Brown makes top 4

Published 10:36 am Friday, February 6, 2009

The Albert Lea school board on Thursday winnowed the six superintendent finalists to a list of four, which includes Grand Meadow superintendent Joe Brown.

After hearing from administrators and after board dialogue, board members voted on scratch paper for three finalists. They found disagreement on who should be the third choice. A discussion pursued on whether to add a fourth finalist. Three of the six board members favored bringing four candidates back to Albert Lea for further interviews.

In order of the backing they had from board members, the finalists are:

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Cathy Bettino, superintendent of the Pine River-Backus School District.

Mike Funk, superintendent of the Bird Island, Olivia, Lake Lillian School District, often termed BOLD.

John Chalstrom, superintendent, Cherokee (Iowa) Community School District.

Joe Brown, superintendent, Grand Meadow School District.

In discussion about the final three, former board chairman Ken Petersen listed Bettino, Funk and Chalstrom as his favorites. He said he looked at four key areas: personnel management, student achievement, approaches to diversity and personality fit.

Board members generally agreed that Bettino and Funk made the cut, but Sally Ehrhardt was the first to mention she was unsure about Chalstrom, noting he was intelligent but dry. Linda Laurie agreed and said he didn’t relate well in his interview.

Then Jolinda Schreiber cited Chalstrom for failing to say much about goals. She suggested going with Brown.

The board members called the candidates by numbers, not names, during the deliberations.

Schreiber said Brown was the only one who dealt with hard-to-answer questions to losing enrollment. Grand Meadow is growing in enrollment.

“In hard times, you have to have somebody who is different,” Schreiber said.

The knock on Brown was that he gave long, political-type answers that didn’t exactly give answers to the questions, and Chalstrom was said to look good on paper though his interview was lacking in appeal.

Villarreal said he is not a fan of interviews. He said he worried Brown will “either be very good or he’s going to be very bad.” He said Bettino, who went first on the first day of interviewing, set the bar high.

Two consultants from Mankato-based BKB Associates shared the board’s scratch paper findings of support and gave direction.

Ehrhardt proposed bringing back only the top two. Villarreal said it would be better to bring back the top four. The debate then turned on whether to invite three or four candidates — basically, whether to invite Brown back.

Board Chairman Bill Leland said he feels Chalstrom did not interview well but does have concrete answers in his application. Leland said he worries about Brown polarizing the district’s voters.

“We don’t need somebody who is going to bring this type of change to the district,” he said.

Brown is a former Iowa state senator whose wife is a Minnesota state representative.

Petersen noted the board will get to know the candidates better in coming rounds.

Villarreal said he likes that many candidates said they wanted to come to Albert Lea because their own children can receive a better education here than at their present districts. Other board members agreed they were impressed by the same comments.

The pay range for superintendents in the Big Nine Conference is $120,000 to $160,000. The Albert Lea superintendent position will pay somewhere in that ballpark.

Cathy Bettino

She has been superintendent of the Pine River-Backus School District for five years. Before that, she worked 11 years as director of the Pine River-Backus Area Learning Center. She has held various teaching positions in New Jersey for 13 years.

Bettino holds a specialist degree in educational leadership from Minnesota State University, Mankato.

Accountability, collaboration and facilitation were key words she sprinkled through her interview.

She touted the Minnesota Rural Education Leadership Program for helping her district see what it can do better because it is rural. She said she has a passion for strategic planning as a result of research and wide input.

“I pride myself on strategic planning. I am a huge strategic planner,” Bettino said.

She said Pine River-Backus updates its strategic plan every other year and makes a great effort to engage the public in the process. The district had a campaign called “Catch the Pride.”

The district developed scorecards to measure how well it was meeting the plan’s directives.

Bettino said it is important to be visible in the community. It is a public-relations tool.

“It gives you credibility as a real person who is part of the community, and it builds trust,” she said.

She said the district had a month-long community read, a John Hassler book.

“The message went out that learning is important,” Bettino said.

She has been the lead negotiator for her school district the past two rounds, she said.

