Fairmont Area Schools pursuing state aid reform

FAIRMONT — A group from Fairmont recently spoke to legislators at the state Capitol about a bill that would provide state aid for students taking vocational classes outside the regular school day.

Fairmont Superintendent Joe Brown, high school vocational teacher Bob Bonin and senior student Lucas Denney all attended the hearing.

“We had a really nice, positive reception from all of legislators [who] were part of the House education policy committee,” Brown said.

A little over a year ago, Brown sent a letter to state Sen. Gary Dahms, the assistant majority leader, asking to get a sentence added to already existing state law to allow extended time revenue for vocational classes taught outside of the traditional school day.

Schools in Minnesota currently only generate state aid for students who are there during the regular school day. For any other class offered on the weekends or in the summer, districts take money out of their general fund to pay for it, or they charge the students.

Last March, Brown, Bonin, vice principal Andy Traetow and two other Fairmont students appeared before the Education innovation policy committee and the education finance committee.

“I think everybody is finally realizing that this is good for everybody. It’s good for kids, it’s good for business and it’s good for trades people,” Brown said. “All of the trades are looking for skilled workers and we’re not producing enough of them.”

As Brown pointed out, public schools are only used 15 percent of the entire year. They are used 6.5 hours per day for 165 days, and sit mostly vacant the rest of the year.

Many students do not have time to take vocational classes during the regular school day because of the required core classes they are in, as well as college class, foreign language, art, band, choir or orchestra. Even if there is an interest, many students find themselves unable to fit in a vocational class.

“For vocational classes, it makes sense to have them longer than 47 minutes,” Brown said. “They should be two, three, four hours a class, and the only way to really do that is have them on the weekend or in the summer.”

“All we’re doing is asking for state funding and to treat these classes just like you would get funding for them if they were during the regular school day,” he said. “We should not be penalized just because we offer them outside of the regular 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. time that we hold regular school.”

Not every school in the state has a vocational program, and not every school would want to offer classes outside of the regular school day. This fact leads Brown to believe that this bill would not be that expensive for the state.

Fairmont Area Schools has offered a Saturday welding class on several occasions that is open not only to Fairmont students but students from surrounding districts, and even adults. While it has been free for Fairmont students to take, students from other schools have had to pay to enroll. However, many have done so and successfully completed the program.

Brown said if there are 20 students taking a welding class for 60 hours, the added state funding would generate about $6,500, while the cost of the class is $9,500. So even with the extra funding, it does pay the full amount, but it certainly helps.

Fairmont Area Schools has been building its vocational program over the past few years with its welding program, automobile program, woodworking and agriculture programs. Brown would like to add plumbing and electrical classes in the future.

It is expected that it will be about six to eight weeks before local educators find out if the bill passed to the next phase of the process. Getting a piece of legislation passed takes several steps and they are on about step four. Brown said the local contingent would be more than willing to go to the Capitol again to speak on behalf of the bill.

“Sometimes things don’t pass the first time you introduce them, sometimes it takes years,” he noted. “This is an example of that. We’ve been kicking around this bill for about four years now but my gut feeling tells me that this is the year it will be passed.”