What is the most pressing issue you believe the school district is facing?

Corey Butler: COVID-19 is a temporary issue, but it will have lasting effects on schools. One major impact is finances, which were already going to be challenging next school year. Minnesota faces a $2 billion budget deficit this year and a $4.7 billion budget deficit in the next biennium, which will adversely affect all Minnesota schools. Northfield schools will need to lean on its healthy fund balance to mitigate changes to staffing, programming and services. The administration will also need to look at current and future funding mechanisms from the state and federal governments, including the $140 million available to Minnesota schools through the CARES Act. My hope is to retain all teachers. As I’ve seen in my children’s elementary classes, which have never had more than 19 students in one, they receive so much more individual and collective attention than friends’ kids in other districts with more students in a class.

Robert Coleman: The persistent inequality in our schools is a problem that we must not lose sight of, even during the current pandemic. An education gap continues to exist, and in spite of the best intentions of our caring staff to make everyone feel welcome, not all families do. These concerns have only been exacerbated over the past six months. Just one example: at the Middle School this spring, 47% of failures were from students of color. When the disparities are this stark, we need to step up and identify lasting solutions. Addressing these issues is complicated. It starts with building better dialogue and creating welcoming spaces. The district’s direct focus on anti-racism this fall is commendable. We need to redouble our efforts. Let’s study what is working in other places, build a school community where every child feels welcome, and make Northfield Public Schools a leader in this.

Amy Goerwitz: The most pressing issue currently faced by the school district is keeping our staff and students safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 has affected almost every aspect of education and the School Board will be dealing with its impact for years. COVID-19 impacts include: Financial shortfalls—Even before COVID-19, we anticipated budget tightening in fiscal year 2022. The pandemic further complicates budgeting. Increasing the achievement gap — in regular years, our lower-income students and students of color generally perform worse on achievement tests than their peers. The pandemic has set these at-risk students even further behind. We need to strengthen our connections to these children and their families to ensure our schools are working for all our learners. Mental health issues — this abnormal academic year is expected to create long-term mental health issues for some students, including grief, anxiety, OCD, and relationship issues.

Claudia Gonzalez-George: As our excellent superintendent put in place a stable solution for how to do school, our most pressing issue right now is the mental health of our students and entire school community. The stress of being out of school then turned into the stress of returning to school during a pandemic. In the upcoming school year and beyond the board will need to consider how to support our community’s mental health issues.

Karen Jensen: The Covid-19 pandemic is affecting everyone in education. The in-person model does allow students to get back to a routine and schedules, but with rules and policies to follow it is adding more to the already full plate of classroom teachers at all levels. The hybrid model has its complications as well. For our secondary level students, the social and emotional importance of being in school is very important for them.

Eric Lundin: Financial and budget concerns will continue to be a huge concern for the district through the 2022 biennium. There will be budget shortfalls and very careful consideration of how to deal with these shortfalls will be needed. The board will need input from literally hundreds of people about how to best move forward. I want to ensure all the programs that the district feels are needed and wanted are able to be sustained throughout this budget shortfall. Due to the district’s ability to have a sound fund reserve, I am in favor of drawing down the reserve and at the same time not endangering the district's AA plus credit rating.

Justin Merritt: The most pressing issue is the budget. Northfield, like schools around the country, is facing large debts and mounting deficits. We cannot count on the state for new funding, as St. Paul faces the same funding issues as every level of government.

Noel Stratmoen: Sustainable funding from the state of Minnesota and from the U.S. government. The state Department of Education seldom provides state aid funding at the rate of inflation. The federal government (years ago) required the public schools to provide special education and the federal government would cover 40% of the district’s cost. Yet for many years, the federal government has supported special education at 14-20%, and the checks arrive about two years after the district has incurred the costs. Fortunately, the voters of this district are very supportive of all education, and make up the shortfalls.

What approach do you believe is needed in combating the spread of COVID-19 in schools while ensuring children receive a quality education?

CB: The truth is there’s no “right” answer to how schools should operate during a pandemic. One option that works for one family may not work for another family because of family dynamics, socioeconomic differences and the environment in which individual students best perform. This is an impossible task school district leaders are charged with, but I’ve been pleased with how Northfield educators, building leaders and administrators have handled this school year thus far. My experience with Greenvale Park Elementary staff has been great, and I anxiously wait as the weather turns cooler, annual illnesses increase and our lives, again, will inevitably change. I’ve also heard positive reports from friends and teachers who are involved in the hybrid model and Portage options this year. The district needs to continue its strong communication and all of us will have to, to the best of our ability, remain flexible through this trying time.

