Year in Review: Education was about security in 2013
If there was one overarching theme that defined Rochester Public Schools and other area districts in 2013, it was security.
This was the year when camera-and-intercom systems were installed at Rochester elementary and middle schools, and visitors found their way barred by locked doors during the school day. It was the year when Rochester officials conducted war game-like scenarios with law enforcement and other emergency agencies to imagine how they might respond in the event of an active shooter.
It was the year when Rochester schools began to update their own emergency plans and prepare for the one-in-a-million possibility that a child might be killed in a school shooting. Those plans stressed evacuation and fleeing rather than hunkering down and waiting for the worst to pass in a school shooting.
Schools long have known that school shootings were a possibility, but Newtown, Conn., where 26 people, including 20 children, were massacred in a shooting, transformed those calculations from it-can-happen-anywhere to it-can-happen-here.
"I think it's a major shift," said Amanda Klinger, a security consultant with The Educator's School Safety Network, a school security firm hired by Rochester schools. "You see schools on a continuum, from schools like Rochester that have really been proactive to schools that don't want to discuss it."
While school security will remain a predominant issue in 2014, it will be far from the only one for Rochester schools. Deficits and budgets, technology and one-to-one tablet programs, and contracts and teacher salaries also will be major discussion points next year. Others are:
• The Rochester School Board will likely grapple early next year with whether to hold an override levy referendum in 2014 to provide more revenue to the district. It also may have to decide whether to build a new elementary school, given current enrollment trends.
Rochester is projecting a $6.6 million shortfall for 2014-15 and a $9.1 million deficit the following year. In the interim, officials are looking at tapping the district's unassigned fund balance to dispose of $5 million of the deficit. But the rainy day fund, they acknowledge, is not inexhaustible. Eventually, more money will be needed to right the district's fiscal imbalance, either from the state or local property taxpayers, if it does not rely primarily on budget cuts.
Rochester School Board Chairman Gary Smith said an override referendum, if the board agrees to seek one, can't simply be about asking voters for more money.
"I don't know what the board will do about that," Smith said. "The majority of the board is going to want to know how it's going to improve education for the students. We have to have a compelling narrative and believe that if we decide to go ask voters to do that, it's going to actually result in improving education for our students, not just maintaining the status quo."
• The district and the Rochester Education Association are at loggerheads over a new two-year contract for teachers. The old contract expired six months ago, and the impasse has prompted both sides to seek a state-mediated mediator in attempt to resolve their differences.
• Another area of debate — and one not unrelated to money — will be technology. When Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius rejected the district's plan to fund a one-to-one iPad plan more than a year ago, the effort to get a tablet into the hands of every one of the district's nearly 17,000 students was dealt a setback. But it was not abandoned.
Since then, a district finance committee has been studying the costs and funding options of such a plan. The board could receive the committee's report as early as next month. Once it does, the board will have to decide whether to move forward with a plan that will add pressure to the district's finances.