I hope this newsletter finds you well! Included below you will find information about me that may be of interest as we build our working relationship together. I look forward to our future and ask you to contact me whenever you need support, have time, or would like to share a fantastic story about your work that I might share with our members. I wish you all the best as you carry out some of the most difficult work of our lifetime.
Years ago when I joined MASA as an Executive Director in Saint Paul Public Schools, I could not have imagined that one day I would be selected to lead the organization. I believe that my experience in rural, suburban and urban schools as a social studies teacher, assistant principal, principal, executive director, chief of staff, and superintendent for 13 years will be of great benefit as I work to improve upon the solid foundation of MASA. I have served on the MASA Legislative Committee, Member Services Committee, the Foundation Board, and as President of MASA. I have had a deep commitment over the years to MASA and am very proud to serve as executive director.
In the spirit of Simon Senek who authored, Start with Why, I will share that my why in this position is straightforward. I am at your service whether you would like information, need support, advocacy at the legislature or with a state agency, have an idea to improve MASA, or you just need to talk to someone you can trust to be confidential. Please don’t hesitate to invite me to join your meetings. I value learning about what you are doing and will look for ways to assist you.
Three fun facts
I am in my 55th year of water skiing on the same ski I learned on-yes you can find similar skis in antique stores!
My chocolate chip cookies are legendary!
I am married to a retired BNSF railroad engineer, have two sons, two daughter-in-laws, and seven grandchildren. The oldest grandchild is a boy who is a new teenager followed by six girls who are 8, 6, 5, 5, 2 1/2, and 2 1/2. Yes there are two sets of twins in that group and they belong to the same parents!
It is my pleasure and honor to be serving as your MASA President for the 2020-2021 school year. I look forward to working with all of you to tackle the challenges we have in front of us.
All of you are doing important work to make tomorrow a better day. When the coronavirus pandemic hit Minnesota in March, schools were closed, businesses were shuttered and everyone had to very quickly adapt to a series of changes in their lifestyles and daily routines.
Nearly five months later, we are all still adapting and adjusting. For me, this has been a summer like no other. All of us have been hard at work developing plans for the various possible scenarios for school this fall. In addition, all of us have been working to communicate the clarity of our processes and procedures in a world that expects certainty.
In this world of expected certainty, it is apparent to me that fear and anxiety reign supreme. I am sure you have received many opinions and thoughts from your constituents. Taking in all of this “feedback” can certainly take its toll on leaders. Finding a support network and keeping perspective can become difficult. A book I read this summer has helped me keep perspective in this world of craziness: Dare To Lead, by Brene’ Brown. In the book, Brown discusses surrounding yourself with other leaders who have “been there and done that” and recaptures the infamous “Man in the Arena” speech by President Theodore Roosevelt:
If you are not in the arena getting your ass kicked on occasion, I’m not interested in or open to your feedback. There are a million cheap seats in the world today filled with people who will never be brave with their lives but who will spend every ounce of energy they have hurling advice and judgment at those who dare greatly. Their only contributions are criticism, cynicism, and fear-mongering. If you’re criticizing from a place where you’re not also putting yourself on the line, I’m not interested in what you have to say.
It is incumbent upon us as colleagues to provide each other with support. I encourage all of you to reach out to colleagues near or far to check in with them and find a way to support one another. Sometimes that support comes in the form of a listening ear, a venting partner or someone who lifts your spirits with humor. It is more important than ever that we connect just to talk about what life has been like the past five months in an effort to center ourselves.
In the weeks and months to come, stay connected, centered and take care of yourself and your colleagues.
The Minnesota Association of School Administrators (MASA) is a service organization representing more than 900 Minnesota superintendents, directors of special education, curriculum and technology leaders, central office administrators, higher education administrators and professors, as well as more than 250 retirees. In addition to providing professional learning opportunities, legal assistance, mentoring, and association communications to its members, MASA also provides legislative advocacy within Minnesota and throughout the nation.
MASA is a state affiliate of the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), maintains an active Federal Advocacy Committee, and has four representatives serving on the National AASA Governing Board. These efforts, committees and representatives ensure that all Minnesota educators have a voice and seat at the table, while helping to shape the state and national education agenda. The Federal Advocacy Committee is responsible for establishing communications with Minnesota’s eight U.S. Congresspersons and Minnesota U.S. Senators. As more federal legislation is enacted that impacts local schools, these committees and representatives work towards a strong and unified voice to influence legislation.
