Prairie Pulse 1711: Robin Nelson, Sarah Morrau & Rebekka DeVries

Prairie Pulse 1711: Robin Nelson, Sarah Morrau & Rebekka DeVries


(upbeat rock music) – Hello, and welcome
to Prairie Pulse. Coming up a little
bit later in the show, we’ll hear some holiday music, but first, Matt Olien
got a chance to sit down with the Fargo School
Board President. – And I’m here
with Robin Nelson, the President of the
Fargo School Board. Welcome, Robin,
to Prairie Pulse. – Well, thank you.
– Yep. And there’s a lot to talk about. Why don’t you tell folks
a bit about yourself, your background, where
you’re from originally? – Sure, I’m from Fargo,
I was raised there, and moved back to the
area to raise my kids, and so I have two
Fargo North graduates and I currently have a
junior at Fargo South. I have been on the
school board since 2003. I had a two year break. Everything in my life that I
do is for kids, essentially. My full time job, I’m the CEO
of the Boys and Girls Club and the Fargo Youth Commission, and do a lot of other boards
for kids across the community. I happen to be married
to an educator as well, so education is very near
and dear to my heart. – That’s great. Let’s get right to one
of the biggest issues of this past year, not
quite resolved yet, and that was a lot of
consternation with parents on the south side of Fargo. There was talk of rezoning. A lot of kids that went
to Discovery and Davies might have to the
Fargo South track. I know it’s not resolved yet, but take us through the issue, what’s on the table, and when a decision
might be happening. – Absolutely.
– And why this is happening. – So why it’s happening
is we are projected to be over enrollment targets
at Davies and Discovery in the next couple years. And we have some ideal
class sizes and school sizes that we have in our
guiding principles that the school board
has continued to
reaffirm every year. So those schools will get larger than those target enrollments, and so now it’s time to
figure out what to do with those extra kids. We can’t move buildings, so
I know it sounds kinda cruel, but we do have to move
kids occasionally. So the conversation started
out with a task force, we had a lot of parent feedback, especially from the
neighborhood, your neighborhood. We had the demographic
studies, I think there were, gosh, about 50 people
on the task force. So lots and lots of
feedback put together, and then the Board brought
all the information together and had a work
session last summer. And out of that work session
really rose to the top three or four items
that we considered. The first one was
year round school, and that was
squashed right away. – [Matt] Yes. (chuckling)
– For multiple reasons. The other were a boundary, we’re still doing the
boundary considerations. Some considered a different
grade configuration, and there’s a lot of
efficiencies that come into a K-5, 6-8, 9-12 consistency
across the district. But that’s a different
conversation. But then also a fourth
item that was added is the possibility
of moving or building a new middle school
to temporarily house an eighth and ninth
grade academy. So take the ninth
graders out of Davies, and the eighth graders
out of Discovery, and have them there temporarily
in what would eventually be a permanent
traditional middle school. And then, down the
road, look at probably, I hate to say this already, probably looking at
another high school. There’s a lot of overcrowding
down south in particular. – That other option
that came up, the eighth and ninth
grade building, that seemed, I mean,
nothing’s approved, but that seemed to
kind of be satisfactory to a lot of people in
south Fargo, was it not? That was what I
had heard, anyway. – That was what I perceived, and I would expect if it
is financially feasible, within our building fund,
that’s not our general fund or operational fund,
our building fund, I would expect that will
probably rise to the top. Board members hate
boundary changes. Probably this is the
most volatile issue
we ever deal with, and emotional, because it
affects families and lifestyles. And we get it, so
if we can solve this issue and build
a middle school, but not do it prematurely,
and that’s the whole key, then I think that will
probably be the preference. – And when will the
decision, do you think, finally be made?
– I would say, right now, we are looking
at feasibility studies for a couple of plots of land. I would say, ah,
probably, talking about
a timeline on this, probably easily within
this school year, yeah. – The school year
we’re in right now? – Correct.
– Okay. Do you feel that the Board
was pretty transparent in all this, despite, you
know, some people getting upset and the emotional
things like that? – We felt we were, but I
think a lot of other people didn’t think we were. But all of our meetings
are open to the public, and you know, access to our
emails and things like that. But if people don’t
get all the information maybe that they desire, or
they get some wires crossed, then confusion settles in, but we feel like
we’re transparent. But we can always grow
in that area and improve. – When do you think
a fourth high school would be down the road?
