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Superintendents receive grant for school cooperation talks

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WILLMAR -- A group of area superintendents looking for ways to work together will have the help of a $5,000 grant from the Southwest Initiative Foundation.

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The superintendents from districts stretching from Hutchinson to Granite Falls to Ortonville started meeting this spring to brainstorm ideas for working together in the future. Their hope is to develop ideas that could save money and improve education for kids.

Willmar Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard, one of the instigators of the effort, said Friday he hopes the grant can help them focus their efforts. It could be used for a facilitator or possibly to support a series of meetings in area communities.

The group meets next on Tuesday. Kjergaard said they will be discussing how to use the grant money to further their discussions.

The superintendents share a desire to take positive action and not to just react to what's happening at the Legislature, Kjergaard said.

Kjergaard and New London-Spicer Superintendent Paul Carlson have talked about ways to collaborate for a couple years, Carlson said.

It's important to start the conversation "before something is done to school districts," Carlson said.

At this point, the superintendents are talking about collaboration and communication, not consolidation, Carlson said. But some states have ordered consolidations of their schools.

"If there's a legislative decision that's forced upon our school district," Carlson said, the relationships will be in place to respond.

"I don't want to get five years down the road and have somebody say, "If you guys had done a little planning, things wouldn't have been this bad,'" Kjergaard said.

MACCRAY Superintendent Greg Schmidt said it's too early to tell what the talks will yield.

Kjergaard has done his best to "reassure people that Willmar isn't trying to gobble up all the neighboring districts." It was a concern of some of the smaller districts early on, he said.

The talks have centered on finding ways to better serve kids as school districts face tight budgets and dwindling resources, Schmidt said.

Many districts have worked together in different ways in the past, "and I think we can do more," he said.

"I think we need to have these conversations," he said. And while the ideas might come from the superintendents, school boards will be the ones who make the final decisions.

Kjergaard said he's been pleased that so many districts are interested in talking, and in the support received from the foundation.

He said he hopes the group can keep meeting and define its direction more clearly by the fall. He said he is concerned that longtime rivalries between districts could get in the way at some point, but it hasn't happened yet.

"Something's got to be done," he said. "We're still moving forward."

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