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2018 Stillwater School Board – Mark Burns

2018 Stillwater School Board – Mark Burns

The St. Croix Valley Gifted family-friendly candidate event is Sunday, 9/30 at Teddy Bear Park. Please check the event page for scheduling info, plus links to other candidates’ responses and voter registration support.

1) School Board goals adopted 8 Feb 2018 begin with these statements:

The Stillwater Area Public Schools’ Board of Education ensures outstanding learning opportunities for the social, emotional and academic growth of every student in our school district through authentic partnerships and meaningful communication with our community, parents and students. Every decision is made with a commitment to equity for all students and for future generations impacted by our actions.

What do these statements mean to you as a candidate for school board? What do these statements look like when board members put them into action?

 MB: The School Board goals provide guideposts for the district administration and the school board to follow when planning educational directions and when making decisions among alternate pathways. As a school board candidate, the goal statements serve as a starting point to meshing our own individual experiences and philosophies with a thought process that must consider the needs of all students. It is essential as a school board candidate to broaden our vision from an individualistic viewpoint to one of broad beneficial impact that addresses student needs that candidates may not fully appreciate from our own experiences.

Outstanding learning opportunities for the social, emotional and academic growth of every student should include resources for not only academic challenge but also for social and emotional support. Academic challenge, alone, fails to adequately provide an equitable opportunity for growth. Many students require some degree of social and emotional support to place and keep them in a position where academic challenge can be met. Equity in opportunity is therefore only achievable with sufficient social and emotional supports.


2) Community-building and outreach to the communities this school district serves are an ongoing priority among local voters. In the recent two years since the last board election cycle, Stillwater Area Public Schools leadership has undertaken several initiatives (focus groups, advisory teams, communication efforts, new events, etc.) aimed at community engagement, matters of transparency, student mental health supports, understanding community priorities, developing partnerships with area business leaders, etc. In what ways do you believe these efforts have been effective? In what respects does the school district have room to grow and/or adjust course?

MB: Community outreach initiatives like focus groups, events, and communication channels can be effective tools to increase awareness of district programs in the schools, and to enhance engagement with the community. The homecoming celebration is an example of a community bonding event that is effective in drawing a significant number of families together to showcase the positive energy at the high school. Focus groups studying topics like the World’s Best Workforce can provide concrete recommendations to the district that fit with real-world needs and experiences, which may not be as available from district staff alone.

Opportunity for growth in this area remains. We are fortunate to live in a region with many successful businesses providing a diverse array of goods and services. Deeper relationships with these businesses could foster collaborations to innovate curriculum options. An example could be research-based science courses that offer access to resources from local businesses for students to explore applications of their textbook education. Getting experience outside of the traditional classroom procedure can be inspiring for students, giving them a purposeful direction going forward. The school board can play a significant role in developing the partnerships with area businesses, given its position as voice for the entire district.


3) Since 2013 (Minnesota Statutes, section 120B.11), school districts must develop a World’s Best Workforce (WBWF) Plan and Annual Report for each school year. For Minnesota to remain competitive, we must have students who are college and career ready, and who are poised to lead the state’s workforce. Per MDE, Minnesota’s overall population is aging and seventy percent (70%) of jobs will require more than a high school diploma by 2018. School boards have responsibility to establish the advisory committee of community members that develops their district’s WBWF plan and related goals.

In your opinion, what skills are important for students to build across their K-12 education as preparation for the 21st Century society and workplace?

MB: Communication skills are, in my opinion, essential to success in the workforce and in society. Communication skills have always been important, but the increasing reliance by students on isolating electronic communication makes specific emphasis on personal verbal interaction training all the more valuable. Helping our students become effective communicators would undoubtedly give them an advantage post-graduation.

Another important skill, although somewhat related to communication, is the ability to effectively collaborate with others. Most careers require collaborating with others to find solutions to their common problems. Learning how to work in group settings, especially those with members having diverse backgrounds and viewpoints, is a key skill that would serve our students well in their future endeavors.

