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State official rosy about Frazee schools

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With another referendum attempt pending, the Frazee-Vergas School Board asked John Bulger from the Minnesota Department of Education to speak on what would happen to the Frazee School District if it were consolidated or dissolved.

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"It's extremely unusual for a district this size to talk about dissolution," he said. "To my knowledge, in 20 years, this is the first time to talk about dissolution of (a district) this size."

Listing excellent facilities, good budgeting and great technology, Bulger didn't seem to find quite the danger the board projects.

"You can learn a lot about a school just by walking through a school," he said.

"You have facilities that would be the pride of anywhere in the state. Kudos to staff and students. There are things to be fixed, but it's just like at home -- it never ends."

Bulger said based on numbers, -- enrollment, transfer students, dollars, etc. -- the school district isn't in peril. Spending is less than the state average, and revenue is above average. Enrollment might be declining, but he said, that's part of life and projections and the anticipation can't be based on the number of students that were enrolled years ago. Times are changing.

Stating several times that he has never had a district the size of Frazee discuss dissolution or consolidation, he said he has talked with districts with as few as eight students per grade trying to make it.

Although there was once 1,200-1,400 or so kids attending Frazee-Vergas School, with declining enrollment, he projects about 800 students by 2017-18. Superintendent Deron Stender said he had figured on lower numbers, taking the declining numbers from the last couple years rather than an average as Bulger had.

"You have to manage that change," Bulger said. The fact that some schools are graduating more students than they are bringing into kindergarten is just a fact that districts must deal with.

The reason for such obscure boundary lines and the decline in districts over the years, Bulger explained, is because prior to World War II, there were 7,000 school districts in Minnesota. After the war, the government said there needed to be a K-12 school to be a district.

So, in the 1960s, 7,000 districts were reduced to 700, with many of the schools consolidating. Now, there are 341 school districts in Minnesota. He said two years ago was the last time a district consolidated.

"Everyone can improve, but it's not bad here," he said of Frazee. "You have excellent technology here."

Most of the consolidations have been due to a town's school building about to fail structurally.

Regarding the budget, Bulger said, "people are very cautious about spending money here, according to these figures."

Armed with statistics from the Minnesota Department of Education (www.education.state.mn.us), he said the school district is above the state average in the amount of General Education Aid it receives, and is average on federal dollars.

In spending, the district is lower, for the most part, than the state average.

The two categories in which Frazee exceeds the state average are career and technology -- which he said is normal in rural communities -- and transportation -- which is also normal because "you have a big district" for busing kids.

The Frazee-Vergas School District is under the state average on debt, he said.

After showing the board and audience the outlook isn't as grim as some think, he said if the district decides to consolidate or dissolve, there are different steps to the completely different processes.

First of all, in a consolidation, two districts have to agree to become one. In other words, Detroit Lakes or Perham would have to mutually agree to combine with Frazee-Vergas and take over the students.

If there is an operating levy in one district and not the other, or both districts have them and they are taking in different amounts of money, the levies would be spread throughout the two newly consolidated districts evenly.

If the district were dissolved, according to state statutes, the Becker County Board would make the decisions, not the school board.

A district can only be dissolved on July 1 of odd numbered years, meaning July 1, 2009, would be the first it could be dissolved. Until then, the school board would continue to serve.

Teachers, according to seniority, would then be distributed to the new districts the students have been assigned.

"This is permanent," Bulger stressed. "Once you more forward with dissolution, it is permanent forever. You want to make sure it's the right thing to do (before going forward with it)."

And if there is an operation levy in one of the districts, during a dissolution, it would continue for one year, and then the referendum would have to be put to vote to the new, entire district.

"Even with 900 kids you can have a great district. You can't live (in the past) when it used to be 1,400," he said. "At some point, you have to get over it and move on."

He added that the biggest focus should be on what's best for the students and making sure they are getting a quality education to send them out into the world.

One way to lessen the school's load, should the district choose, is called pairing and sharing. Everyone shares, he said, because no one has it all.

He suggested sharing athletic teams, music teachers, superintendents, marching bands or payroll employees. Especially in sharing athletics, he pointed out, it would give students more opportunities.

"It's not just about money, it's what it goes for," he said, referring to the students. "It's all about the kids. You have the responsibility to prepare the kids."

Stender said talks of sharing with surrounding districts take place on a regular basis, but "it just doesn't work out most of the time."

School board member LaRaye Anderson asked if it would be a possibility to redraw the district lines and give part of the Frazee-Vergas district to a neighboring district. Bulger said in at least 40 years, that's never been done. It would take special legislation to get it approved, he added.

"Become extremely creative" before doing something "rash" like consolidating or dissolving, Bulger encouraged.

"I would be proud. I think you should be proud. You can go anywhere in the state, and this is as good as it gets," he said of the quality of the building, technology and education at Frazee.

Also at the school board meeting:

• The board accepted the resignation of member Christine Daggett, and welcomed back former board member Mike Hiemenz to fulfill the remainder of Daggett's term.

• Stender said the district submitted a request, which was approved, to the state fire marshal to hold off until 2009 to install sprinklers throughout the portions of the high school and the elementary school that do not meet code. Next year at this time, he said, the district will have to levy for the funds.

• The board voted to donate $300 to PACE (Parents And Community for Education) for all the organization's hard work. At the suggestion of Stender, the money came from the board's fund, which is a portion of each member's stipend and is saved up throughout the year for scholarships, condolences, etc.

• Four referendum meetings had been held by the time of the meeting, but board member Rich Ziegler said it felt like more.

"It seems like 14. We only have 117 left."

The remaining referendum meetings are

• Thursday, Oct. 11, at 7 p.m. in the Vergas Community Center

• Saturday, Oct. 13, at 9 a.m. in the Frazee High School Media Center

• Monday, Oct. 15, at 7 p.m. in the Height O Land Town Hall

• Tuesday, Oct. 16, at 7 p.m. in the Frazee High School Media Center

• Tuesday, Oct. 23, at 7 p.m. in the Shell Lake Town Hall

• Thursday, Oct. 25, at 7 p.m. in the Vergas Community Center

• Tuesday, Oct. 30, at 7 p.m. in the Frazee High School Media Center

Election day and places are Tuesday, Nov. 6, at Frazee Fire Hall, Vergas Community Center and Height O Land Town Hall from noon to 8 p.m.

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