Wednesday, January 13, 2010

SD-26 : 4,863 Reasons to Vote FOR Jason Engbrecht

In evaluating the three candidates for the Special Election for Senate District 26, there is one common aspect that can provide insight into how the winner may act once elected.
They all have experience at local government ... or on the school board level.
It’s those community service functions that the art of being a good legislator is learned. As one County Commissioner told me the first thing that he learned upon his election was how to count to three …. with a five seat commission, to accomplish anything, he had to get cooperation from at least two others. That on-the-job experience teaches how to listen to other’s concerns, compromise and resolve issues.

So, let’s look at the three candidates.

The Independence Party’s candidate, Roy Srp has been active in local government for years including a stint as a Waseca County Commissioner. In 2004, Mr. Srp earned a 318 vote margin in a contested 2004 election for Mayor of Waseca and he was re-elected without opposition in 2008. Being a city mayor, he has had to deal first hand with Governor Pawlenty’s unallotments … including a $204,215 reduction in the last go round.
With IP’s Tim Penny’s enormous popularity in Waseca and the voter’s high regard for Mr. Srp, that might bode well for his election. But the problem is that his party is the Independence Party. Reality is that the IP may have an impact on election contests, yet they have no current members in the legislature, thus they are moot. Currently, with 46 of the 67 Senators belonging to the DFL (a veto override majority), if elected Mr. Srp would be vanquished to least desirable committees. Even if Mr. Srp would be re-elected in November, the MN-GOP and DFL members will receive committee assignments ahead of Mr. Srp. Mr. Srp may offer a voice, but his impact will be non-existent.

The MN-GOP candidate, Mike Parry has served as Waseca’s Ward 3 Councilman for one term. Mr. Parry election was assured once no one else put their name on the 2004 ballot. Mr. Parry’s performance as Councilman was marked by poor attendance including 74 percent attendance at City Council meetings; 65 percent for work sessions; 67 percent Joint Government Board; 50 percent Economic Development Authority; and 100 percent Traffic Safety Board. According to Chapter 31 of Waseca City Code, “To ensure maximum representation and allow for orderly conduct of business, the City Council requires all board and commission appointees to attend a minimum of 75 percent of the annual scheduled meetings.”
Obviously, small cities have been hit hard by the economic conditions, but one idea advanced by Mr. Parry was to sell Maplewood Park – a local nature center … not an industrial park. Thanks to excellent research by Bluestem Prairie who reviewed council records and reported this provocative suggestion. The most glaring reaction was that over 1400 people signed a petition opposing Mr. Parry's idea to sell the park.
As such, when Mr. Parry sought re-election, he was soundly defeated garnering only 363 votes.
Why the MN-GOP would endorse this candidate should be the voter’s first question.

The DFL candidate, Jason Engbrecht elective community service is as a member of ISD 656 school board. Mr. Engbrecht might have the most difficult and scrutinized assignment of the three as most parents pay a lot of attention to the school system for twelve years during a child’s education. School boards have had the unenviable task of balancing budgets while state funding is being constrained; facilities are aging, technology is evolving, and test scores are closely monitored. As such, school board elections are also some of the most contested elections. While endorsements by political parties or politicians are common, the most important endorsement a candidate can get is word of mouth from parent to parent. Reading Mr. Engbrecht’s personal bio, it is impressive, yet the key question is “Why would he want to be involved in such a thankless job?” He answered that and more in a newspaper series of questions (that are reprinted below).
What is most impressive is that Mr. Engbrecht studied the School Board and system first … learning what it did well … and what areas needed to be improved … and talked with individuals involved. I suspect that is the reason why 4,863 voters selected him.
Since being elected, Mr. Engbrecht has been actively involved (checkout the minutes including a perfect attendance for the business meetings) and showing fiscal responsibility the Board has twice reduced its compensation from $325 to $250 per month.

The Minnesota Legislature needs more thoughtful, responsible people like Mr. Engbrecht.

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What have you done to educate yourself on how the school board operates?

Jason Engbrecht : After watching school board meetings for some time on our local cable access channel, I decided to run for school board and started the education process by attending the forum sponsored by the current school board and superintendent Stepaniak. Since then I have made it a point to be at every public school board meeting from now until the election. Being a college professor I understand the importance of doing one’s homework. (Something my students can vouch for!) Thus, shortly after declaring my candidacy I began requesting documents from the school district on test scores, district budgets, the proposed referendum, and demographic information on teachers and students for the past ten years. After looking over these materials I met with the curriculum director, the director of finance, the special services director, and superintendent Stepaniak. They and others in the district have been exceptionally helpful in answering my questions.

