Ricker praises school, city

TALKIN’ SHOP — Fairmont High School student Sawyer Brau, left, explains to State Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker, right, what he does in the welding class at Fairmont High School on Monday during Ricker’s visit to the school. Fairmont school board member Mari Myren is seen at center.

FAIRMONT — State Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker visited Fairmont Elementary and Fairmont High School on Monday, kicking off a statewide listening tour to promote Gov. Tim Walz’s proposed education budget.

Fairmont is one of just eight schools throughout the state the commissioner is visiting this week.

Under the Democratic governor’s plan, Fairmont Area Schools would receive an additional $2 million in state funding over the next two years. In contrast, the Republican-led Senate proposal would provide the district an increase of $322,000 over the next two years.

Walz’s recommended budget is the first step in a process that will ultimately result in a biennial budget enacted by the Legislature and signed into law by the governor. The end of the legislative session is May 20.

Ricker first toured the elementary school, stepping inside several classrooms and observing teachers and students at work. She toured the ECFE wing and heard about Fairmont’s voluntary pre-K program. Next, Ricker went to the high school, where she toured the vocational wing, including the welding shop, wood-working shop, and family and consumer science room.

A roundtable discussion then took place with many school and city leaders, including several school board members from Fairmont and Truman, school principals, area school superintendents and the Fairmont city administrator and mayor.

“It’s really clear to me that the communication is so intentional in this school community,” Ricker said. “The communication with faculty and staff and students and families and the community. You’re constantly scanning the horizon for what your students need next and how you’re going to get it for them.”

Fairmont Superintendent Joe Brown reminded Ricker how the district has been working for about four years to get additional funding from the state to allow vocational programs to be taught outside of the regular school day.

Ricker said that from what she has witnessed, some of the most vibrant conversations happening in high schools are directly related to community expectations and needs.

“Quite frankly, I feel like you have grown out of the traditional school day and traditional school year because of the relationships you have with the community and with your students and what they really want,” Ricker said. “We are overdue as a state to have a conversation about what that secondary experience should look like for our students.”

Mayor Debbie Foster said that when families are looking to move to a new city, they always consider what the school system is like.

“I think that’s one thing that hasn’t changed,” she said. “We need our young people to come back and be a part of our community. We’re proud of our schools, they’re one of our greatest assets.”

Linsey Preuss, Fairmont’s economic development director, said: “My goal is to meet with 50 businesses a year. I always feel like I can talk to Joe (Brown) or anyone in the school for a need that a business is seeing. We don’t work in pillars here. We’re more open-thinking and we’re willing to share ideas and make things happen rather than saying we can’t do something because it’s not in our line of sights.”

Elementary Principal Michelle Rosen commented on the child care shortage in Martin County and how Preuss has stepped up to help. Rosen said the district has 80 voluntary prekindergarten spots, but it relies on state funding to keep them.

“There’s clearly a community demand and an expectation that those seats will be available,” Ricker said. “One of the priorities we have is to maintain those 4,000 voluntary prekindergarten spots (in the state) that are set to expire. Our communities have come to expect them.”

She said those prekindergarten spots help businesses by providing reliable child care for their workers.

Speaking about teamwork, Ricker said it is important for students to see the adults in a community working together.

“When they see that our collaboration is bigger than our differences, I think that send a very powerful message to them so I would not overlook that for a minute,” she said.

Some examples of teamwork brought up between the school district and city include the White Tail Ridge project and the partnership the school has with area businesses, such as Zierke Built Manufacturing.

Other topics discussed included;

o Lee Stewart, manager of systems and technology for the district, talked about the importance of technology and the struggle to ensure that Internet connections are available to all students, even those in more rural areas.

o Sarah Mittelstadt, director of the Southern Plains Education Cooperative, talked about the importance of and difficulty in receiving special education funding.