Commentary: Menahga needs to invest in school expansion, future programming

Our recent board election will change the face of this board, and now it will change more. Due to both personal and business reasons, I will be formally leaving my position on the Menahga School Board on Dec. 31, 2016.

Ernest Huhta Jr.
Ernest Huhta Jr.

Our recent board election will change the face of this board, and now it will change more. Due to both personal and business reasons, I will be formally leaving my position on the Menahga School Board on Dec. 31, 2016.

I reflect on the many years that I have served, going back to the mid-90s with distinguished and longtime board members like Curtis Hasbargen, Durwin Tomperi, Brad Goehrig and many others. Back then, we successfully dealt with our needs, addressed space issues, sought financial stability, and the best of all, we supported one another even though there wasn't total agreement on all issues. But once a vote was taken, the majority vote became the will of the board and district and all board members got behind it.

Along with Curtis, who has dedicated 32 years to this board, the rest of the board and myself worked to solve the chronic battle we had with our employees and their unions. We turned our relationships into value instead of conflict. We've directed and supported our administration to hire the absolute best staff possible to serve our kids. We've obtained good leadership in our principals and also the hiring of Mr. Wellen as superintendent.

Over the past many years, and with at least four failed bond referendum attempts, this board has been forced to give constant attention to dealing with our growth needs. We have remodeled, added new space, repurposed existing unused spaces, shoved kids and classes into the hallways, made non-designed spaces into other non-traditional education spaces, and now we have hit a wall. Without new space, we cannot offer safe, effective and future-directed education in Menahga.

It has been said in politics that if you sling enough mud at the wall, some of it will stick. After community engagement with two different firms and a VEDI report that stated our community didn't like the divisive relationship of the board, we now have many points of mudslinging and propaganda from off the local campaign trail that are reflected in the election results on our board, such as:


• That we don't need more space and simply increasing class sizes will address the space needs

• That if we didn't have open enrollment, our space issues would be resolved

• That we lose money on open enrollment and busing them means we must drive clear out of the way to get these kids

• That the board cannot be trusted with recommending any building project and that they, with prior administration, had false future student enrollment projections to scare voters into supporting an oversized building project

• That the board, with the administration, is just trying to ram tax increases down the throats of voters

• That the only new space needed in our our school is for a metal shed for shop classes

• That the school's policies on weapons is overkill and that two board members purposely cornered and framed an individual, and enforcement of the violation took away First Amendment rights.

Mudslinging can be about any issues, but rarely does it have enough fact or truth in it to hold water, like the negative editorials to damage the reputation of others or raise contradictory points that are not fact-based and don't tell the whole story. In politics and propaganda, a half-truth is even better when combine with a bald-faced lie.


I pray this new board will take heart and stay focused on what is best for kids, address the critical needs for space and projected growth, and come to our community with a building project that is unanimously supported by all members and not publicly undermined for personal expediency.

Our world is changing, and the face of education is changing to meet that demand. We need to prepare our children for a very different work world than most of us have grown up with. Technology needs to be at the core, with collaboration and project-based learning as the method to teach our kids and reach how industry is using employees in the real work world.

I believe that the new board will need to deal with a thorough and comprehensive building project to address the swelling growth and future needs. This project will need to include flexible classrooms and spaces, special education space, new gym and phy-ed spaces, new lunchroom and serving options, commons areas, offices, storage, administration space. It needs to integrate early learning back into our building. This will allow us to not only handle our own in-district growth that - despite the caps placed on open enrollment in the last three years - has continued to expand, as predicated almost 10 years ago.

We need to lift the caps on open enrollment for the future of this district, but for that to happen, we would need new space. Again, as in the past, open enrollment would help support the new space. Our 1993 high school addition wouldn't have been possible without open enrollment, and now it cannot even support the growth in the high school. Open enrollment has helped us maintain the financial stability we have and keep local taxes low. State aid will contribute a huge part of any building project we take on as our total student body count is factored into our funding formulas and this includes open enrollment.

The long-term effect of continued capping of open enrollment will be a curse to this district. School choice in Minnesota is a valued asset, and other districts demonstrate that open enrollment is part of the reality of our state. They create aggressive advertising to draw families and students into their district. Both Nevis and Verndale passed referendums with 50 percent of their student body coming from open enrollment. Why? Because they knew that if they cannot provide adequate space and programming, parents and students will leave to surrounding districts that will invest in their kids and future.

We have been blessed. We are a school that families desire to have their kids go to school at. I am confident this new board, our administration, our staff can deal with the needs of the district. I encourage the engagement and input of our community to solve the thorny issue of our space needs.

We are one of only a few districts in Minnesota that is growing, has extremely healthy fund balances, has the highest possible state funding due to a low property tax base with almost the lowest voter funding contribution to its school - and all with no operating referendum to fund education.

If it hadn't been for good management during weak economics, and also open enrollment with the state dollars that follow these kids, we wouldn't have the stable financial position we do.


There is a three-legged milk stool to keeping a viable community: faith/churches, business/jobs and schools. In Menahga, we value the religious diversity in our community and welcome families. We support and want to grow business and jobs in our areas. And a growing school means this community has a bright future. It's our responsibility as a community and district to see to it that we support all three legs of the stool. Don't think you can cut or undermine any leg of the stool and still expect our community to survive.

Durwin understands the difficulty, but as your board chair, I have given more than adequate time for dissenting voices on our board. I apologize for that which may have caused unnecessary conflict or allowed destructive speech.

This last year has been sheer pleasure to work with and serve you all, but in resigning, I take away the destructive need for the negative few who may want to put unnecessary focus on myself or undermine the work of the board.

New board members will take an oath when they take their seats this coming January, and this community wants you all to act in a respectful manner with each other, honor school district policies, not micromanage administration or staff, and support the majority will of the board.

Related Topics: EDUCATION
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