State of the schools

Northfield Schools Superintendent Matt Hillman delivers the annual State of the Schools address Wednesday to members of the Northfield Area Chamber of Commerce. (Zach Kayser/southernminn.com)

Amid a pandemic fraying the community’s bond, Northfield schools have tough times behind them and in front of them.

After a dry run at the Northfield Public Schools School Board meeting Monday, Superintendent Matt Hillmann delivered the annual State of the Schools address Wednesday to members of the Northfield Area Chamber of Commerce.

The speech at Northfield Golf Club focused on the district’s struggle against three foes: the coronavirus pandemic, systemic racism and lack of money.

Hillmann told attendees that this year was even more complex than 2020, since there was no unified set of COVID regulations across the state.

“I’ve been trying to find another superintendent who had previously managed [through] a global health pandemic,” Hillmann said wryly. “The people from 1918 aren’t around anymore, so we have had to write the playbook ourselves.”

District surveys said that 81% of parents held confidence in Northfield Schools’ ability to handle the pandemic and keep students safe, Hillmann said.

“Were mistakes made? You bet,” he said.

But those failings were made in the course of trying to preserve the academic, social and emotional health of the kids, he said. There were 263 total COVID cases among students and staff during the 2020-21 school year, he said, and Northfield schools looked back on the year satisfied they had done right in mitigating the spread.

The district was now in the process of reforming the criteria by which children are sent home to quarantine, Hillmann said, although he declined to provide details.

A districtwide message from Hillmann sent Tuesday said the district has so far had to quarantine far fewer students since implementing a universal masking requirement. It also outlined the current COVID protocol.

“At school, a person is considered a “close contact” if they have been within 6 feet of someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 for 15 or more minutes over 24-hours,” Hillmann said in the update. “Quarantine for close contact at school with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 is not required when both parties were wearing a face mask or if the close contact has been vaccinated or if the close contact had a laboratory-positive COVID-19 test [indicating immunity] within the 90 days preceding the exposure.”

Northfield students must test negative before being allowed to return to class or receive an alternative diagnosis from a doctor.

Equity and underfunding

Hillmann said in the districtwide message, and directly to the crowd Wednesday, that he would not abide the hostile and rude behavior sometimes shown toward school health staff trying to notify parents that their kids must quarantine.

“Northfield is better than that,” he said.

Hillmann said he hoped that when the community looked back on the coronavirus years, they could be proud of their actions.

“We will, we will maintain decorum,” he said. “I will not permit this to devolve like it has in other communities and you shouldn’t allow it either.”

He compared kids today with the Greatest Generation that came of age during the Depression and fought in World War II. Although the specific circumstances were different, he said, both generations faced a similarly massive disruption to their daily lives. The online collaboration skills the modern students picked up during the pandemic would go on to serve them in their careers in a rapidly globalizing world, he said.

In the fight to be equitable to students of all backgrounds, Hillmann said the district achieved a victory through its new pre-K and childcare program, EarlyVentures. All of the EarlyVentures alums who entered kindergarten in the fall of 2020 were deemed “ready” according to standardized tests, he said.

“It’s also the most diverse early learning center in the community,” he said. “We are very proud of that work.”

After the district retooled its science teaching and curriculum, students this spring maintained their Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment (MCA) performance numbers despite the disruption, Hillmann said.

Hillmann also said the district must fight against “misinformation” against Northfield’s efforts toward racial equity.

Nationwide, grossly exaggerated fears about so-called “critical race theory” have some of the public at loggerheads with educators.

“I’d say it’s about basic human decency,” Hillmann said. “Every kid, is all of our children. They are all of our kids. And we want all of our kids to be successful.”

The district also has to face hard choices in the face of underfunding, Hillmann said. Despite what the Legislature called a “historic investment” in education during the 2021 session, the school district still did not receive state funding that kept pace with inflation, Hillmann said.

“We have to rethink how we budget, because we cannot outrun 32 years of chronic underfunding,” he said.

Over the next five years, the district will have a policy of “priority budgeting” which Hillmann said was equivalent to the concept of zero-based budgeting in the private sector. Zero-based budgeting assumes all department budgets start at zero dollars, and then each line item expense must be scrupulously justified. Since the organization only spends exactly what it needs, no more and no less, theoretically it will end the month or accounting year with zero dollars, just as it “began” the month with zero dollars.

“It’s going to fund what the community really wants,” Hillmann said. “Many of you in this room will be asked to help with that process. Sorry about that up front.”

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