Mike St. Onge, Grand Forks School Board candidate (incumbent)Age: 59
Job: Regional manager, Titan Machinery
Family: Wife, Linda; two daughters and one granddaughter, all in Grand Forks
Education level: B.S. in business administration
Leadership experience: Grand Forks president, Alerus Financial; Grand Forks School Board member and former president; Red River Booster president; Services Board, North Dakota Bankers Association
By: Ryan Johnson , Grand Forks Herald
Q. Why do you want to continue serving on the Grand Forks School Board?
A. Education has always been a passion of mine. My wife has taught in the Grand Forks Public Schools for about 27 years now. She’ll retire this year, as a matter of fact. I have a daughter who teaches now at Ben Franklin; she’s in her seventh year over there. So education has always been a part of our family. I’ve always enjoyed all aspects of it and educating children.
The first couple of years after you run for the School Board and are elected are a learning experience, because while you think education is the main thing you do, actually it’s only a small part of the overall picture, which includes financing, it includes understanding national issues and how they impact you, it includes a variety of things that you don’t even think about. So with eight years in now, I think I’m probably in a position where I have the knowledge to help serve as we go forward.
We had the survey and the consultant's report. We’ve done an NCA (district accreditation) visit here. We’ve basically had a forum. So we’ve done a variety of things this year to get us set up for the future, to put a plan in place now for what will take the Grand Forks School District forward.
All of those pieces are exciting for me because now we get to formulate and put that plan in place. That would be it in a nutshell.
Really, the one word that I always put is kids. I’m in it for kids. So whatever we do has to focus on what’s best for the children of the Grand Forks Public Schools, of the city of Grand Forks. That’s why I’m in it.
Q. What are the issues facing the School Board?
A. Let’s look at the positive first. We have a variety of programs in place. We test our children now individually more than once a year -- it's twice a year and sometimes three times a year. We’re able to identify quickly what the needs of children are. We have interventions in place now that enable us to look at individual children’s needs and be able to move them forward. So the goal here is to continue to do those kinds of programs, keep the quality of school district we have with declining enrollment and an Air Force Base group that continues to decline and that affects the impact-aid money that comes with it as well as the students who come with it. So, we’ve got some financing issues.
We also have the No Child Left Behind laws. How that’s going to go forward, how (U.S. Secretary of Education) Arne Duncan and President Obama are going to view education as they look at that particular aspect of the law -- that will be important.
So the challenges in front of us are to be able to keep the quality of school district that we have and to continue to improve. And I don’t mean just test scores because test scores, as we’ve found in No Child Left Behind, there are no two states that essentially have the same standards. We have some that are less rigorous, some that are more rigorous. This is not a national standard.
Declining enrollment: I can’t really do a lot about that, but it certainly is one of the issues, as is rightsizing the school district to be able to sync up with the enrollment numbers. Part of the study that we saw when we had the consultant come in is the recommendation to close two schools. Some people would say that’s a good reason to get off the School Board. I like to look at it as an opportunity to put together the best possible organization we can have to serve children and to do it with the finances that we have.
So: the financing issue, the impact aid, and will the state continue to prosper? I think it will, with the oil the way it is. But will we be able to get those dollars and bring them here? Will we be able to keep property taxes reasonable in Grand Forks as we look at refunding education?
In 2015, the Grand Forks Public Schools are mandated to vote again. We have an unlimited levy today. That unlimited levy (because of the property tax relief that we got at the last legislative session) will disappear.
So we’ll have to vote as a group, as a community. We’ll have to reaffirm our dedication to education by voting to have enough mills to be able to operate the kind of school district that we have.
There are many, many more issues that you could talk about. But those would be the main ones that come to mind.
Q. The school district has seen declining enrollment for years. What can be done to either reverse that trend or deal with falling student numbers?
