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BRAINERD SCHOOL BOARD Software partnership with district’s former literacy trainer terminated

In September of 2007 the Brainerd School Board entered an agreement to help financially support the development of specialized software called the North Star Tool for the Literacy Collaborative with Beth Swenson, the former district trainer for the Literacy Collaborative. 

The agreement gave the district a royalty-free perpetual license for the software, in exchange in the future, after the district was fully reimbursed for its financial investment, the district would retain a 49 percent share of the profits of the software with Swenson retaining 51 percent of the profits.

The school board Monday night voted, with board member Chris Robinson casting the lone vote in opposition, to terminate the agreement with Swenson but with the district retaining a perpetual license to use the software and any future upgrades at no cost. 

Earlier Monday Swenson asked the school board Curriculum Committee to terminate the agreement and sever its ties with her so she can salvage the software and have it upgraded so district staff and other school districts can use the software.

Swenson’s position as district trainer was eliminated this summer as part of district’s budget cuts for the 2011-12 school year. She said she recently has accepted a position as district trainer for the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan School District.

Swenson said the servers housed in Chicago that contained the North Star Tool were damaged by flooding and the business that owned those servers closed. Fortunately, the servers were left behind and were able to be salvaged but Swenson said it would cost the district $17,000 to move the application, which contains a massive amount of student data, to new servers, as well as a $1,000 a month maintenance and hosting fee. Otherwise, the district could terminate its agreement and agree to several options.

According to the district, it has invested a total of $472,975 since the 2006-07 school year into the development of the North Star Tool, which includes federal funding and grant money. 

But the district in this software development venture so far has a net loss of $328,581. 

Robinson said during the Curriculum Committee meeting that Swenson was advised a year ago that board members didn’t want any additional expenditures — after the district provided another $70,000.

Swenson said that money was brought in by training teachers in other districts within Brainerd’s Literacy Collaborative and was not a general education expenditure. 

“Do you believe the program is making money?” Robinson asked Swenson.

“No, not at all,” said Swenson. “You’re just trying to improve it and make it functional. It is by far not.”

Swenson said she had a computer programmer ready to make the critical upgrades and move the software and data to new servers this summer but the district had been delaying these plans since May. She said she’s already lost two customers due to the timeline and several customers were angry because it won’t be ready by Aug. 1. She said since she is no longer an employee of the district, she cannot go out and raise grant revenue or find additional clients so this is no longer a money-making venture for the district.

“I would like to be released from the burden to try to make money and make it ready for teachers to use it,” said Swenson. “I don’t know how I can do that with these uncertain circumstances.”

Robinson pointed out that the training funds belong to the school district. Swenson said some of the monies were raised when she was on her own time and she gifted those to the district. 

“Our job is educating students, we’re not a business,” said board member Ruth Nelson. “I know our teachers want this tool and I personally don’t want to see us lose this too. I have some interest in Beth’s proposal. I know, Chris, you have some strong concerns.”

Board member Jim Hunt said he has heard from teachers who also are interested in keeping the tool. 

“Surely the district is not a business, it’s not a business to generate software. In September 2007, the district did go down that path to become an entrepreneur with Ms. Swenson. Since that time the district has invested $475,000 in this tool,” said Robinson. “I don’t know why the district would relinquish its 49 percent interest. I don’t know why we would forfeit that at the request of Ms. Swenson. It doesn’t make sense to me.”

“What we’ve heard is that if we’re not going to invest any more in it and she has no money to invest in it and the only way to get updates in it is to give her programmer some money,” said Nelson.

“Why Brainerd Public Schools is concerned about updates at this point doesn’t make sense,” said Robinson. “If we have to contract to pay for server space, that’s fine. At this point, I’m not persuaded to forfeit our 49 percent interest in any event that it makes a profit. And furthermore, up until that point, there doesn’t appear to be any. ...I’m not hearing any compensation for its $400,000-plus investment in this tool. I would urge fellow board members to maintain the status quo.”

Board member Kent Montgomery said back in 2007 the board entered into this development agreement because it was a way to provide what the district was doing to other smaller districts for nominal fees to attempt to recoup the district had spent. 

“What I’m asking for is the ability to be able to live my life and do what I need to do without first coming to the Brainerd School District for every little step forward so I can step forward and I can bring you with me,” said Swenson. “And so you can use the tool and Brainerd teachers can use the tool. I’m not going to be able to do that if I’m held with this noose around my neck. I’m just not able to do that. Cut it free and let me have the ability to make the decisions so it can move forward.”

Superintendent Steve Razidlo said the board so far is committed to staying with the Literacy Collaborative and Reading Recovery and has applied for a waiver from Ohio State University for fees related to its agreement to use the Literacy Collaborative and Reading Recovery curriculum. 

The district has spent a total of $1.164 million since the 2006-07 school year on the Literacy Collaborative department, which also earned revenues by training teachers at other school districts. 

After the CurriculumCommittee meeting, which was held before the regular board meeting, Swenson explained that the North Star Tool takes small bits of specialized data about each student and is able to help teachers better understand what to teach that child in order to make him or her successful. It also allows teachers to group students together who are struggling in the same, specific area of learning to help them all become more successful in the classroom. She said her Literacy Collaborative research has found that the district saved $2 million in 2007 by keeping children out of special education classes and into regular education classes by targeting their specific needs. She said seven other districts in the state have adopted the Literacy Collaborative and the districts that are using the North Star Tool are better able to analyze and adapt the curriculum to each individual student. 

“It’s not easy for teachers to teach this way,” said Swenson. “We have some of the best teachers in the state.”

Becca Clemens
After graduating high school in 2004, I attended Central Lakes College in Staples, MN for 2 years where I got a diploma in Communication Art and Design. I then transfered up to Bemidji State University in, you guessed it, Bemidji, MN. In the spring of 2009, I graduated from BSU. Then in the fall of 2009 I got a job at Echo Publishing, a sister company to the Brainerd Dispatch.