Organizational skills are also essential to success in the workforce. Collecting and arranging information in a coherent structure is the basis upon which one may effectively communicate. Good organizational skills can be embodied in written and oral presentations, or simply in a pattern of behavior. Workplace growth and leadership is often rooted in strong organizational skill.


4) Conversations about equity and K-12 education are happening across the country. Minnesota’s federally approved ESSA Plan includes a list of 10 Equity Commitments. Access to services (counseling, student advocates, ELL and GT services, reading and math supports, etc.) and classroom supports receive attention through an equity lens. St. Croix Valley communities and district schools are seeing rapid growth in cultural, socio-economic and linguistic diversity.

What importance does equity have in the day-to-day classroom experiences of educators and students across the Stillwater school district (primary and secondary)? What should voting residents of this school district understand about the role equity plays in the well-being of our communities and in helping students develop the skills you identified in question three?

MB: Equity in opportunity is a fundamental commitment for public school education. Each child should have an equal opportunity to pursue their own academic potential. To serve this opportunity, classroom resources must be adaptable to the learning diversity of our students. Whether the resources are in the form of educators, curriculum, or student support staff, each student should be afforded the tools to follow their own personalized pathway toward their potential. Supporting students’ personalized pathways increases student engagement in the classroom, which leads to higher achievement.

Each of the skills identified in question three can be impressed upon every student in the district, and are applicable across a wide spectrum of post-graduation endeavors. Providing equitable access to those skills may be accomplished through an intentional integration of communication, collaboration, and organization lessons into the curriculum undertaken by all students.


5) Advocacy on behalf of Stillwater School District is among school board duties. Board members are charged with using ongoing, two-way communications to build trust and support among community, board, superintendent, staff, and students. They also are responsible for addressing issues that affect education on local, state, and national levels. The district’s 2018 Legislative Platform includes two named advocacy priorities concerning boosts in State funding toward the special education cross-subsidy and pensions that impact the General Fund. How have past experiences prepared you to fulfill these assorted advocacy duties as a school board member?

MB: As an attorney, I rely heavily upon communication to counsel and advocate for clients. Most importantly, my occupation has taught me the care that must be taken in how communications are conducted. All communications from school board members are important, given their position of governance of public education in the district, and the profound impact their actions have on families throughout the district. Board member communications are expected to be grounded in fact, and advocative for all whom they represent, which is the entirety of Stillwater Area Public Schools. Any communications to the contrary unnecessarily create distrust and division.

In addition to the importance of considerate outgoing communications, school board members must also earnestly listen to the many viewpoints making up their constituency so that decisions can be based upon collective information. My work as an attorney requires substantial learning and considering several different positions surrounding the issues. I have found that the key to learning and understanding the issues is through thoughtful listening. Doing so gives me the ability to ask the questions that may be needed to fully comprehend an issue, and to develop conclusions on how to best address that issue. As a school board member, I would make every effort to listen to each of the district administration and staff, parents, students, community members, and fellow board members to gain insight into the many issues that require board action.

Effective advocacy requires not only an understanding of the issues, but also cohesive communication on the advocated position. To best advocate on behalf of Stillwater Area Public Schools, the board must work together to develop and distribute cohesive communications that are reflective of a collective governing body that adopts positions as a whole. My experience in managing divergent interests should assist the board in finding common platforms from which to advocate for the betterment of this district.


6) During the 2017-2018 academic year, this MCGT chapter conducted a Community Feedback Initiative to gather local input about access and availability of GT supports at St. Croix Valley area schools. Local sentiment can be summarized in this statement from page one of the resulting report:

Broadly speaking, local access to GT services in K-12 is unpredictable and inconsistent; identification offers no promise of supports, services, or programs.

The feedback we collected shows agreement around core concerns: student access to and continuity of GT services and supports (academic and socio-emotional learning) across K-12; whether promises about the type(s) of GT services to be delivered are kept or broken; and whether instruction strategies and decisions (procedures, personalized learning, acceleration, etc.) utilize evidence-based practices and reflect deep understanding of common GT attributes vs. being rooted in stereotype.

Where do GT learners fit within district priorities and accountability (under Minnesota’s ESSA plan) to demonstrate year-to-year growth and to provide personalized learning for all students in elementary and secondary classrooms?

