer (before researching it) would have been: "Maybe." I would have realized very quickly, however, that the quoted maximum costs of many of the improvements in the itemized list seem to be extremely high and the estimated long-term energy cost savings somewhat suspect.

Doing some quick mathematics on these numbers will reveal some of the obvious areas of overestimating.

A maximum of about $12.2 million was quoted and approved for ventilation and dehumidifying of the school areas. Over $9.6 million of that was allotted for the classrooms, alone. Having about 90-100 total classrooms in the school, that comes to about $100,000 per classroom, just for ventilation and dehumidifying. (Not even all of the classrooms have problems with humidity.) Equally ridiculous proposals, costing similar amounts, might include one of the following. Option 1: Build a brand new house around each classroom, with an amazing ventilation system. Option 2: Put an air filtration system and dehumidifier built into each child's desk. (I hope you sense the sarcasm in those options). If I were on the board, my very first instinct would have been to bring these numbers to Voss Plumbing and Heating or any other larger HVAC company around and make sure those quoted prices seemed at least close to what they should be. That didn't happen, yet. In fact, I don't believe any of the numbers were checked by anyone other than the board members, who are not experts in those fields. Thankfully, there will be opportunities in the future to make sure these checks can be fully researched.

Security cameras are a good thing. They help the safety of the kids, but the prices quote by the company to purchase nine new cameras and two new digital video recorders (DVRs) are (for lack of a better term) insane. Sure, compared to the total bid, $79,000 is not much, but that comes to over $8,000 per camera. I doubt the White House has cameras that expensive.

Re-lamping of lights from 32 watts per bulb to 28 watts per bulb accounts for $126,719 in initial costs. Johnson Controls proposes that the re-lamping will save $6,129 in utility costs (electricity) and $762 in operating and maintenance costs each year. So, let's check the numbers. Given a four-watt savings per bulb per hour, multiplied by even 24 hours a day, that comes to 96 watt-hours per day saved per bulb. For ease of calculation, we will figure 25 hour times four watts. That is 0.1 kilowatt-hours per day saved for each bulb. At 10 cents per kilowatt hour (and that is figuring very high - about double) what Excel might be charging, the cost savings per day per bulb would come to about $0.01 in savings - we will assume one cent). So, over a year's time, each bulb would save $3.65. Given that the average amount of time that the lights would actually be on is more like eight hours during the school year, (a third of the 24-hour day) we can divide that by three, giving us an annual savings per bulb of $1.20.

So, based on Johnson Controls' cost-savings estimate, this would mean there must be 5,037 bulbs that are being "re-lamped." That also means, based on the $126,719 in initial costs, it will cost the school about $25.16 per bulb, including the labor involved in climbing up a step later and twisting in the new bulbs. Based on $1.20 of energy saved per year per bulb and the $25.16 cost per bulb, that means each bulb should last 21 years, in order to break even on that investment - which also means, there wouldn't be any maintenance needs for lighting for 21 years.

We all know that fluorescent bulbs do not last near that long - maybe 10 years if you stretch it. LED bulbs would be a better option, which was not even presented.

Now, of course Johnson Controls quoted these as maximum amounts and are not to go over those amounts. They are required to solicit for bids by other contractors, in an attempt to sub-contract some work out to local businesses. It will then be up to the school board to make the final approval of the companies' bids that Johnson Controls presents to the board. Without the oversight and in-depth personal research by school board members, Johnson Controls may be in a position to scrape huge profits off the top or favor certain companies that they may have personal connections to.

So, whether I am elected to the board or not, I'd like to suggest that each board member look over each future proposal by Johnson Controls very closely without assuming the company is presenting bids in the best interest of the school, before just approving them to save time or blindly agreeing with a committee recommendation.

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? This question cannot be answered with a simple "yes" or "no." It requires the assessment of certain conditions.

If the school board and its directors can honestly say that in the past few years they have spent every previous tax dollar wisely, managed the budgets to the best of their ability, made accurate future budget goals and projections, and still believe that an increase in the levy is necessary, then I would agree with discussions on that matter. However, I do not believe the levy should ever be raised (especially not to the maximum amount allowed by the state, every year) without good reason, community involvement, and public debate.

There have undoubtedly been many times in the past that the board should have been more frugal and innovative in order to keep costs down. I usually do not dwell on the past, but in this case, the past does matter in the sense that the past has the ability to constantly haunt the future of the school, for years to come. I also believe that there should never be any increase in taxes, unless it is obvious that it is necessary and that the residents in the taxed district agree with such an increase.

People want to support the school, if it makes sense to them and if they see the benefit their tax money will bring. From what I have gathered, not many residents agree with the sizes of past increases.

I would not ask for a levy increase, unless absolutely necessary to keep the school afloat. It may be necessary to have a small increase, due to past board decisions, but I would fight to keep it as little as possible. The board needs to work with what they have and constantly aim to decrease the levy, if it is even possible.

What is the proper role of of the school board in making personnel decisions? Since the school board essentially has the final say in hiring and firing for most positions, the board (or the committee responsible for such task) should do the research for each decision and weigh the pros and cons of each. When hiring new candidates for positions, each should be well screened and fair. Unbiased treatment should be given to the individuals being reviewed. Favoritism or any other preference not based on qualifications or merits of the individual should be dismissed. If a conflict of interest is present or discovered, the board members with the conflict should abstain from voting.

When it comes to terminating employees' positions, care should be taken to ensure all legal boundaries are adhered to and that any district policies are upheld when deciding whether the employee warrants dismissal. I believe, in order to deliver a quality education to kids, higher standards need to be set by the board and administration and if those standards are consistently underachieved by any faculty member, they should be let go. Allowing one faculty member to constantly fall short of expectations harms the future achievement of the kids they are in contact with and wastes precious tax money. Laziness in most work places is contagious, and no matter how long an employee has worked for a particular employer (such as a fastfood restaurant), if they don't meet the quotas and standards, they get let go. Same should go for school faculty.

There should also be a fair and fool-proof system of evaluating performance implemented on a periodic basis to identify problems early on in order to give an under-achieving faculty member time to rectify the problem or to reward an over-achiever with extra incentives and community recognition. I do not think any current faculty member would disagree with this and if so, they are most likely the ones that aren't already doing their job effectively, anyway. It is the job of the school board to ensure the kids have the best faculty possible to ensure their successful education.

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