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GUEST COLUMN: The school board is listening

Hearing vs. listening. We often use these words interchangeably. But in reality they are quite different. Hearing is the act of perceiving sound by the ear. But as the Brainerd School Board hosts a number of “listening” sessions, we are taking on the task of listening to our community members — processing the feedback from these forums into information we can use as we weigh scenarios for addressing the school district's expiring $199 per student operating levy.

On July 26, the school board hosted its first formal community listening session at Brainerd High School. In addition, on July 28, the school district held an informal listening session at the Brainerd Lakes Area Senior Center. Both were productive opportunities that turned our attention to the issues of interest in our community. We were listening and this is what we heard:

The district must communicate the community's return on investment — student academic achievement and program accomplishments. Think of local operating levy funds as an investment in the community. In that context, we have concentrated much of our time reinforcing facts regarding our financial management. In the process, however, we may have failed to talk about the return our taxpayers are currently receiving. Namely, how are our students faring? Our reading and math scores are as high as 7 percent above the state average. Also, who can forget the exciting and rewarding seasons we had in all of our activities? We sent one of our students to the national spelling competition and our music programs continue to achieve state and national recognition. We are doing our best to make a difference in the lives of our students and prepare them for the future. These “Points of Pride” are the accomplishments that we should shout from the rooftops.

Community members are concerned about the state's property tax law that exempts seasonal/recreational properties from school district levy taxation. Due to a 2001 change at the state level, approximately 30 percent of the properties within our district boundaries are not taxable for school levies. We continue to actively communicate our concern to state legislators about this issue and the serious inequity it creates for communities such as ours by providing tax breaks for people who enjoy our community at the expense of those that live here.

The school district should communicate how contract negotiations with district employee groups will impact district finances. Broadly speaking, it takes two sides to reach an agreement. I think we will all agree with the recent example of our state's budget and the process that took place in St. Paul that both sides seldom walk away completely satisfied from most collectively reached agreements. Each side will be respectfully representing their interests, while working toward a common goal. We are no different.  These common goals have brought both the school district and its employee groups together in achieving significant savings and efficiencies with changes that have occurred during negotiations. A recent example is the district's post-employment benefits. We now have a funded liability that is decreasing as the retirement benefit is eliminated over time. Both the school district and its employees are committed to working hard to arrive at an agreement that recognizes the value of our employees, but doesn't lose sight of the times we are facing. As with all of our finances, we are committed to providing our community with accurate and timely information.  

We are encouraged by attendance at the listening sessions and how community feedback will provide us with valuable information. The school board has three more community listening sessions in August:

• Monday, August 8 at 11:30 a.m. (Washington Educational Services Building). 

• Tuesday, August 9 at 6:30 PM (Forestview Middle School) 

• Thursday, August 11 at 6:30 PM (Nisswa Elementary School) 

As we have come to say, “Be Informed. Be Present. Be Heard.” Attend the meeting, gather key facts, and share constructive feedback. We're listening.

JAMES M. HUNT, is chair of the Brainerd School Board and formerly was Brainerd High School’s principal.