What is your view on asking for a $15 million bond referendum now?

Jason Engbrecht : These are difficult economic times in which to ask the public to raise their own taxes to support additional government spending. However, after attending recent board meetings, looking over the proposed budget and talking at length with superintendent Stepaniak, I am currently in support of this request.
Our community has an investment of nearly $100 million in buildings and infrastructure. We must protect this investment with proper maintenance so we do not face much larger costs in the future or allow an unsafe environment to develop in our schools.
As a school board member I will make sure the district puts forth a strong effort to educate the public on precisely what the referendum will fund. State law requires that every dollar is accounted for and all projects are justified to the standard of our community and I would work to ensure that this happens.

What is the role of a school board member?

Jason Engbrecht : Simply stated, the role of the school board member is to look after the best interests of our students on behalf of the community. This entails oversight responsibilities such as monitoring the district’s test scores and curriculum plans, overseeing the budgeting process, and ratifying employee contracts. A school district with a $40,000,000 annual budget like ours is a complicated thing, and school board members can not possibly have the expertise to micromanage the district. They can, however, ensure that the district has qualified personnel in key leadership positions to ensure that everything possible is done to improve the education of children in our district. Just as importantly, school board members need to be outstanding communicators who can build relationships between the district’s teachers, administrators, and the larger community, so we are all working together to build a better future for our kids.

What could you do to help the district improve its financial situation?

Jason Engbrecht : After the superintendent, the most important job in the school district is that of the Director of Finance and Operations. Recently, unfortunately, there has been a great deal of inexperience and instability in this position which led to some poor fiscal decisions. Most notably was the overestimate of student enrollment two years ago that led to the hiring of more teachers than the district could afford and thus a drastic downsizing of teachers the following year and continued financial challenges. Fortunately, after meeting with our current financial director, Colleen Mertesdorf, and discussing budgeting issues with her in detail, I am confident that retaining her is the most important thing any board member can do to improve the finances of the district. As a board member I would work with Colleen and her office to make sure that all budgetary decisions are fiscally sound.

How can you promote the improvement of student performance on standardized tests?

Jason Engbrecht : Progress on standardized test scores is another area where instability in district leadership has slowed progress. However, a plan has been developed by the curriculum director in collaboration with representatives from every school in the district. This plan will be implemented during the coming school year. It was developed by our district’s experts in education and is based on solid education research.
As a school board member I would work with the curriculum director to help make sure this plan is implemented successfully and is evaluated fully. I will also encourage teacher input into the plan to help ensure buy-in from the district’s teachers, as they ultimately bear the responsibility of working with students day-in and day-out. Finally, I will ensure that the district communicates effectively with the community on the progress of this plan and our students’ performance.

What are the three most serious issues affecting the school district right now?

Jason Engbrecht :
1) Our teachers are currently suffering from low morale due to the extended contract negotiations and cuts in the number of teachers in the district. Lines of communication between the district’s teachers and the school board must be opened and the board’s support of our teachers must be unequivocal.

2) Our district wide performance on standardized tests scores needs to be improved. As I mentioned earlier, we must take our lower than desired test scores seriously. However our school district is not “failing” and pointing fingers of blame at the school board, teachers, or certain groups of students is counterproductive to a goal that we all share.

3) Our stewardship of the community’s tax dollars needs to be improved. The community needs to have full trust that the district is fiscally responsible.

What would you do to promote stability in the district’s leadership team?

Jason Engbrecht : Instability in the leadership positions of the district has created a wide variety of challenges for our district. Fostering stability in leadership is crucial to moving forward as a district and is one of the areas in which the school board can have a direct impact. When making hires to these positions, competitive compensation packages must be offered. The board must also seek out the necessary expertise to find the right person for the job, which at times will mean hiring external advisors. While tempting, cutting corners in these areas may cost the district much more than it could save.
After the hiring process, the school board must build working relationships with leadership such that the district leadership feels supported by the school board. These relationships will also enable the board to perform the oversight of these positions necessary for a healthy district.

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