School planning for future

FAIRMONT — Fairmont School Board members, along with administrators, teachers, parents and members of the community, took part in a strategic planning meeting for the district on Thursday evening.

The board recently approved a process for developing a strategic plan. It includes opportunities for students, staff and residents to provide input on what the district is doing well, and which areas might be in need of attention.

Five “listening sessions” were held on April 6, conducted by Minnesota School Boards Association and South Central Service Cooperative consultants. In addition, two surveys were provided for staff and citizens to provide additional feedback. The gathered information was compiled by two consultants for the Minnesota School Boards Association — Jeff Olson and Harold Remme — and was made available to those in attendance.

Eighty-six district staff members completed the staff survey, and results were generally positive. Ninety percent of respondents believe the district does well in working to build community support, and 89 percent believed the district utilizes student achievement data to inform and improve instruction.

In the staff survey, there were two areas of concern. Only 58 percent believe the climate of the school buildings is conducive to teachers and students fulfilling their primary roles. Similarly, only 58 percent felt the district does well in seeking out input from staff and community members regarding policies and procedures.

Meanwhile, a total of 289 district residents completed the survey. Results were, again, generally positive, with 85 percent of respondents stating they were satisfied with the overall conditions of the district’s buildings; and that facilities are safe, secure and well-maintained.

There were also areas of concern to the community, with only 51 percent feeling satisfied with the district’s budget and use of funds. Fifty-seven percent felt the district does an excellent job of educating all students. Overall, nearly 70 percent of those surveyed stated they would recommend the district to families looking for a new place to live.

Remme presented those in attendance with an overall look at two notable points, covering the district’s strengths and opportunities for improvement.

“There is overall satisfaction with school district facilities,” he said. “There is a strong early-childhood and elementary education program, and there are many opportunities for students academically, and in athletics and the arts, which we heard loud and clear from students when we talked to them.”

Remme also noted he was impressed with the district’s vocational offerings.

“There are also areas of opportunity for the schools to improve, and be even better than they are right now,” he continued. “There could be an emphasis on more ‘real-world’ and authentic learning opportunities, as well as improved internal and external communication. The workforce, both in recruitment and retention is a big area that’s important to every one of the strategic planning groups that we have had.”

Olson said he and Remme were impressed with the relationship between the district and the city.

“It is not common throughout Minnesota to have a good working relationship with your city,” he stated. “Once in a while, you see that happen, but not often.”

Superintendent Joe Brown was present to give a State of the Schools Address, giving a brief overview of such topics as facilities, finances, enrollment, community collaboration, student academic achievement and graduation rates.

The district has consolidated facilities over recent years, having gone from five buildings to two, which Brown said has led to an increase in efficiency and cost savings.

Financially, the district has seen some change. Brown noted that in November 2011, voters rejected a proposed operating levy from $500 per pupil to $1,250. However, in November 2012, an increase from $500 to $950 was approved, for a five-year period. Recently, in November 2016, voters approved an extension of the $950 operating levy for a 10-year period, though due to legislative changes, the $950 per pupil levy is now set at $1,013.14 at no extra cost to taxpayers.

The district also has seen increases to the unassigned fund balance, which is by design. The balance has risen from $1,792,206 in 2012 to $3,265,573 in 2016.

Brown also provided statistical data addressing three main areas of student academic achievement, including reading, math and science. The data mapped student proficiency for reading and math from third to 11th grade, and for science from the fifth grade on. Those results were then compared to statewide averages.

District reading proficiency has gone down from 70.5 percent in 2012 to 54 percent in 2016, nearly matching a statewide decline from 75.3 percent to 59.9 percent in 2016 over the same period. However, reading proficiency did show an increase from 49.5 percent 2015.

Math proficiency stayed nearly the same over that period, beginning at 58.8 percent in 2012, and ending up at 56.4 percent in 2016, which is only slightly below the statewide average of 59.9 percent.

On a more positive note, science proficiency has gone up from 43.6 percent in 2012 to 50.2 percent in 2016. This rise matches a statewide increase, though remaining slightly below a 2016 proficiency of 55 percent.

Graduation rates have also seen an increase, with 90.5 percent of students graduating in 2012 and 94.3 percent of students graduating in 2016.

After the information was presented, those in attendance were divided into discussion groups that centered on various topics, including how the district markets itself, how it interacts with the workforce, the adaptation of education to the 21st century, facilities and technology, and student support and achievement.

There will be two more planning sessions open to the public before the final strategic plan is developed. Those meetings are scheduled from 6-8 p.m. Tuesday, May 2, and Tuesday, May 16.