“I am a good negotiator. I think it goes back to being fair and honest,” Bettino said, adding that it helped at Pine River-Backus to have quality negotiators on the other side of the table.

She said she was enthusiastic about Q-Comp because it was another funding stream. Pine River-Backus already had the performance requirements in place. She said she dislikes some of the required hoops but supports the initiative.

Funding priorities for her district at budgeting has been keeping class sizes at elementary levels low, having college credit classes at the high school, and ensuring instructional space.

Pine River-Backus is in a state of declining enrollment, like Albert Lea — which impacts the per-pupil funding formula — and she said she has the experience of “right-sizing” the district.

She said her district is not ethnically diverse, but it is economically diverse. She said she and officials use compensations with at title funding to deal with the challenges, such as keeping all-day-everyday kindergarten.

Staff development is important for effective education, she said, but “it must be purposeful, ongoing and relevant.”

She was elected the chairwoman of the district’s professional development committee, an indicator of her passion for the subject. She also is part of an economic development team for the area.

She said everyone working in her district has evaluations annually.

To meet a math deficiency in the Annual Yearly Progress results last year, the district required teachers to contact parents and went through the Department of Education’s hoops to change their approaches. She said the district already is preparing for next year’s results.

“I can’t imagine there will be anybody who is not on the list come July,” Bettino said.

She said the district will shift students to receive extra doses of the deficient classes.

Bettino said she is happy in Pine River-Backus but was encouraged to apply by her husband. She said what drew her was the Albert Lea community and the amenities it offers. Her children reside in the Twin Cities, and Albert Lea is closer than the Pequot Lakes area.

Mike Funk

Soldiers at the Albert Lea Armory unit likely know Funk because he is a lieutenant colonel in the Minnesota National Guard. He commanded a battalion deployment from July 2007 to July 2008 in a NATO peacekeeping mission to Kosovo. He has been superintendent at Bird Island, Olivia, Lake Lillian School District, often called BOLD, for four years.

He has five years of experience as a teacher in Pepin, Wis., and has taught in the Dover-Eyota and Rochester districts. He possesses a doctorate from the University of Minnesota.

He said he grew up in Rochester and attended Lourdes High School.

He said one strength is his leadership skills and ability to focus on what is important. He said understands big systems and is a skilled communicator.

“I’ve got a good idea for drawing the outline of the picture and having the other people color in the lines,” Funk said.

He said a weakness is that he has not been as visible as before the Kosovo deployment because he has been spending time with his family as a result of being gone for a year. He said he it is important to be seen and be approachable. He said he attends events his children are in and gets perspectives he doesn’t find in the school building.

Community relations, he said, are vital, particularly as districts receive fewer state-aid dollars and need to go to their voters. He said he is on the diversity council at BOLD and is a member of the American Legion.

He said he gets frustrated with people who have preconceived notions.

A key to leadership, he said, is integrity — doing the right thing.

“Make the hard decisions and do what’s best for kids,” Funk said.

Without a strategic vision, an organization becomes stale, he said. He said vision is vital for operations, curriculum and the budget.

“It puts down on paper where the district is headed but more importantly are the aims,” Funk said.

He said he motivates through relationships. He cited a James MacGregor Burns book called “Transforming Leadership” about finding what intrinsically motivates people.

“In Kosovo, it was a key to developing relationships, even though the soldiers had all this weaponry,” Funk said.

He said the school-funding system has been in place since the early 1900s and needs revision but added he hasn’t had much experience with alternative teacher compensation, such as Q-Comp.

“I like to suggest things are research-based,” he said, noting a Star Tribune story that more or less said the jury is still out on Q-Comp’s success. It said 90 percent of Q-Comp districts are getting more money than they were as districts under the usual formula. Funk said Q-Comp has unique components but worries that the funding stream will shift the tax burden to local voters as more districts sign on.

Albert Lea uses Q-Comp. He added he looks forward to being part of the model.

He said his district is looking at cuts but all-day, everyday kindergarten is not on the chopping block.

“I think it is a crime that the state of Minnesota is funding it at 55 percent,” Funk said, adding that studies show its effectiveness.