RC: I applaud the current approach taken by the Northfield school district in following state guidance as it works to navigate these difficult times. I firmly believe that the safety and well-being of our children and all school staff is constantly on the minds of our district leaders. The challenges of the current learning model are immense for families and educators, and I profoundly appreciate the hard work this has required of so many. I am also thankful that an online-only platform is available to families and staff. We must all remain vigilant in doing everything possible to keep our schools safe. This requires constant refinement of safety protocols and a relentless search for the best ways to provide a quality education regardless of our current model. Finally, we must remain flexible, as the learning model could be forced to change on short notice.

CGG: In this pandemic, we have to provide good devices and help all students access quality internet. To stop the spread of COVID-19, we must follow the guidelines of the Minnesota Health Department, wear masks, distance, and stay home when we are feeling sick. A hybrid model or distance learning model are important to suppress the virus.

KJ: We need to continue to follow state and federal guidelines. Keeping staff up to date with clear and concise information that will help them do their job of teaching. We need to make sure staff has all the necessary tools to keep themselves healthy as well. I would support moving forward slowly as we look toward moving to all in-person learning for our district. Continued communication with families, especially at the elementary level, is very important.

EL: The district continues to be innovative in its approach to online learning and am certain those innovations will continue. The district will need to be watching very carefully for unmitigated community spread. I believe the district should continue to follow the Minnesota Department of Health Decision Tree for People in Schools, Youth and Child Care Programs. This will give us our best chance at ensuring some continued in-person learning throughout the year.

JM: The best solution is the one we are trying now: choice. For my children, going back to in-person class with their friends was the right choice. For my neighbor with serious heart issues and a propensity for infection, staying home and doing Portage was the right call. Northfield is among the most choice-friendly districts in the country, and we should stay that way.

NS: Exactly what the district leadership is doing right now. There are many moving parts for the district leadership to address all the concerns and problems, beginning with social distancing for all of the following: transportation, classrooms, cafeterias, choral and band programs and arts and the athletics to assure that sterilization of all classrooms, hallways, cafeterias, restrooms, swimming pools, locker rooms, common spaces and buses, are done in a proper manner and per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state guidelines To properly answer your question would take many paragraphs.

AG: Even in ordinary years relationships are important, but this year is extraordinary and requires redefining the meaning of a quality education to focus on relationships over academics. The following actions will combat the spread of COVID-19 and allow for quality education to take place: Follow scientific principles and expert advice in decision-making, communicate regularly and clearly with students, their families, staff, and the Northfield community, provide necessary resources to students to comply with health checks and allow for online learning, ensure that we have frequent hand washing, lots of hand sanitizer, adequate personal protective equipment (PPE), and regular mask wearing in all district buildings, provide open-air classroom space as possible and encourage social distancing generally, minimize the number of people students and staff who are in close contact with throughout the day, and sanitize school buildings frequently.

What is your take on proposals for a new Northfield High School?

CB: There is a need for a new high school, but now is not the time to pursue the project. COVID-19 undoubtedly is going to reset many facets of our lives, chief among them is money; however, the school district isn’t unique in having to find its financial footing in the coming years. Northfield Public Schools taxpayers have also seen significant challenges this year, and it’s not going to be any easier in 2021. Around 60% of American households making less than $100,000 lost income this year because of the pandemic. We’re fortunate to have a supportive taxpayer base that has approved recent bond and levy referendums, but it would be unwise to go to the voters right now to ask them to fund a new high school.

RC: I am a strong believer in the need for a major renovation project or, more likely, a new high school in Northfield. The need is just as pressing as it was when the School Board asked the community to support such a project three years ago. However, I do not think that the current economic downturn is a good time to bring any new bond referendum to district voters. Our business community is suffering and far too many of people are searching for work. Once this period is in the rearview mirror, there will be an occasion to look at this project again. When that time arises and some of the current bonds have been payed off, it will be essential to engage the community in a robust process to explain is need, search together for solutions, and gauge support for the possibility of a new bond.

CGG: When we moved here my son was starting 11th grade. That transition alone was hard enough. After touring the beautiful middle school we went to the high school. While the building is good and the staff are amazing, the high school does not inspire. All of us appreciate beautiful and modern buildings from our own homes to our workplaces. An investment in an updated high school is an investment in our student morale.

KJ: I don't think this would be the right time to ask the community to support such a big project. Many families are still struggling from the affects of the pandemic. We need to respect how this has affected everyone. I am very happy with the new Greenvale Park building and remodeling of the house hosting Community Services programs. The additions to Sibley and Bridgewater are being put to good use as well.

EL: At this time, any proposal for a new high school should not be on the table due to our budget shortfall. The board should still be planning for a referendum at some point in the near future. The high school needs to be replaced. If the board does not continue to look at a new high school, an opportunity could be missed to keep the costs of new high school lower due to the lower interest rates which will persist for the next several years and the continued inflation of building costs. It is my hope that a referendum could be on the ballot by 2022-23. The high school should be built on existing property to limit the need for extra administrative permits, etc.

