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Kris Wallman, Fargo, Published January 31 2014

Letter: A ‘yes’ for best schools

On March 11, voters have an opportunity to weigh in on the level of funding schools will be afforded to educate the students of Fargo. I intend to vote yes, but that decision has come with more than a little inner conflict.

In June 2010, I won a seat on the Fargo Board of Education. I ran because I did not believe, nor did many constituents, that a majority of the district’s leadership was targeting resources in a way that maximized educational outcomes for all students. Fargo has historically dedicated resources ahead of what some across the state deem “adequate” to educate young people. But were we living up to our reputation of offering the best education in the state?

A second concern was the perception that transparency was lacking. Many I heard from did not believe the district’s leadership was forthright in the way business was being conducted. Not everyone agreed with those views, but enough people did that I was elected.

Once sworn in, disagreement over spending priorities made for long board meetings, but that’s what elected office is about – bringing many voices to the table and coming to consensus. In spite of ruffled feathers and spirited debates, a diverse group of nine board members and a talented, dedicated and expert staff came together to re-affirm sustainable and student-driven priorities.

The reforms are the work of many individuals, but they do reflect the kinds of changes I felt we needed. I’m proud of the modest role I have played in what I regard as a transformation.

What changed? For starters, a new business manager willing to focus on transparency and accountability was hired. Broc Leitz and his staff conducted an overhaul of each division, tightening belts across the board. As a result the mill levy has dropped in the past 10 years from 292 to 139 mills. Our student population is growing, and we are keeping pace with needs of students in a responsible way.

The board hired a superintendent who has among his strengths a supply of vision and a penchant for details, good process, and planning. For instance, many of the district’s top administrators retired recently and a re-organization of leadership and funds has been put in place. The district’s focus is on targeting resources in ways that directly impact student success in the classroom. We can be thankful for Superintendent Schatz’s leadership and his student-centered focus.

An example of transparency and community involvement can be seen in the Long Range Facility Planning Community Task Force, which included representatives who had students in school and those who did not, from all parts of the city. The district broadcasts board meetings on a public access channel and continues to expand its website. Included is a Public Information Warehouse with information, such as when and where board and committee meetings will take place, agendas and meeting notes, and an easy way to email board members.

While money alone will not enable us to achieve it, striving for excellence comes at a price. After 2015, there will be negative consequences impacting students should the people of Fargo reject funding education beyond what state lawmakers find merely adequate. I’m voting to invest in young people because my conflicts are resolved.

I’m serving the last five months of a four-year term. I do not intend to run again. Fargo Public Schools provides excellent opportunities for students, targeting resources to ensure student success and closely monitoring the cost. I have thought long and hard about school funding. I’ve concluded that no one should be willing to throw students overboard in order to send a message they are dissatisfied with elected leaders.

If spending seems amiss, elect folks you believe will solve the problems, or run yourself. Good governance is not a spectator sport. An investment in public schools is an investment in our future and, in the right hands, an investment that pays off for us all.

Wallman is a member of the Fargo School Board.