He said he has shown the ability to make hard choices. Albert Lea is four times the size of BOLD, yet BOLD has lost 200 in the time that Albert Lea has lost 500. He said the focus is on what is best for children.

Funk talked about diversity in terms of America, Greek and Armenian troops he led in Kosovo who didn’t always share the same languages.

“The key there to diversity is shared experiences,” he said. “You try to find things people have in common and build on that.”

He said it is good that Hispanics are migrating less and staying more. He cited community get-togethers he has held to talk about diversity and shared experiences. He said it is good for non-Hispanic kids to get exposure to Spanish.

He said many people point to race when it comes to discrimination but poverty is where discrimination happens.

Funk said the staff development at BOLD is coming in line with the aims of the district. Staff development at BOLD requires teachers to visit other schools “to see how they do it.”

When levies are on the table, the school board “really comes into play” because they grasp the community history and can be honest about how to approach the situation. He said it also pays to talk to business leaders and see the threshold for taxes within the community.

He said evaluations will be goal-focused, rather than putting a number in a box.

Funk said he admires the school-improvement goal of No Child Left Behind and Annual Yearly Progress, but the real value is identifying where the problems are.

Funk said he wants to be superintendent because he wants greater opportunity for his daughters and said Albert Lea has a “dynamic system.”

He said he has commanded large groups overseas and seeks the next level of leadership.

John Chalstrom

He has held the superintendent spot for Cherokee (Iowa) Community School District for four years. He has been in principal and assistant principal positions in Clear Lake, Iowa, and Muscatine, Iowa, for a combined 10 years. He worked six years in Jefferson, Iowa, as a social science teacher. He possesses a doctorate in education from Iowa State University.

Chalstrom said his best strength is a weakness, too: determination. He said he has a passion for education and its importance. He said a strong public education allowed him to advance in life. And he said he finds complacency frustrating.

“We really cannot maintain the status quo,” he said.

There is a disconnect in how students learn and perceive the world and the world the teachers are using to teach, Chalstrom said.

Leadership qualities, he said, include being a listener and being understanding. He said he welcomes dialogue and civil argument.

He said he wants people “very willing to tell me when I’m wrong. I don’t want the yes pat answer.”

He said the best motivator for staff is intrinsic motivation.

“I truly think an organization might fall if only one person is instilling motivation,” Chalstrom said.

He said as an administrator he can identify when staff needs improvement. He uses data and research a lot.

When he was at Muscatine High School, the third largest high school in Iowa at the time, he worked to establish an advanced placement program that now is nationally recognized. He said he had to sell the data to get it rolling.

And he said when harsh cuts were needed, they were made based on data, even when they were popular programs.

Chalstrom said community visibility is an extension of what a superintendent does and he would be comfortable in the role.

“It’s amazing to me some of the most active superintendents I’ve known are always considered not active in their community,” he said.

He added he would be accessible and approachable and he would engage in local economic development.

Iowa’s school-funding formula is simpler than Minnesota’s, and from a budgeting standpoint the school boards know by Oct. 1, when enrollment is certified, what the revenue will be for the following fiscal year. He said the last two districts he has been with are dealing with declining enrollment. He said developing funding strategies during cuts has become a strength.

He said he spends a great deal of time in Cherokee educating the staff, faculty and community on why funding decisions are made.

Chalstrom said some school districts see diversity changes as a burden but he believes in welcoming the influx of students from various backgrounds and ethnicities.

“In Muscatine, our district chose to celebrate diversity and embraced it,” he said.

He said schools are preparing students for a global economy. He said students don’t simply go to an Albert Lea school or a Minnesota school anymore. “You are part of an interdependent world. You need to be an active participant in this world to be successful.”

Chalstrom said staff development must be meaningful to fulfill its purpose and it needs to be aligned with the district goals. He said he would coordinate professional development with the curriculum administrator.

He said it is key to spell out to voters the ramifications of what will happen when levies fail and said the school boards must follow through on that outline.

“Sometimes there is public distrust that there will be a follow-through,” Chalstrom said.