As a superintendent over the last ten years, former MASA Committee Chair, and current representative on the National AASA Governing Board, I have had the opportunity to work with extremely dedicated educational leaders committed to doing good things for kids, schools, and communities each and every day. The work continues to be important, exhausting, and exhilarating, and is something we must continue to prioritize. I am grateful to serve on the National Board with Superintendent John Cselovszki (Sleepy Eye), Superintendent Brandon Lunak (Moorhead), and Superintendent Craig Oftedahl (Luverne), as well as with MASA Executive Director Henton, and members of the MASA Executive Board, which include Superintendent Jeff Elstad (Owatonna), Superintendent David Law (Anoka-Hennepin), and Superintendent Scott Thielman (Buffalo-Hanover-Montrose). These individuals, as well as many others work tirelessly for you, MASA, and most importantly, our children.
As a beginning superintendent, I remember being quite overwhelmed on a day-to-day basis, finding legislative work to be intimidating. I also remember not being able to even think about things happening outside my school district or at a national level. When I was invited to the Capitol to talk with area legislators, or to work on policy…I would think, “who has time for that?” or “I don’t think I am qualified or should be speaking on behalf of other Minnesotans or superintendents.” Now, I realize just how important it is, and how our work makes our systems, states, and school districts among the best in the nation. I do not have all the answers, but I continue to learn with and from my colleagues, and am passionate about making our school districts and states better for all learners. While there is always much more to do, I am proud of what we continue to accomplish but recognize, more than ever, that federal advocacy has a significant impact on our educational institutions and that I / we must remain actively engaged, doing everything we can…even when we do not have time or are dealing with such things as pandemics, budget reductions, teacher negotiations, or referendums.
This year, we have focused our energies on COVID 19 and FY 21 Funding, Equitable Services, Technology and the Homework Gap, IDEA Flexibility, Child Nutrition, and Liability Protection. Below you will find a few talking points developed mostly by AASA that might help you and others share our stories and advocate on behalf of all learners. I would encourage you to become involved, write your representatives, make a visit to the Capitol, or begin the discussion around one or all of these topics. Every interaction we have and effort we make, provides a better, and more effective system for our children. Give it a try, we are stronger together!
COVID 19 and FY 21 Funding:
Thank your members of Congress for the final FY20 package, which included modest increases to the U.S. Department of Education, a critical investment that worked to restore the continued pressure of recession cuts.
We oppose any effort to direct public dollars to private education. We oppose all vouchers and privatization schema. We ask Congress to continue to prioritize investment in critical formula programs designed to level the playing field, including IDEA, Title I and Title IV.
Education is a continual investment. Investing in education builds a stronger nation. We need a well-trained and educated workforce ready to compete in a global economy and support our military.
We oppose the DeVos guidance and interim rule and support equitable services. We understand the importance of ensuring that all Title I-eligible students receive the support for which they qualify.
Congress must act swiftly to ensure the CARES Act funding—and any subsequent federal emergency funding— be allocated equitably and not be hijacked to provide preferential funding shares for private schools.
The DeVos proposal interim rule presents itself as an option of choice, but really just further complicates and delays allocation of critical response dollars as state and local education agencies—many of whom had finalized their budgets and started allocation—are left scrambling.
The interim rule brings confusion to the field at the exact time that all educators—in private AND public schools—are looking for efficiency in how resources are allocated and available.
Technology and the Homework Gap:
Nearly 12 million students are unable to engage in remote learning because they lack internet access. Congress must address this homework gap in their next COVID package.
Congress must invest $5 billion in funding to and through the existing E-Rate program to best support equitable access to affordable internet.
The FCC can quickly and easily make changes to help get appropriated emergency E-rate funds out specifically for the homework gap to connect students to the internet while their school buildings are closed.
It is both efficient and expedient to move federal dollars through an already existing proven program; and it is much easier to use an existing program than “start from scratch” during an emergency. Schools and libraries know the E-rate. Introducing a new program during this COVID-19 emergency saddles them with more bureaucracy and delay – the opposite of what is needed.
