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WDC superintendent looks back, looks forward

Superintendent Virginia Dahlstrom has enjoyed her first year at the helm of Wadena-Deer Creek School District 2155 despite many financial challenges.

Virginia Dahlstrom believes she is running an institution that is just as interested in profit as any private business.

The difference is that the profit Dahlstrom and her Wadena-Deer Creek District 2155 team is after is not kept in a bank vault. It works out much better if it is being spread around.

The profit is educated kids.

One year after arriving in Wadena with her husband, Len Kalakian, to take on her fourth superintendent job, the globe-trotting Dahlstrom is enjoying her life in Wadena.

"It's gone well," Dahlstrom said. "Even with the challenges it's gone well. The people are wonderful people, and it is an easy community to work with and work in. I am working with hard-working, dedicated delightful individuals and that makes my job easier."

Dahlstrom took over a district with an operating budget of just over $10 million and the responsibility of educating more than 1,000 students.

"I think I was given a pretty clear picture of what was happening here," said Dahlstrom, who ran two schools in South Korea and one in Egypt prior to taking over District 2155.

The financial part of the job has been Dahlstrom's biggest challenge. In the past WDC had seen its reserve fund dip so far as to be in the black by only $2,000.

The school board is cutting a whopping $790,000 out of the budget this year. The budget-cutting process that has been going on for six straight years in District 2155 and it is still not over.

"We are going to continue to need to streamline next year," Dahlstrom said. "We are getting close to leveling off. We have two more years of larger class sizes and then we will be pretty much at a plateau."

One thing Dahlstrom needs in her job is perspective and she pointed out that declining enrollment in schools is not unique to the area.

"That is something that is happening world wide in rural areas," Dahlstrom said. "It is not just here in Minnesota and it not just in Wadena. It's just a phenomenon that's taking place. I think people becoming very sensitive here because of the declining enrollment. They think it is because of our community and it is not. They are having the same trouble in South Korea."

Another headache for Minnesota schools this year was the state legislature's inability to reach an agreement with Gov. Tim Pawlenty over the state budget. After the legislative session ended in May, Pawlenty came up with his own budget, which cut a whopping $1.77 billion from education. Pawlenty is calling for a 73/27 split in state payments to schools instead of the usual 90/10 split (see more on this on today's Opinion page). Planning for the 2010-11 school year can now commence but the Wadena-Deer Creek district will have to borrow money. Since next year's school funding is just as unsettled, districts that borrow money are not left with much to count upon.

The Wadena-Deer Creek school board is beginning the process of preparing a levy referendum vote for this fall with the idea of providing a quality education for WDC students. District residents presently pay a levy of just $100 a year but that levy will end in 2011 and a new one is needed. In the years since the $100 levy was approved, the cost of education has been climbing steadily. The state average levy is now $844.

There are matching funds available for districts that show enough of a financial interest in the success of their students to pay more taxes on a local level. Dahlstrom is going after that matching money to help her build a better curriculum, she said. In addition to building up math scores, Dahlstrom wants to see a greater focus on technology and early childhood education.

"I have to show people why we need the money and where it will go," Dahlstrom said.

The last levy vote was held in 2007 and it was rejected by a 2-to-1 margin. That fact carves out another large challenge for Dahlstrom, but leading the way toward what can be is the aspect of her job she enjoys the most.