A. Birthrates continue to go down. Let’s face it. And also, the population of this community continues to grow at a very moderate rate -- I’d say 1 percent or 2 percent a year. The problem there, too, is that the growth we see is often elder citizens moving in here because of the health care. And that’s wonderful that they come here for that; that certainly helps us in our community. But it doesn’t help us with the number of students that we’re going to get.
The Air Base continues to be a challenge. The repurposing of the base does not appear to be imminent, nor does it appear to be a real good chance that it’s going to be anything that will put a major number of parents and thus children coming back into the school district.
Unless, of course, of a sudden the businesses we have in Grand Forks decide they need more people to work here, and more people are drawn to the community. That’s certainly something that the Economic Development Corp. works on every day. So our other side of this, very simply, is to look at how do we rightsize our school district for what’s ahead of us.
And that in the light of neighborhood schools. Our neighborhood schools are what really make us proud and also cause us consternation as we try to look at what we’re going to do, because neighborhood schools 20 years ago and how they have to work today are two entirely different things. The fact that your house is across the street from a school -- that certainly is wonderful. But if it’s across the street from a school that only has 75 children in it, then what are we going to do to take care of that? And that happens; that’s where we are today.
As we look at this and look at having those discussions with the community, it’s always interesting. You’re going to have to make a decision at some point, but what you have to do is go out and visit with the individuals, have the discussions; we did that when we took half of the kids at West and moved them to Lake Agassiz. It’s a discussion that we had with the community.
That’s begun with the things that we’ve already started with the consultants, also the public forum. So the next piece of this is going to be to have that discussion and to try to get the school buildings, the use of those buildings, in line with the number of students that we have. And to do that so we don’t have to do it continuously.
One of the suggestions that I’ve heard is, "Well, why don’t you just redraw the boundaries?" If you’ve ever been involved in anything like this and you go out and have to tell people each year that they just were changed to another boundary, that’s a bad thing. I would much rather take my chances with explaining how this school is not going to be here as it was last year and then tell people how we’re gong to take care of their kids the very best way we can someplace else than I would trying to rejigger boundaries every year.
So there is no defined answer other than to be sure the resources that the public is nice enough to entrust us with are best used. And that doesn’t mean having really, really small schools. We just can’t do that anymore.
Q. A few years ago, there was a somewhat similar debate about whether to build a new school to accommodate the southern and western growth. What’s your thought on that?
A. The problem we’ve got right now with looking at new schools is the cost. A new school is going to cost a ton of money. They’re certainly nice, and they’re wonderful for the area that you build them in. But one of the reasons, the main reason, that we’ve kept the schools in the good repair that we have is that’s a resource that is given to us by this community. To let them go into disrepair and then say we need a new school building would not be prudent.
So you look way south in Grand Forks, you say, "Gee, we probably could build another school out there." But then we would have to repurpose our existing buildings on the north end. Would we do some of that? We may get there. There's always the "If you build it, they will come" attitude here in Grand Forks, which essentially was how Century school was built. But at that time, you knew that Grand Forks would be growing in the area around Century; you knew that that would happen. You get further south, you’re not sure how much longer it will take for that to fill in. So "they will come" part may not be for quite a while.
Today, I’d much rather take the buildings that we have that are in really good shape on the north end and get those worked so we can get the optimum number of students within a new definition of neighborhood.
Q. A consultant recently suggested closing Wilder and West elementary schools. What do you think of that recommendation?
A. We’ve monitored these numbers very closely, and I think we’ve all known that with those declining numbers, we were going to have to take action. We actually have delayed that action a bit because the northwest neighborhood has those dollars from the Knight Foundation that are committed into turning that neighborhood into a more people-friendly place. More population, more lower income housing, more housing for folks with small families, starter homes -- the things that we lost during the flood. And the things that we continue to lose at the university because of the houses that should be sold to people are instead being rented to college students.
