A few weeks ago my name, website, and e-mail address were passed along to the eight people running for ISD 196 (Apple Valley, Eagan, Rosemount School District) School Board and while seven of the eight spoke to the Pioneer Press (the article states that Al Ansari did not respond to phone messages asking for an interview), only one, a regular reader here, took the time to contact me. I sent along five questions, some of them pretty standard and straightforward and some that were pretty tough compared to the softballs tossed, underhand, by the local media.
1. Standard biographical information (name, address, occupation, how long you’ve lived in District 196, education history, notable community involvement and one thing you’d like everyone to know):
Art Coulson, 12536 Everton Ave., Apple Valley. Owner, Redbird Media & Design, a media strategy, graphic design and publishing company; and communications director for Ramsey County. We’ve lived in the district for a little over 9 years. I have a BA in political science from Duke University. I serve on several nonprofit boards, including the CultureBrokers Foundation in St. Paul, Division of Indian Work in Minneapolis, The Circle newspaper and the finance committee of the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches. In addition, I serve on a number of education-related boards and committees, including the Minnesota School Boards Association Delegate Assembly, the ISD196 Gifted and Talented Advisory Council and the Native American Parent Advisory Committee. One thing I’d like everyone to know: Three years ago when I lost my job at the Pioneer Press, we chose to stay in the Twin Cities so that our kids could continue to attend District 196 schools because of the quality of education that they were (and still are) receiving. I don’t know if people who haven’t lived elsewhere in the country fully realize how good our schools are. Not braggin’; just sayin’.
2. What is one major issue within the district that you believe should have been handled differently?
That’s a tough question, because I have been in agreement with the final decision of the district on all of the major issues since I’ve been on the board. One recent decision that I thought surprised some in the community was our vote to reject later start times for our high schools, despite our administration’s strong endorsement and the overwhelming support of the majority of community members we surveyed. We decided against the proposal for a number of reasons — one, we lacked data showing a correlation between later start times and improved academic performance (all of the studies showed that students reported feeling better, but lacked hard data on performance). For another, we had members of the community who pointed out to us that we would dramatically increase their child-care costs (because of related start time changes in the lower grades). We also lacked sufficient information about the impact on co-curricular activities in the middle schools. In the end, the board decided to buck the popular choice and to vote against later start times. For now. The idea still might come back, once staff has answered the questions that were raised by the board.
3. Recently ISD 196 replaced its superintendent. What metrics do you believe are most important to measuring and ultimately improving the way she does her job?
Jane Berenz was a great choice for us as superintendent. She attended District 196 schools from K-12, has children who attended (and are attending) 196 schools and has taught and served as an administrator in our district for many years. She is a teaching and learning expert and is highly respected by the staff and the community. She will be judged each year on several metrics set by the board , but her primary tasks are to keep us running in the black and to continuously improve academic performance for all students. So Jane’s goals this year focus on keeping the district on the right fiscal path, despite the budget problems we are seeing at every level of government; continuing strong communication with the community, with an emphasis on transparency (we can’t solve the major challenges that lie ahead without the help of an engaged and informed community); and several goals related to curriculum, teaching and learning. I can go into more detail about curriculum review and how we use assessments and other data to make decisions if you’d like, but I don’t want to glaze over any eyes.
4. [via a Lazy Lightning reader] What is your philosophy on aligning teacher health benefits with the rest of the mainstream working population? For example: consumer-directed benefits (HSAs/HRAs) instead of the unsustainable plans with minimal co-pays (100% coverage, $5 co-pay, $10 co-pay)?
We have traditionally been a fiscally conservative district. We are constantly looking at every aspect of spending, including employee benefits. Over the years we have asked our employees to share a bigger part of their health insurance premiums, just as the private sector has, and we’ve asked them to work with us to find more cost-effective options for ever-escalating health costs. In July of 2008 we added a high-deductible health plan option in addition to the tradititonal copay plan for employees. Along with this, some of our employee groups elected to negotiate for a health reimbursement account (HRA). Several of our employee bargaining units also have negotiated a contribution to a health care savings plan (HCSP) at the time of retirement.
5. When the Pioneer Press interviewed you recently you were quoting as saying that you wanted “to find creative ways to spend less while still keeping the money close to the classroom to maintain the district’s high performance,” but the district “can’t cut our way to excellence.” Aside from appeals to the state (which us highly unlikely due to the current financial and political climate) and federal government for funds, what other ways do you see the district raising the funding necessary to remain one of the best districts in the state?
The big question for the community will be whether or not to extend the levy we passed almost 5 years ago. The intent of excess levies originally was to provide the “extras” that state aid and the general property tax levy didn’t cover. But today, after zero increases in state aid four of the past eight years and increases averaging just 2 percent in each of the other four years, we find ourselves using excess levy funding to pay for the basics. Traditionally, this community has strongly supported its schools and has invested the money necessary to promote high-level student achievement, decent facilities and top-flight faculty and staff. We are very fortunate to live in a community that places such a high value on public education. That said, the district also needs to constantly be looking at its operations and its spending, looking for economies, seeking opportunities to partner and share services with other districts and government agencies, “reshopping” for big-ticket items such as health insurance and transportation. I think our administration does a hell of a job on those fronts and I would put our finance team up against any in the state. The proof is in the stats: We are the state’s fourth-largest district, yet rank 121st out of Minnesota’s 340 districts in per-pupil spending. We run a tight ship. The board — all seven members — are committed to spending every dollar as if it is our own. Because it is. We all live here and pay taxes here, too.
And a final note from Art Coulson:
I hope people take the time to get out and vote on Tuesday, even if they vote for the challengers. The school board is one of the most important local government units (and I say this not just because I sit on the board). I hope people will take a few minutes and have a look at the data and info on our web site (http://www.district196.org) and call me or drop me an email if they have any questions or suggestions. We really do believe in harnessing the wisdom of the crowd as we consider all of the tough issues that come before us, from trimming the budget to improving student performance. We have some smart people in our community and they really help us when they share their wisdom and expertise with us.
Are you a parent in District 196? If so, what other questions do you have for Art or the rest of those running for School Board? Are you planning on voting next week? Whatever you have for Art please do let us know and if you would like to contact Art privately please e-mail him at spam-redbirdmedia-spam at gmail dot com (remove the spam- and -spam and fix the ‘at’ and ‘dot’ :-)).