– [Robin] Oh! – Tough to say?
– [Robin] Oh, I hate to even say.
– It won’t happen until you don’t, but everybody
knows it’s gonna happen. – Exactly, you know, I’m
not even gonna put a date out there, because then that will become a topic
of conversation. – Mm-hmm, that’s
right, bad idea. What’s your position on, you
know, this was talked about. Busing kids up North
to full classrooms. I mean, you said you had
two kids who went to North, obviously just people
aren’t moving up to the north side of
Fargo anymore for a
variety of reasons. What’s your position on that? – Well, actually,
yes, it is not ideal to bus kids further out
of their neighborhoods. It’s not, and it’s
a temporary fix until you can justify
building another school. Now I will say that
there are some hotspots up on the north side still, and that’s around
the Longfellow area. But the majority of the
growth that we’re experiencing and we’re predicting
is on the south side. It’s never the ideal to bus kids out of their closest school
for their neighborhood. So I see that as kind
of a last resort. – Yeah, let’s move
to teachers’ safety. You know, this is a big
thing we’ve heard about, concern about safety
in the classrooms. What can teachers do
when a kid gets unruly? Let’s take us
through that issue. – We are seeing a sharp increase in violent behaviors
by our students. There are many speculations
as to why we are seeing that. It’s primarily in the
kindergarten through second and third grade, which
is quite alarming. This is not just a Fargo
issue, it’s a national issue. Everybody is working on it. I will say that we are
required to educate all students through IDEA,
Individual Disabilities Education Act, and
different levels of needs. Each of them would
have an individualized education plan that we
have to follow closely. The idea is to have
all kids mainstreamed as much as possible
in their classrooms. There are some different levels, of level A, B, C,
and D are what we really work with in
the Fargo schools. And then you go past that and you get into the
residential and prairie, and things like that. But the LRED, the Least
Restrictive Environment allows us to, or requires
that students are mainstreamed a certain percentage
of the time. Now, we just did approve a
level D facility and setting, the Explorer Academy
that will be added onto the Lewis and Clark school, and we will partner with West
Fargo schools in that effort. But I think it’s important
to remember, Matt, that adding this level D
facility is not going to fix the other problems
that we have there. So mental health is
a front and center, and I’m the state
Legislative Chair for this school
district as well. And how do we bring
in some of those mental health services
into our schools? The primary purpose for public
schools is educating kids. We can’t educate ’em if
they have a lot of barriers that aren’t allowing
them to learn. And so we’re seeing much
more of a crossover now between the Department
of Human Services and the Department of
Public Instruction. If we could figure
out a way to do it, we certainly would, and I
think that would be the case for every school
district in the country. – Now, if someone
didn’t know better, they might think teacher safety
might be with older kids. But you’re saying it
really is rearing itself with the lower level? – It’s growing at
an alarming pace. I’m not saying that that
issue isn’t happening with our middle and
high school kids. But teachers’ hands
are feeling tied, because you can’t place
your hands on a student, or depending on their
individualized education plan, certain accommodations
must be met. And you know, it’s
not just the teachers that are getting injured, it’s sometimes other
students as well. So I did say when I was
first elected as President that my major concern
is classroom safety, and not interrupting the
educational opportunities for all students. Now, we must educate
students, all students, regardless of their abilities, and that is our Constitutional and moral obligation to do so; how we do that is what’s
getting a lot of attention, and for good reason. – Mm-hmm, which leads us
into my next question, you mentioned it, it’s
been approved in Fargo, there’ll be a building, you
can tell us where it’s at, when this is gonna happen, where special needs
students will be away from the main schools, is
that a fair way to say it? How should you? – Let me explain it
a little bit more. That would be level D.