JM: Now is not the time to be taking on expensive new projects. We are in a time of profound transformation in education, and it is not wise to take on a multi-decade obligation. In a few years when several current bonds issues are paid, we should reconsider the situation.

AG: In 2017, the main reasons for the high school bond referendum were to create better, collaborative spaces, improve environmental efficiency, and keep our students and staff secure. Since then, the administration addressed these issues in the high school by improving the school environment by painting the walls to lighten up the formerly dark interior, removing lockers and display cases to create collaborative work spaces in the hallways and cafeteria, refurnishing some classrooms to allow for new teaching styles, putting new locking mechanisms on classroom doors that let classrooms to be locked from the inside, and creating a secure front entrance. These changes bought us some time, maybe 5-10 years, but ultimately, we will have to address the security issues created by having 50+ doors into the school. With so many doors, there is no way to prevent a school shooting if the shooter is determined. To fully keep our students safe, a new high school is needed.

NS: The issue is not the building structure, but the changes in the student’s learning styles. With our continuing experiences due to the novel coronavirus, we are learning that there are new ways to teach and learn. We need to understand what works and what does not work … and then with that knowledge, consider the need of a new high school. We may learn that classrooms will be repurposed into audiovisual studios for the preparation and presentation of “online" learning courses.

Another topic on the rise is mental health and safety within the district. In your opinion, how can the district improve its methods in addressing students' social and emotional needs while ensuring their safety?

AG: Within the last few years the district has strengthened our social and emotional curriculum for all grade levels. We need to continue to improve this aspect of our curriculum. In addition, we need to maintain (or increase if possible) the number of school counselors, and provide all the teaching and administrative staff with ongoing professional development to help them identify, understand, and teach students with mental health and related issues, all the while preserving privacy and maintaining a positive climate. In the high school we need to continue to cultivate and train students as peer counselors and encourage all students to let someone know if they have concerns about a fellow student.

CB: Schools continue to be tasked to fill more needs in students' lives than once expected, and it’s difficult to be all things to all students. I’m supportive of the efforts the Northfield district has made to help students in need in the area of mental health and emotional and behavioral programming. Though, as previously stated, financial challenges will strain the district, including this area, too, so we’ll need to work to maintain that support. However, it’s just a microcosm of the larger issue at hand concerning the lack of access to mental health resources for people, particularly the youth, in our community. Northfield and Rice County have a scarcity of pediatric psychology and psychiatry providers, especially for non-English speakers, so Northfield schools need to continue looking for partners to work with to stabilize this area.

RC: Mental health concerns and associated safety issues are clearly a priority of current Northfield School District administration. As a result of the toll the current pandemic is taking on families in our community, these concerns are only growing. The district's commitment to the social and emotional welfare of our students is reflected in the focused curriculums that have been adopted pre-K through 12. The schools have also invested in training staff and providing counselors, behavior coaches, and nurses throughout the district. But we must continue to expand the ways we address these issues. School staff must be supported with the proper resources to support students and families, and we must work to remove remaining stigmas associated with mental health. Students at every level should know that there are resources to turn to in the schools when facing these problems.

CGG: It’s important to address our students’ mental health issues because we can’t attend to the business of teaching when our students are lost in grief, anxiety, or uncontrolled stress. At the lower grades, social emotional learning curriculum has been used to help students implement growth mentality as well as control their “big emotions.” At the older levels, PBIS programs have helped give students a sense for school culture to help them regulate their actions. Our schools will have to renew their passion on SEL curriculum. Curriculum such as this as well as a partnership with licensed grief counselors is going to be this decade's newest demand on schools. Both of these strategies can be done online to keep students safe during the pandemic.

KJ: Our teachers are the district's first responders. They see the needs of their students in the classrooms and they start the process for each child to receive whatever extra services they need. Professional staff should be in place at all grade levels for teachers and staff to connect with. We need to continue to adapt curriculum to address the needs of all students and staff needs to stay connected with students and their families. Teachers are never just educators, but mentors and friends to their students.

EL: Recent studies show depression rates in the general population are up 300% over the past nine months due to the pandemic. It is certain that our students are mostly likely suffering from increased depression and anxiety. Teachers and administrators will need to continue to learn and recognize the signs and symptoms of anxiety and depression to help students find the resources they will need to address their suffering. Some of the district’s teachers and administrators have gone through mental health first aid training. Additional training may be needed to ensure the students' mental health concerns are being recognized.

JM: One seemingly small issue that can have a big impact is the amount of time our elementary kids spend outside. It’s not nearly enough! There is a mountain of data showing that time outside getting fresh air, exercise, and old-fashioned fun is invaluable for all of us, but especially elementary-aged kids. Much of the reason for this lack of time is the mountain of requirements and regulations coming from St. Paul. If you think I’m exaggerating, consider the Minnesota Kindergarten Academic Standards that includes a standard for microeconomic concepts (code 0.2.4.5.1).