It is critical that Congress provide practical, narrow flexibility in how districts meet some of the requirements under IDEA and to ensure that school personnel who are unable to meet every timeline, provide the same quality and quantity of services to students virtually and meet other administrative requirements in the law during the pandemic, are not automatically subject to potential litigation for failure to fully implement this complex and underfunded federal law.
Districts need pandemic-specific liability protection that ensures that as long as school personnel document that they have made reasonable and measurable efforts to provide FAPE to students and have not engaged in discrimination, bad faith or gross misjudgment that they not be sued for their inability to meet IDEA.
Congress should also provide districts with a local waiver to reduce IDEA spending. Unlike Title I, IDEA has a 100% maintenance of effort requirement and no opportunity for a local waiver due to a precipitous decline in financial resources. This is hitting districts in two ways:
During the 2019-2020 school year some districts redirected money that they had budgeted to spend on special education towards other sudden, emerging needs like technology purchases and food delivery therefore not spending everything they intended to spend for special education programming.
Many districts are anticipating that local revenue losses will be severe and coupled with state declines that they will be unable to spend the exact same amount of funding they did on special education and related services in the 2020-2021 school year as they did in the 2019-2020 school year.
As long as budget cuts for special education spending is proportional to other program cuts in the district, districts must be allowed to reduce their special education spending by up to 20%.
It is imperative that Congress ensure the extension of all the waivers issued by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture through at least March of 2021. Specifically, this includes Area Eligibility, Unanticipated School Closure, Non-Congregate Feeding, Parent and Guardian Pick-Up, Meal Service, Meal Pattern Times, Child and Adult Care Food Program waivers.
Given the rise in unemployment and poverty, districts must be given the flexibility to qualify for the Community Eligibility Provision based upon student free and reduced-price lunch data from the past three years. By including this provision in the next COVID-19 relief package, Congress will be able to ensure greater participation in the program by LEAs.
Congress should grant authority to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) so that LEAs can be reimbursed under the Public Assistance Category “B” Program for costs associated with serving meals to needy students and premium pay for school critical food service staff (e.g., bus drivers, lunch/breakfast employees, and school custodians).
Congress must dedicate $2.6 billion to mitigate a portion of the estimated financial loss that school nutrition programs have and will continue to experience during the pandemic. Allocating these funds will be a critical step in making school nutrition programs financially solvent and to maintain the integrity of essential food security programs as the recovery process begins.
As Congress moves forward in its efforts to enact temporary liability protections for employers that work to follow applicable public health guidelines against COVID-19 exposure claims, that public school systems and educational institutions be included in such protections.
In asking for these liability protections, we think they should be limited in scope and preserve recourse for those harmed by truly bad actors who engage in egregious misconduct.
Now is the time for Congress to take strong action to stop a growing wave of lawsuits from getting in the way of what we all want and need: healthy citizens and a strong economy.
These are unpredictable times for parents, students and educators. It is particularly challenging for educators to communicate accurately when Covid19 adaptations are continually evolving. Therefore, your communications need also to be based on the fundamental priorities of public education and your schools, regardless of the setting and/or time frame within which those priorities will be achieved. Following are some tips for communication success in conjunction with unprecedented adaptations:
Repeatedly affirm your school district’s mission, vision and goals using every available format and at every opportunity. It is crucial for your constituents to know that although the mode of delivery of education may change, the commitment to student success does not. This will not only bolster the confidence of your stakeholders but it will also help them to adapt to the changes the situation may demand.
Describe the precautions that will be implemented district-wide to ensure healthy outcomes for students, staff and communities.
Encourage all stakeholders to be flexible about the structure of teaching and learning for the safety of everyone.
Ensure that all students have equal access to learning.
Provide ongoing acknowledgement, expectations, and support to teachers.
Express confidence that working together we can continue to provide world-class learning opportunities.
Set clear expectations for staff and workshop with them (virtually or in person as the situation demands) about regularly communicating to parents and students the following:
Their commitment to the mission and vision of the school district
The specific academic and curricular goals for the semester
The precautions that are, and will be, implemented to aid the personal safety of staff and students
Expectations for students and opportunities for parents
The best method/times to reach teachers
A survey* conducted during the spring of 2020 by the University of Minnesota Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement and responded to by over 13,000 educators, identifies four recurring themes:
Educators’ number one worry is relationship building and the ability to socially connect and engage with students and families.
