Those who have served on local school boards or city councils are likely very familiar with the name "Sourcewell."
Many local governments have long turned to this group for guidance, for help securing grants or for more bargaining power for expensive equipment.
Recent discussions in Pequot Lakes and Jenkins have raised the question: What is Sourcewell?
" Our team members aren't going in and dictating somebody's planning and zoning efforts, it comes from local demands, that comes from their local direction. "
— Chad Coauette.
Sourcewell, formerly called the National Joint Powers Alliance, or NJPA, is one of nine regional service cooperatives in Minnesota intended to provide a pool of resources between governments within a given area. Sourcewell services five Minnesota counties: Cass, Wadena, Todd, Morrison and Crow Wing.
The organization provides cities and school districts with access to zoning experts, organizes trainings to help local professionals meet employment standards, helps facilitate a shared purchase of expensive equipment for jurisdictions within the five-county area to use, organizes documents for applications for grants and loans, hosts regional spelling bees and facilitates recognition of area students and educators.
"We’re here to help local government and schools do collectively what they couldn’t do individually," according to a Q&A document provided by Travis Bautz, chief marketing officer with Sourcewell.
Along with the other eight Minnesota service cooperatives, it was formed in the 1970s for the purpose of providing services for entities with limited budgets. Several cities, for example, contract with Sourcewell for planning and zoning services.
"Our team members aren't going in and dictating somebody's planning and zoning efforts. It comes from local demands. That comes from their local direction," said Chad Coauette, Sourcewell executive director.
Eight board members from within the service area oversees the cooperative. These board members all serve as current elected government officials with six seats reserved for school board members and two for city council members. They are nominated and elected by the school boards and city councils they serve.
One past board member is Minnesota Rep. John Poston, R-Lake Shore, a former Lake Shore mayor.
"So these folks who are on our board, they're service-minded elected officials," Coauette said. "They're the folks who serve their region, their cities, their counties, really looking out for the best of those areas that they serve. And those are my bosses."
Current board members are Sharon Thiel, Staples; Scott Veronen, Verndale; Sara Nagel, Pillager; Linda Arts, Walker; Chris Kircher, Burtrum; Ryan Thomas, Burtrum; Mike Wilson, Pierz; and Greg Zylka, Little Falls.
"Our board is passionate about students and community success," Coauette said.
These are the people who decide what services Sourcewell will provide, and they choose those services based on what their member communities request or need.
For example, when Minnesota teaching licensures required a "cultural competency" training, Sourcewell found a way to connect a small group of Pequot Lakes teachers to a training called SEED that they could bring back to their schools, rather than paying to have all Pequot Lakes teachers travel for that same type of training.
"(We listen to) school administrators, city administrators, folks that work in the counties that have common pain points," Coauette said, "whether that's trouble staffing and finding specific positions or attaining certain levels of professional development within the region. They share pain points, and our team listens and hears those pain points and works with them onboard to set aside, in certain cases, funding to specifically fund those types of initiatives and/or bring on staff to assist those organizations with some of those challenges that they share with us. But it is locally driven."
The organization is a state formed entity based in Staples. Sourcewell works within the state, though some of its services do have more national reach, particularly when it comes to cooperative purchasing agreements.
"We do provide services well outside of the five-county region," Coauette said. "And part of that is to help sustain the organization, because it creates a broader reach for those products and services to help keep us growing, thriving, surviving as serving, and really living out the mission of serving those five counties we were originally created to serve."
Locally, those services have helped give smaller cities access to shared equipment, including snow removal equipment, sewer service equipment and a drone for search and rescue and law enforcement. The items purchased with these agreements are meant to be shared between those in the five counties so the burden of cost is not upon just one limited budget.
Sourcewell funds its programs by contracting for services and charging for preparation of documents for zoning and other needs. They are funded by acting, as Jenkins City Council member Charles Hoffman suggested, in a way similar to a subcontractor hired by small government entities.
" So SEED was a program that appeared and appears to be able to be a vehicle to have those kinds of discussions. So it's something that our constituents asked for. "
— Chad Coauette.
"Those services have to pay for themselves over time," Coauette said. "So we have a portfolio as you might imagine. Different services - some create additional revenue, some don't make as much money, but overall, we have to pay for ourselves to keep an existence and we've had to do that nearly our entire existence."
There has been a recent surge of distrust and accusations aimed toward Sourcewell. Backlash against an online video regarding the Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity (SEED) program made Sourcewell one of the targets of discussion at an April 22 meeting of a group called "Parents for Pequot" at the Pequot Lakes American Legion. Speakers at the event alleged that Sourcewell had a globalist agenda and ties to the United Nations, which Coauette said is not true.
He said the organization has absolutely no connection to the United Nations and no agenda. Rather, it operates on request by local governments.
"We've heard from school leaders, city leaders, county leaders, that the conversations about equity, diversity and inclusion are extremely challenging discussions and they were looking for a consistent way to have these types of conversations and learn about strategies to have these kinds of discussions in their communities and what that means in their communities," Coauette said. "So SEED was a program that appeared and appears to be able to be a vehicle to have those kinds of discussions. So it's something that our constituents asked for."
Coauette said people are misunderstanding the SEED program. It is not preparing curriculum for students, but attempting to help teachers to recognize differences among their students to improve their relationships with their students. Those differences are not just race or gender, but have resulted in teachers recognizing that some families might not go on vacations (which are generally excused absences) but instead take off time for hunting season (which are not always excused absences).
Coauette said one teacher who attended the program realized some students may feel left out during Muffins with Mom or Doughnuts with Dad events if they are lacking one or both parents due to adoption, being raised by other family members, death, divorce or any other reason.
At a May city council meeting in Jenkins, council member Donna Stricker called Sourcewell globalist and suggested the organization was leading the council in the wrong direction. This accusation may be related to the city's application for small cities loans, which would have required the city to declare a slum and blight district. One resident attended a council meeting to say that declaration would leave the properties in that area open to eminent domain in the future.
Coauette said Sourcewell was merely contracted to provide the paperwork and to advise the city on how to qualify for the loan program. Sourcewell is not the agency responsible for the slum and blight requirements and is not the agency providing the loans.
"I don't know what the genesis of that is," Coauette said. "But we, from what I know, worked with the city on things that they wanted to be completed, and we helped them complete it. "
To summarize, Sourcewell is an entity formed by the Minnesota Legislature to help smaller governments within a five-county area pool resources for cost savings. It is under the direction of a board of directors who are members of small town governments, nominated by small town governments and elected by small town governments.
Sourcewell's services are formed at the request of small town governments that then hire and pay Sourcewell for those services.
Next week: A list of the ways area governments have used Sourcewell's services.
Travis Grimler is a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal weekly newspaper in Pequot Lakes/Pine River. He may be reached at 218-855-5853 or firstname.lastname@example.org.