– [Matt] Level D, okay. So level D is when,
with the A, B, and C, there’s a progressive
pull out in percentages from their mainstream
classrooms. Level D would be a
separate facility, and that is required from
the federal guidelines. The students that would
be in the level D facility are less than 1% of our
special education population. So those are some of
the more severe needs, and really, a school like
that is there to teach these children tools
and give them mechanisms so that they can function in a
regular academic environment. So the goal is to get them back into the schools
and mainstream them. – And where’s that gonna be? Where’s it gonna be held? – It will be an addition to
Lewis and Clark Elementary on the south side, they’re
a nice central location, easy access, and keep in mind, West Fargo is also going to
build a level D facility. They are gonna work on, I
don’t know if it’s proved yet, but that is the concept. They would do the
middle school level, we would do the elementary, and we would share those
between the school districts. – So that’s an opportunity
for you to correct some misinformation,
because I think initially, there was this, “Oh,
all special needs kids “are gonna be in
the same building.” And that is not
even close to true. – Nope, absolutely not. And that’s some
of that messaging that we couldn’t
get out in front of. And that happens often when
you’re a school board member. – It does, it does,
you deal with that. Oh go ahead, you were
gonna add something? – Nope.
– Okay. How far south can Fargo go
in terms of purchasing land, and how does that
conflict with West Fargo? Because West Fargo’s
land kind of zigzags over to the east a little bit,
so tell me about that. – Well, I should
say first of all, there is some of the West
Fargo school district that isn’t Fargo proper, so that makes it a
little confusing, but what you’re talking about is extra territorial
rings around each city. Now, what I’ve been told and
I haven’t confirmed this, that Moorhead and West Fargo
are about out of their, running out of expansion areas. But south Fargo is the only one that has some area to
grow further south. I don’t know exactly, but I know there’s conversations
about 100th Avenue South and things like that. Of course we know
Davies is on 70th, and there’s a lot of
development going on down there, but I don’t know
exactly what avenue. – But there is room?
– Yes, there is. – To build an eighth and
ninth grade building, and theoretically,
a new high school? – Yes, absolutely. We’re expecting the new
middle school concept, if it gets approved, to be
pretty close in proximity to Davies, and then who
knows when and where the new high school
will need to be? – Is it a good problem to have, that there’s growth in the city? Or I know it brings
headaches with it, but at least it’s not
retracting, right? We’re not losing people,
and out migration and things like that. People continue
to come to Fargo. – Absolutely. You know, I don’t
know, I’ve never even really thought about it, is it good or bad,
quite frankly. We wanna educate the kids when
they show up on our doorstep, we’re gonna educate them. With each student
comes more funding, per pupil funding
from the state. That is the majority of
the income that we have, but that is not why we
want to attract students. We just wanna make
sure we can offer them the quality of education
that they all deserve. – What’s it like being the
school board President? Is it stressful,
is it rewarding? Both?
– Both, both. It’s busy, I think a lot of
people think I have more control than I really do, and actually,
being a Board President, you have less control,
because it’s my obligation to speak for the
majority of the board. I facilitate meetings, and I
publicly relay the majority of the Board’s wishes,
so I have to be careful with what I say, because
that is the obligation that I have, as a
Board President. – At the elementary level, where
do you see the crowding at? We’ve kinda talked about
Discovery and Davies, but where are some of
the crowding concerns in the Fargo elementary level? – Bennett is there right now.
– [Matt] Bennett? – Yeah, and we just received
our updated demographic enrollment projections,
and Bennett’s the hotspot. – Okay.