Technology is Important
Technology is a significant concern for educators. It was the most frequently mentioned topic in the qualitative responses in the areas of needed supports and professional development.
Educators are Worried
Educators are significantly worried about many factors related to learning in the 2020-2021 school year, from how they will build relationships in distance learning to how they will be able to stay healthy in in-person learning.
Learning Occurred for Educators
While distance learning presented many challenges, educators also reported that there were lessons learned and skills acquired that they will carry with them into whatever the fall brings, and eventually their classrooms.
*This information was taken from a brief summary of the survey data collected and synthesized by the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota. For further information see the full report at cehd.umn.edu/research/distance-learning/ or contact Kim Gibbons (kgibbons@umn..edu or Katie Pekel (firstname.lastname@example.org).
At breaktime at a dance, the DJ was visiting with some of the patrons. When one of them told a racist joke the DJ said, “I really don’t like racist jokes, I think I’ll go to the bar and get a drink.” Four others followed.
What a great move. Although four people shared his views, it took his leadership to spur a call to action. We can learn a lot about the power of leadership and “followership” from this story. His leadership gave others the courage to act, and their willingness to follow intensified the message.
As we work to dismantle racism in America, this story carries a powerful message. The first is a lesson in methodology. He didn’t call the joke-teller a racist or use any other form of personal attack, but simply dealt with the unwanted remark in a calm and civil manner.
The second lesson to be learned is the importance of being an ally. The four people who followed him also assumed a leadership role. We tell our students to intervene when they observe bullying of any kind. We also teach others to help. If a student steps in to intervene and he or she is getting hammered by the bully, step in and support the one who had the courage to intervene. A simple statement like, “He/she is right. There is no place in our school for this kind of behavior,” sends a powerful message.
Four quotes lay the groundwork for our Dismantling Racism forums for educators. The first is from Pope John Paul II. “Society as a whole must respect, defend, and promote the dignity of every human person, at every moment and in every condition of that person’s life.” Notice that it ends with a period. It doesn’t have a comma, then say “unless he or she is a different color, a different religion, a different sexual orientation, or whatever.” It simply says every human person, at every moment, and in every condition of that person’s life. What a tall order for any school or community or for each of us individually to live up to, but what a great thought to use as our guiding light.
The second is from Eli Wiesel. “I swore never to be silent whenever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Individually, and as a society, it is time to stand up and be counted. There are far too many people with racist beliefs who may never change. So, our goal is not to argue with them or out shout them. Our goal is to outnumber them.
The third is from Galileo. “I do not feel obligated to believe that the same God who has endowed us with a sense of intellect and reason would intend us to forgo their use.” He said this as he was excommunicated from the church because he had the hare-brained idea that the earth revolved around the sun, which was contrary to church teaching. We can use this to give ourselves permission to change. We have all had our shortcomings when it comes to racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination; but this philosophy gives us the opportunity to grow and evolve in our quest for judging less and loving more.
The fourth is from Nelson Mandela. No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background or his religion. People must learn to hate and if they can learn to hate they can be taught to love. For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite. At times we may question whether love is more natural than hate, but this reinforces the reality that your very core as a human being is kindness and goodness and love. Please do something every day to keep that in the forefront of your thinking and encourage your staff and students to do the same.
Dismantling racism is a daunting task, and once again, the field of education will assume a leading role in that endeavor. How does it happen? I wish there were an easier answer, but here It is: “One person at a time.” As an educational leader, you are especially important in the scheme of things.
Let us conclude with a message of hope from the late John Lewis. In his final interview, he said, “I have been so moved and so inspired…by people of different backgrounds from all over America and from around the world. It gives me great hope that as a nation and as a people, we’re going to get there. We’re going to make it…and this time there will be no turning back.”
In his final writing, shared on the day of his funeral, he left us with this challenge. “Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe….Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.” Let’s answer the call.
Denny Smith is a former teacher and coach, a motivational speaker, and an author committed to making our schools and communities safe and welcoming for all people. His free “Teachers Make the Difference” video series is available at http://www.dennysmith.com or email email@example.com