NS: I believe that mental health and safety are paramount to learning. A student cannot learn if there are issues of mental health, safety, bullying, etc. on buses, buildings, hallways, classroom, cafeterias, and anywhere. We need to understand the needs and address them whenever we can. I believe the district leadership is on top of the issues, but having said that, not all issues are known, nor are all observers adhering to the same level of concern.

Where do you see the district being in five to 10 years? How do you plan to achieve that vision?

CB: As a parent of two elementary students, I hope Northfield schools continue to thrive as it has for many years. I think the district’s mission statement, “... to deliver educational excellence that empowers all learners to engage in our dynamic world,” perfectly encapsulates what stakeholders in the district should want for current and future students. To wit, we need a financially solvent district that recruits, grows and retains the best teachers to deliver a world-class education and experience to an increasingly diverse student population. As one of seven school board members and a communications professional, I will listen to, engage with and ask thoughtful questions of teachers, students, parents and other stakeholders to work to achieve a vision for a district of which we can all be proud. It’s imperative to empower students and develop them into critical thinkers who find their own path to become contributing members of society.

RC: We are fortunate to have an excellent public school system here in Northfield, and I have the highest regard for the teachers, support staff, administrators and School Board members who have brought the district to where it is now. Yet, we must not rest on our laurels. There are significant challenges to be navigated over the next few years, including keeping our school communities safe, combating racism, closing the education gap, and stewarding the district’s finances through likely shortfalls in the years ahead. We address these problems through a commitment to constant improvement and a recognition of the importance of engaging with the larger community. We must remain focused on providing the best educational opportunities for all of our students, and our success must be judged accordingly. I believe in our staff, students and community and know we can do this.

CGG: Our district in the next five-10 years will be a modern, inclusive, anti-racist institution. Our high school mascot will be updated to clearly represent our Raiders. Our buildings will be named for areas instead of people. Our curriculum will be representative of more students of color. Our staff will be more representative. Our students of color and their families will be more engaged in leadership roles across the district as volunteers or staff. I plan to support the anti-racist improvement goals set forth for this school year by the superintendent and the principals, then encourage continued building on those goals.

AG: My vision for 2030 includes: a new high school, with the current high school turned into a Northfield community center and sports facility, a minimized achievement gap with all types of learners doing well in school, elimination of racism with each student appreciated as an individual by both staff and other students, a strong social/emotional curriculum taught at all grade levels, readily available mental health support and training, online learning options available to all students, teachers and staff feel well appreciated and supported, and a financially sound school district with enough resources to fulfill the district’s mission of delivering educational excellence to all learners.

EL: I hope to see the school district have a new high school in the next five to six years. By planning now for the future of the high school, I believe by the fall of 2026, students will be learning in a state-of-the-art high school that our community can be very proud. The pandemic has also shown students don’t necessarily need direct teacher contact to learn. Future expansion of online learning will allow students to grow their own individual curriculum needed for their post-secondary education and beyond. I want our schools to feel safe and viable for every student. The school districts expansion of an anti-racism curriculum is a good start to ensuring the safety of all students on our campuses. As a school district, let’s continue to recruit, retain and compensate the best teachers this state has to offer. Let’s ensure or school staff mirrors the student’s race, color, and sexual orientation and do our best to retain those teachers.

KJ: We have strong leadership in our district and good forward thinkers. We certainly couldn't predict what has happened in 2020. but going forward we will have to take the information we have learned with the new models to plan our future course. We know that all kids deserve a good education, in a safe and healthy environment. During the next few years education as we know it will continue to evolve as our world changes. Our job will be to recognize and change as well.

JM: I am in favor of giving families choice, something that Northfield does very well, but should do more. We have two charters, a private school, homeschool, and of course traditional schools. I advocate for incorporating online learning as an option for all students, including students that are going to traditional schools every day. This will give students a much greater selection of possible courses.

NS: I would like to have “year-round" education opportunities made available in our district, but perhaps five to 10 years is too soon. It may take a generation to achieve this, and the concerns about summer vacations, summer jobs, conference conflicts, and many other issues need consideration and resolution Divide the education year into four quarters and each teacher and student could work/attend only three of the four quarters. (Opportunity for a family to go on global trips, the student may choose to attend summer, fall and summer quarters.) My thoughts: a student would attend only three of the four quarters, would take a quarter off for a good reason, and still could graduate on time. With our reaction to the pandemic, we now offer many online classes, so we have a head start already. No successful business would shut down the business and expect to start up three months later without a hiccup.

Reach Associate Editor Sam Wilmes at 507-645-1115. © Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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