What I’m saying is that the school doesn’t necessarily have to be the center of that. That neighborhood is that neighborhood. It has great character; it’s a strong neighborhood. We can continue to build the housing we have in that neighborhood up, and then put the young people in any school building. It doesn’t mean that you have to keep Wilder open. It only means that you have to continue to have a strong neighborhood there to rationalize where those schools are going to be on the north end.
Would I want to see Wilder and West closed? I don’t want to see any school closed, but I want really good education for kids. As you get smaller and smaller, that good education for kids becomes more difficult and more costly to deliver. So if I had to go out and work with the public and talk about that, I could do that. And what I would again say very simply is, don’t focus on the closing of the school, focus on what we’re going to deliver at the school where your children will be going. And that’s really the story that comes with this.
Because it might not be Wilder and West. The consultant recommended them for strong reasons, but whether I agree or disagree doesn’t really matter. It’s just that we need to rightsize. So if we’re going to do that, I think we should get on with the dialogue. Have the discussions and at some point in time, the decision is going to have to be made.
Q. What’s the timeline for that kind of a decision?
A. First of all the strategic plan that we’re working on. As a result of all of those pieces that you saw -- the NCA study, the consultant’s report, the forum -- all of those pieces now let us go forward and put together what our strategic plan will be.
The administration will come back to us with its recommendation. Now we all know that even if you were going to close a school, that can’t be done the day after you make the decision. So we'll have to go out.
I'd say you’re probably going to have a full year of talking about it before you get to the position that you’re going to be able to make that determination.
So will it be quickly? Probably not. Will it be with good discussion with the public? Yes it will. I can guarantee you that. I can also guarantee you that we will displease someone; that comes with the territory. I would hope that anybody that we would displease, they would find themselves very pleased with the quality of education they get wherever they end up.
Q. What do you think are the district’s current weaknesses and strengths, and how would you address them?
A. Let’s go with strengths first; that’s always a little more fun to talk about. The obvious strengths of this school district are the history that it’s had and the commitment from the community. The community has always been willing to put resources into it. What they’ve seen is those resources being well-used by whatever school board it happens to be and whatever administration, whatever teacher group.
I had a chance to go to the "teacher tea" again, the teacher-recognition tea. If you ever get a chance to do that, you should. It’s amazing how many 25- and 20- and 15-year employees we have. There’s very limited turnover in the teachers who teach our children.
Today also, you would see that we have with the curriculum piece we put in place that (director of curriculum) Terry Brenner heads up. We have someone now who works on constantly looking to improve not only our curriculum but also how we teach children within that curriculum. That’s getting to be a major strength.
The interventions that we use, the response intervention -- things that we use at both high school and elementary level -- huge pluses. "Childhood learning" is now getting to be a science in that we know why young people don’t learn, and we have teachers and professional learning communities that get together and talk to each other about it. Not about whether you guess this child is where they are, but you know they’re where they are and how you can help each other get them to a higher place. That would be another strength.
Quite frankly, the weakness that I see is the declining enrollment. That’s the major one in my mind. And with that comes funding problems. And it’s interesting that even though people will say to me, "Mike, you must be crazy," I’m already telling people that we’re heading down a path where we’re going to have to increase our mill levy to take care of funding education.
People would say, "You can’t say that. You’re doing two new facilities for the arts, you’re doing those kinds of things. How could you be financially strapped?"
Well, what I’m really saying is that capital improvements are something that the public has always bought into. Buying into that gives us a capital budget that lets us to continue to improve buildings, do those things that are best for educating children. Where we have issues is that declining enrollment means less funding. Declining enrollment at the base means less federal aid. All those "lesses" mean we’re still going to have buildings and programs to support with fewer and fewer children to do it with. So the challenge is going to be to continue to manage those.
One of the ways we do that today is by offering an early retirement program for teachers. That program serves two purposes: First, it rewards our longtime teachers and gives them the chance to get out and do something different. Second, the teachers who leave us usually are the more highly paid. If we need to replace them, we replace them with lower salary teachers.
