School Board meets with representatives of City, County to discuss idea of working together

Jessica Stölen-Jacobson
Montevideo American-News

At last week’s meeting of the Montevideo School Board, a group gathered consisting of City Council representatives, and County Commissioners, who were invited to join the meeting by Superintendent Wade McKittrick in order to discuss ideas around the three government entities working together for a more productive future. McKittrick reported to the board that he and City Manager Robert Wolfington have been meeting periodically since July to discuss what’s going on with the City and School District and how the two entities could better pool resources. “We talked about the idea of bringing some of the City Council members to our School Board meeting as well as some of the County Commissioners so that we could do nothing more, really than be able to start the engagement. To start the dialogue on how we can work better together so that hopefully we can accomplish things more efficiently, more quickly, and more effectively,” said McKittrick. “Really, the idea isn’t for this to be one and done. The idea is for this to be a starting point that we can indeed get some things on the table that we might want to work together.”

Wolfington added, “This is an exciting time for Montevideo. We’ve got some new faces on the School Board, Council, and there are some exciting things with the Veterans Home and other things going on in the community.” The group took the opportunity to provide introductions, each person talking briefly about how long they have lived in Montevideo and what led them to serve on the board or committee they serve on currently. Of those in attendance was County Commissioner of District Four Bill Pauling, County Commissioner of District 5 David Lieser, City Council member Dan Sanborn and City Council member Bev Olson.  Superintendent McKittrick posed a question to the group about what they saw as the primary challenges for the community. School Board member Tyler Sachariason offered the idea that the community faces challenges of economic stability and poverty, while Lieser offered the idea of changing demographics. School Board member Becky Pauling identified having students return to the community after graduating and having the opportunities available for them to do so as a primary challenge facing the community. Olson noted the growth of the City is a need that should be addressed. “I think of being a true community where we look out for one another and stay connected in whatever ways we can, is important,” said Leiser. Wolfington offered that one of the areas he has identified as needing improvement in the way the City operates is in communications with Spanish-speaking community members. “We don’t have anybody on staff who speaks fluent Spanish. We’ve got a large Spanish-speaking population in our community. We have an increasing diversity in our community as well, and one of the goals that I’ve set for myself, for our organization is how to address that as an issue,” Wolfington said. “Our community is evolving and we need to embrace everybody in our community and not just focus on the perception of what it has been.” Councilmember Dan Sanborn noted that his thoughts on priorities centered on elected officials in the community being open and honest. “We seem to have an environment in the community where us, as board members, think we’re above everybody else. We’re not. I’m a cashier. We need to all work together not only as a School Board but City and County. Not just for Montevideo but for all of the surrounding community. We’re all here for one purpose and one purpose only, and that’s to make Montevideo and the surrounding communities a better place to live,” Sanborn said.

McKittrick also asked what specific initiatives the City and County are currently working on that are of the highest priority. Lieser pointed out that the County has been looking into daycare as an ongoing issue of top priority, while Wolfington reported that the City is in a current state of looking into new projects as years-long projects are coming to a close. “A lot of the significant projects that were underway since before my time, and since I’ve been here are reaching a conclusion. I’m always looking for new housing projects. A lot of times when low to moderate-income housing comes up, there’s a lot of concern about what that means,” Wolfington said. “I’m looking to get across that low to moderate-income housing would be most of Montevideo. Most of Montevideo [residents] would currently qualify for that. One of the key things I think we, as a community, a county, a school need to address is what the housing need is and what is the best way to address it.”

McKittrick noted that his belief is that if the three entities are able to form an alliance to regularly discuss issues and how they can work together on them, that the approach could be beneficial for the entire community. “I’m not looking at it as how does this benefit 'us' [motioning at the board], but how does this benefit 'we' [motioning to the room]. If we’re able to work together, for example, on the retention of students. Those kids who graduate, who go off to college and want to come back and make this home, or want to enter the workforce after graduating high school here. If we come up with strategies to make that happen, and partnerships in our community that allow kids to have internships and work experiences while they’re in school. If we can get them out into your industries to see what is here, that could have an impact on the entirety of our community. What if we had a 20 percent retention rate? If we had a 40 percent retention rate for the next ten years, that would put the community on the trajectory to raise the population to over seven thousand people. What does that do for the County and City for economic development, or being able to recruit businesses into our community?” McKittrick said. 

Wolfington proposed that in the next couple of months, an ad hoc committee along with members of the School Board, County Commissioners, and City Council members be formed. “It’s not always fun to sit at meetings, but I think this is kind of a fun thing to talk about and work through,” said Wolfington. “We’ve had a lot of questions about the safe route to school plans and trails have been a big discussion in our community. I’ve been hesitant to update our safe route to school plans because what if there’s a future building update or change. That’s one example of where it’s good for us to work together to foresee these kinds of things.” It was decided that McKittrick and Wolfington will work together to schedule meeting times and locations in the near future.

Additionally at the School Board meeting, Superintendent McKittrick took the opportunity on behalf of the school administration to thank the board for giving the district the ability to offer free admissions week during Homecoming. “It was a great week,” said McKittrick. “There were so many things that happened that I wish we would have been able to catch on camera and put out to the community as a source of pride. I think the highlight of my week was the Volleyball game on Tuesday when the National Anthem wouldn’t play and the speakers just produced silence. The kids said ‘we got it' and they sang the National Anthem. The part that was even cooler was after the kids broke into it, it didn’t take very long for the entire gym to join in and it was such a goosebump moment. I was so proud of the kids for doing that.” Additionally, McKittrick pointed out that the events had a very high attendance compared to when the admission is not free. “It raises exposure for the kids, for the activities. It makes the kids feel good with the crowds and gets the younger kids excited to participate when they are older,” he said. Activities Director Jesse Nelson noted that he would like to work out future free admission nights for various sporting events to help encourage community participation.