He said wide input is needed in the creation of a strategic plan for the district and it is the superintendent’s job to facilitate the talk.

He said Iowa has a state-mandated evaluation system that recently changed. The old one required checkboxes beside terms such as “needs improvement.” The new one, he said, is focused on coaching and growth. He said he would implement meaningful evaluations.

He said all districts are going to fall behind in AYP as they inch closer to 2013.

“This was the first year we had a building on the watch list,” he said.

In dealing with it, school officials need to collect data and then align resources and teachers to address the deficiencies.

Chalstrom said he wants to be superintendent because Albert Lea possesses tremendous qualities in facilities, staff and quality of life. He said he has two school-aged children and attending Albert Lea would provide diverse opportunities for them.

Joe Brown

Many locals know Brown because his wife, Robin, is the state representative for District 27A. He has been superintendent at Grand Meadow School District for four years. Before that, he was the principal at Austin High School for five years. He worked a year as the head of a charter school in Chicago and has five years of being a principal in LeSueur and Barnum. He is a former state senator in Iowa and is a former teacher in the Montezuma, Iowa, school district.

He said he looked at the board’s preferred requirements and says everyone is a good fit except for one: He doesn’t have a doctorate.

Brown said he is good at asking the “Why not? question. His strength is his embrace for life and his weakness is not getting enough sleep.

He said it drives him crazy when students say they are bored.

“Do you know what the biggest complaint of kids in Chicago is? ‘There’s nothing to do.’ It’s a city of 3 million people,” Brown said.

He said with the present economic and political climate, the only way to increase revenue for a school district is to increase enrollment, which is happening at Grand Meadow.

He said he motivates staff by working to find the resources and needs that allow teachers to teach. He cited how Austin High School had a 20 percent failure-to-graduate rate. He said he implemented a ninth-grade transition program that produced results because he found research that if a student can make it through ninth grade they can make it through high school. The best teachers were made part of the program and 98 of 100 students in the program graduated.

Brown endorses Q-Comp and said Grand Meadow was the first small school district awarded the alternative teacher-pay structure. He said he doesn’t believe that because an organization is large it cannot change.

“Public schools can change as fast as leaders want us to change,” he said.

He said even with Q-Comp and a growing district, hard cuts had to be made at Grand Meadow to get the district in alignment with goals.

He said enrollment went up in part because standards went up — such as all-day, everyday kindergarten, preschool programs, four years of required math and science in high school, giving every second-grader a laptop.

“Whatever it takes,” he said.

Brown said he loves being part of the community. He and his wife often attend fundraiser breakfasts in Albert Lea and enjoy going to music concerts.

He said he goes home late often because he goes to student activities almost nightly. And he said he loves town meetings.

“If I am selected as your superintendent, you’ll get tired of seeing me,” Brown said.

He said to attract good-paying jobs a community needs “citizen-scholars.” He said he liked how in Austin the high school staff visited Quality Pork Processors because it was important to understand where the students’ parents go daily. He said he would ask economic developers what they seek from the school district so the local economy can expand.

He said not all children come to school at the same level and he wants to recognize some students need more instruction time than others.

“Not everybody’s the same, so why do we treat them the same in terms of time. I’ve never understood that,” Brown said.

He quoted hockey great Wayne Gretsky: “I always skated to where the puck was going, not to where it’s been.”

“That is the role of a superintendent. You have to be skating to where the puck is going,” Brown said.

He said he admired the Albert Lea City Council’s comprehensive plan, noting that cleaning up properties will help with local growth, and said he intends to be ahead when it comes to strategic planning.

He said a great secret of Minnesota schools is the lack of administration and teacher evaluations. He said he implemented evaluations in Grand Meadow and started staff development that was tied to the curriculum goals and teaching standards.

He said his district dealt with AYP deficiencies by having students double up on math and language arts and expanding the title program.

He said he builds a climate where people are physically safe and psychologically safe, too

Brown said he wants to be superintendent in Albert Lea because he has committed to staying in Freeborn County for life. He said he loves Grand Meadow but Albert Lea makes a great fit for him.