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Brainerd School District: Business services director to resign

When Steve Lund started his first day on the job, March 16, 2009, the Brainerd School District was in difficult financial straits--plagued by a shaky budget, delayed payments from the state, teacher layoffs, the fallout from a failed operating le...

The director for business services for Brainerd School District No. 181, Steve Lund, has announced his resignation. Lund will be joining Lindar Corp. in Baxter as its new chief financial officer in April. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
The director for business services for Brainerd School District No. 181, Steve Lund, has announced his resignation. Lund will be joining Lindar Corp. in Baxter as its new chief financial officer in April. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

When Steve Lund started his first day on the job, March 16, 2009, the Brainerd School District was in difficult financial straits-plagued by a shaky budget, delayed payments from the state, teacher layoffs, the fallout from a failed operating levy-all in the quagmire of the Great Recession.

It was, in Lund's words, like starting up a car and seeing every light on the dashboard blink ominously.

The director of business services announced his resignation this week. His exit from the Brainerd School District is slated for April, when he will leave the public sector altogether to pursue an opportunity as the chief financial officer at Lindar Corp. in Baxter.

In the intervening years between March 2009 and April 2018, it's been a road back to fiscal stability for the district's top financial administrator and one, for Lund himself, of profound personal growth.

"When I come full circle-where I'm at right now, to what I was when I walked in this place the first day-I have grown professionally, I can't even begin to put words on it," Lund said, slightly reclined, legs crossed at the knee behind his desk. A large print of a cornfield wreathed in post-shower rainbows, which depicts farmland near acres he owns by Madison, loomed behind him. It was a shock of color in an office defined by utilitarian, Spartan decor in shades of gray. "The opportunities I've been afforded to be the leadership role here, I just don't think a lot of people get that opportunity."

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Lund's role as the director of business services may not be as visible or romanticized as other jobs like, say, the teachers, coaches and principals that make up the public face of the district. As the occupant of a "desk job" doing "backroom work," Lund said he's part of a mechanism driving the operation behind the scenes. This includes $60 million in annual funds to be allocated in salaries and benefits, the livelihoods of more than a thousand employees of the Brainerd School District. By virtue of that, Lund overseas how every tax dollar makes its way, directly or indirectly, into the classroom and the education of thousands of children.

"It's like the duck on the water: it's gliding along, but underneath we're paddling like crazy," he added. "We make it roll, seamlessly."

Now, nine years later after taking the reins, Lund said he takes satisfaction in the fact that the district is in a place of financial stability, positioned to face potential shortfalls-the fulfillment of goals set by former Superintendent Steve Razidlo to stabilize the budget and regain the community's trust.

The district's unreserved fund balance, akin to a savings account, currently sits at $8 million, which represents 11 percent of annual expenditures. This compares to 2009, when the fund was dipping around $2 million, a critical point for area schools.

"It's a great position to be in, based on where we've been historically," Lund said of the district's status. "I'm proud where we are from a community perspective. I think we've regained that trust and credibility, not necessarily just with the finances, but how we deliver education."

Lund's wife, Melissa, is a language arts teacher employed by the district and his two children, Madison, a senior, and Connor, a sophomore, are both enrolled in Brainerd High School, so it would seem Lund naturally gravitated toward his current position in public education.

In fact, for years the prospect of working in education never crossed Lund's mind. Between 1994 and 2009, his worked in the private sector, banking and financing, a career path zigzagging its way through three states, six communities and an assortment of different corporate environments, before he settled in Brainerd in 2007 to work for Midwest Banking.

The failed operating levy in 2007 piqued his interest, as an outside observer, into the inner workings of public education finance. When his wife was laid off from her position as an English teacher at Forestview Middle School in December 2007, these observations took on a personal dimension.

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So, when 2009 rolled around and Lund learned about the opening for a new director of business services at Brainerd School District, he started making phone calls-mostly to people inside the district, but also to personal confidants and then-state Rep. John Ward, to gather their input for his decision.

"I applied and threw my name in the hat. I started to meet with some folks in the district, you know, 'Can I have 10 or 15 minutes of your time, I want to ask you a few questions,'" Lund said. "So I sat down with them and asked, 'What do you as a teacher know about the school's finances?' 'I don't know very much.' I was shocked. I was thinking, 'That can't be right.'"

Lund said this prompted him to adopt a work philosophy of being visible, or conducting his office in a way that goes beyond the behind-the-scenes role of administrator jobs-an approach connecting with and working jointly with the classroom.

Lund said, with his administrative position, his wife's job as a teacher and his children's enrollment in the district, he was able to get a look at the education process at every level, every step of the way.

These different perspectives-along with valuable experience gained during the tumultuous early years of his tenure, as well as working under unusual turnover with four different superintendents-served to guide Lund as he made decisions carrying a gravitas he never saw when he worked in the private sector.

"You deal with their money-the taxpayers are supporting us with their taxes-and you're dealing with their kids," Lund said. "When your primary mission is to serve the needs of students in a community, any time you make adjustments to your budget, it's very difficult and very emotional. ... Every decision is difficult, every one of them."

Lund became visibly emotional when he mentioned Colette Pohlkamp, the longtime food services director, who died in May 2016. Pohlkamp-described by Lund as a phenomenal member of the district's staff and a colleague he relied on-stands as a bright point during his nine-year tenure. Losing her was one of the hardest.

It points to another bittersweet aspect of his resignation. Taking the effort to be more visible and more available has benefits, Lund added, such as being greeted by friends whenever he walks into any of the facilities in the district. It's perhaps an unexpected perk for a "desk job" that "nobody knew" when he first arrived.

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And it is, Lund said, ultimately, why it's hard to say goodbye.

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