MB: An important aspect in evaluating the equity in opportunity commitment in public education is to consider the educational needs of all students, including GT learners. A tenant of the Bridge to Excellence plan, and now embodied in the district’s vision is that students be provided with personalized learning pathways. This vision is a foundation for students’ equity in opportunity, that all children in Stillwater Area Public Schools be provided with the social, emotional, and academic support to pursue their own highest achievement. The ten commitments to equity referred to in the Minnesota Department of Education’s ESSA can be implemented through a strong commitment to personalized learning pathways, throughout each student’s K-12 education.

GT learners deserve the same evaluation and support as other students in the district. Unfortunately, the district has not been consistent in its delivery of that evaluation and support. While the GATE program at Stillwater Middle School provides outstanding programs and support for its students, access to the program is limited. Although the program has recently been expanding its reach to some middle school students, children outside of grades 4-8 receive little support from the district’s GT programming.

More students could be benefited from an intentional GT support paradigm outside of the GATE program. Although classroom “clustering” is district policy, provision of unique support to GT learners within the traditional classrooms is both inconsistent and insufficient. A commitment to early identification of every student’s educational needs, and the provision of personalized support that fits those educational needs is the hallmark of equity in opportunity. Enhanced allocation of resources to the K-12 classroom to provide personalized support for each of social, emotional, and academic needs across the learning spectrum is important to the district’s implementation of the ESSA, as well as to the best educational outcomes for all students.


7) School Board Members must balance the work of being both listener and ambassador. What would you tell prospective families and/or voting community members who don’t have students currently enrolled about Stillwater Area Public Schools?

MB: I would, and do, say with honesty how wonderful the overall experience of Stillwater Area Public Schools really is. As a 1991 graduate of Stillwater Area High School, I look back at my K-12 experience with great fondness. The schools are a significant reason why my wife and I chose to live in this district when we returned from out of state. There is a culture in our community that is different from typical suburban cities, and that unique culture permeates our schools to provide diverse perspectives from which to learn and grow.

Although this district is relatively large, attention is being paid to provide education and support services that benefit each individual student. Programs such as the WEB leaders and LINK crew successfully create a welcoming environment for transitioning students. Initiatives like the Ready!Set!Go! conferences prepare the students for their first day of school, while giving teachers an opportunity to meet individually with students to gain insight into their individual personalities and needs. Our teachers and building administration are superb, and tremendously dedicated to the education and well-being of students.

From our nationally-recognized music and fine arts programs to our multiple state champion athletic programs, our rigorous academic preparation, and our broad palette of elective courses, I truly believe that Stillwater Area Public Schools are exceptional. There is a reason why Pony Pride runs so deep in alumni and this community – the experience of attending our schools is simply unparalleled. As a school board member, I would be committed to building upon the energy and momentum that this district sustains, to help define a path forward to even greater success.


8) Why should voters consider you in particular as they choose among candidates for Stillwater Area Public Schools’ open board seats?

 MB: This election is an important juncture to decide between moving forward to take advantage of the opportunities that are ahead, or to revisit decisions that have been made in the past. I am strongly in favor of the former, by maintaining a clear forward-looking vision that guides the district in how to best serve its students with an enriching education. In that regard, school board decisions should be focused upon the future, and helping to direct the district toward that future.

I am committed to approaching decisions with fiscal responsibility, and with a bias toward maximizing support of classroom resources that directly impact students. Public schools are a partnership between the district staff and the community to educate children. The school board is the intermediary in that partnership. As a school board member, I would support the investment of resources to enhance its return in the form of improved education and value to the community.

Growing up in this district and graduating from Stillwater Area Public Schools gives me a unique perspective among the candidates of the traditions of excellence in our schools, and the importance of community connection with our schools. My experience as an attorney also provides a unique skill set that would be greatly beneficial to the school board. I am running for a school board seat to provide a voice which speaks for the entirety of the district, and which is based upon a reasoned understanding of the facts underlying each issue. It is my goal to ensure that the current and future generations of students throughout this district have the opportunity to exceed their expectations with an education they are proud of for life!