And third, doing this each year lets us look at class size and mix -- and if we don’t need to rehire teachers, we do not.
We call it rightsizing. It’s always better to rightsize and not have to "rif" (reduction in force). We’ve been very fortunate by using that tool to manage ourselves down to a right size.
Q. As you know, the teacher pension fund in North Dakota now is more underfunded than before because of the downturn in the stock market. What are your thoughts about pensions and Grand Forks’ future with the teacher pension fund?
A. That’s a nationwide problem, and it isn’t just education. I’m an oldster; I’m 58 years old now. I will be 59 in August. My first job had both a defined benefit plan and a 401k together, both of them in the same package. And in those days, that’s what industry was able to do. They felt that that was good for their employees and kept them competitive versus others.
But the problem, as we all know, is that actuarially, we’re not supposed to live as long as we currently do. So that gets to be a big issue with any pension plan today: the actuarial equations mean that instead of you living to be 80, you’re now making 90 and 92 and 93 and 95. Which is wonderful; that’s a great thing. Except that you sometimes outlive the dollars that originally were intended for you.
Plus, there's the up and down in the stock market. We would not be having this discussion if the Dow had gone from 14,000 to 15,000, not 14,000 to 6,500. You look at it within that context and say, "Well, what is an underfunded pension, and what is an overfunded pension?" Well, when they’re overfunded when the Dow was at 14,000, nobody took money back out, either. So we’ve been kind of monitoring that as we’ve gone along.
I think we’ve got to continue to look at it. We’ve got to continue to look at where that number has to be, where the actuaries say it has to be to support the system. As some point in time, you may have to make a cutoff and change to a different program. It’s been done in private industry all over the place. When you look at doing that, though, you’ve got a lot of folks who would not be very pleased with that. Obviously, if I were going to look at doing it, I would want to be sure that I fulfilled the commitment to the people that I’m committed to. So that means younger teachers today might see something different as time goes on whereas our more experienced teachers probably would not.
I think ultimately, it may not be sustainable. The reason I say "may" is that we’re not sure. I know one thing: If you continue to count on the state to take money from one pocket and move it over here to pay for pensions, eventually states are going to get into trouble by having to do that.
We in North Dakota actually are very prudent. We don’t pay for lifetime health care for our teachers; they have to do that their own. Michigan has lifetime health care. Think about that one: If you think you have issues with just the investment side of this thing, think of having to take care of 4 percent to 20 percent increases in health care premiums every year through a pension or through state dollars.
Q. Another item for state employees is that the pension is not indexed for inflation.
A. Again, we in North Dakota as always are prudent. Do I begrudge any school teacher the pension that they’ve earned after putting in those kinds of years? No. Most of the people that go into teaching go into it in the first place because they love it. Because if they went in it for the money, they really don’t understand how much money there could be out there in other things. Most teachers love to do it. That’s why I think the pension that we’re able to give them now is a nice reward. I don’t think it’s over the top. I just hope we can continue to sustain it.
Q. Where would you like to see the district in 10 years and how would you work to get to that point?
A. I would like to see us do the things we’ve done, continue to adjust curriculum to student learning and continue to involve our teachers and the community in improving the education of our children. Put the tools in place, test regularly, then use the necessary tools to enhance learning. And continue to work with all of the staff together to make that an integral part of what you do.
We did a book study this year talking about a school district in Washington that had decided they were going to get all of their students reading at grade level. Ninety percent of their students reading at grade level or above by the end of a certain period of time. Once they got there, then they wanted to go further, and that’s where I’m at.
It’s when you sit there and think we’re good, we don’t have anything to improve on, we’re just going to sit here and we’ll just live on our laurels, that’s when you get into trouble. And I think right now, I’m the most energized I’ve been in ages because I think of what we can do with all of the information we've assembled. It’s those outside opinions that enable you as a school district to not get caught up in yourself and looking only at yourself but to let other people look at you and not be afraid of what they find -- rather, to take what they find and learn from it.