– Yep. And a lot of the lots down
there were bigger originally, and now they’re
making them smaller so the homes would
be more affordable. We know that that’s
gonna bring more kids. – Mm-hmm, can you talk about, you know, at Davies I
noticed the diversity that has come into
the school system. I mean, immigrants really
are doing a great job in this community, and
the kids coming in. And just tell me about that, and how that’s positively
impacted the district. – Oh, it positively impacts
our community, in my opinion. The last, and sorry I
don’t have the demographic breakdowns, but I do
know that about 8% of our students are
English language learners. With that, that is some
opportunity for growth and teaching there,
but I think they add to the wonderful fabric of
the students that we have. And I personally
love the diversity. And Davies is just
as diverse as South, and a lot of people forget that. So North is a bit
more less diverse, but you know, that’s
just where they land. – Talk about all the
clubs and activities that the largest
district affords kids, AP classes, things like that. – Oh my gosh, where do I start? You talked about the athletics, you talked about the
drama and the music. We know that children
that are involved in extracurricular
activities are more likely to graduate on time with their
peers and have better grades. So there’s that aspect. There are things like electives, especially at the
high school level with a lot of dual
credit opportunities. And we are very
fortunate in Fargo to have the three campuses here. Our career and tech
ed division is huge, you know, with our
auto tech, cuisine. You know, we just learned about
a new teacher intro program that the kids can
take dual credit on. I mean, even with
business classes, my kids were really into those, and DECA, and things like that. So that is the benefit of
having larger school districts, but sometimes, too big
of schools isn’t ideal. And when South
was getting so big with graduating class sizes
of about 563, I think, was the top, we
really wanted to have smaller graduating class sizes, and that’s really what
prompted Davies High School. – Mm-hmm, and it’s been good. I remember people at the time– – It was very
controversial at the time. – They were like, “Why are you building
another high school?” – It’s full. (laughing)
– Yes it is, yes it is. – And it’s too full, so yes, that was quite controversial. But we as school board members, sometimes we have
to take that grief because we know that
for the long term, it will be the best
for the community and the best for our
students and our staff. – I forgot to ask about
teachers’ salaries, where those stand right now. – We have not
completed our contract. That is the only sticking
point to get this resolved. If we do approve what
is currently pitched, we would be at deficit
spending at $1.6 million and $1.7 million for each
year of the contract. And that is pretty
tough to swallow. We’re responsible for
teachers and their morale, and then delivering education, and doing that
within the confines that the taxpayers give us, and we’re at the top
of what we can levy, so we’re in a tough spot. – Okay, finally, if people
want more information, where do they go, website
for Fargo schools? – Absolutely, Fargo
Public Schools’ website is www.Fargo.ND.– – I think it’s K12.ND.
– K12.ND.US, yes. – All right, thanks, Robin. Thanks for being here.
– Hey, thank you. – Stay tuned for more. (upbeat rock music) – And now, Sarah Morrau
and Rebekka DeVries grace the Prairie
Public Sound Stage with their rendition
of a holiday classic and a traditional hymn. (soft piano music) ♪ I heard the bells
on Christmas day ♪ ♪ Their old familiar
carols play ♪ ♪ And wild and sweet
their words repeat ♪ ♪ Of peace on earth,
good will to men ♪ ♪ I thought how, as
the day had come ♪ ♪ The belfries of
all Christendom ♪ ♪ Had rolled along
the unbroken song ♪ ♪ Of peace on earth,
good will to men ♪ (soft piano music) ♪ And in despair
I bowed my head ♪ ♪ There is no peace
on earth, I said ♪ ♪ For hate is strong
and mocks the song ♪ ♪ Of peace on earth,
good will to men ♪ (soft piano music) ♪ Then pealed the bells
more loud and deep ♪ ♪ God is not dead,
nor doth He sleep ♪ ♪ The wrong shall fail,
the right prevail ♪ ♪ With peace on earth,
good will to men ♪ (soft piano music) (soft piano music) ♪ Silent night, holy night ♪ ♪ All is calm, and
all is bright ♪ ♪ Round yon virgin
mother and child ♪ ♪ Holy infant, so
tender and mild ♪ ♪ Sleep in heavenly peace ♪ ♪ Sleep in heavenly peace ♪ (soft piano music) ♪ Silent night, holy night ♪ ♪ Shepherds quake at the sight ♪ ♪ Glories streamed
from Heaven afar ♪ ♪ Heavenly hosts
sing Hallelujah ♪ ♪ Christ the Savior is born ♪ ♪ Christ the Savior is born ♪ (soft piano music) ♪ Silent night, holy night ♪ ♪ Son of God,
love’s pure light ♪ ♪ And radiant beams
with thy holy face ♪ ♪ With the dawn of
redeeming grace ♪ ♪ Jesus, Lord at Thy birth ♪ ♪ Jesus, Lord at Thy birth ♪ – Well, that’s all we have
on Prairie Pulse this week. And as always,
thanks for watching. (upbeat rock music) – [Announcer] Funded
by the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, with money from the vote
of the people of Minnesota on November 4th, 2008, and by
the members of Prairie Public.

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