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Your Public Schools: Inquiries received, answered about Community Education

Residents are becoming aware of our new Community Education program and several have asked me questions about it.

I'm using this week's column to answer the types of questions I'm most frequently asked.

How was the decision made to bring Community Education to River Falls?

Interested community persons representing multiple organizations in River Falls (River Falls Public Library, UW-River Falls, nursing homes, Parks and Recreation Department, Arts Board, River Falls Area Hospital, YMCA, River Falls School District) have been meeting for over two years to coordinate and advertise educational opportunities available in our community, with the hope that a Community Education program through the school district would eventually lead this effort in earnest.

Other residents worked on various parts of the school district's strategic planning process. That process brought together stakeholders from all over the community to discuss and plan the future of the school district.

The process was open to any interested resident, was very time intensive, and occurred over several months. When completed, an action plan was presented to the school board last winter to bring Community Education to River Falls. The school board listened, presented Community Education to the electorate at the annual meeting last August, and the residents present voted to approve Community Education beginning in the 2010-11 school year.

Why do we need Community Education?

Several reasons stand out as benefits for having Community Education. First, there is some sense that everyone in the River Falls School District pays school taxes in one form or another, but not all receive equal benefits of having our schools.

Community Education is built on the premise that everyone, from birth to death, has an interest in some form of continuous, lifelong learning opportunities. We need to know your educational needs and then find alternative ways to meet them.

Another purpose of Community Education is to make our district's facilities more available to residents.

You've paid for the schools and we need to find ways to make them available to you to meet your educational and recreational needs.

Community Education can also help to increase efficiency in scheduling the use of district resources.

Community Education also strives to develop cooperative working partnerships with other community agencies in order to eliminate duplication and build on one another's successes.

Do surrounding districts have Community Education programs?

Yes, many. Program directors in Prescott and New Richmond have been particularly helpful to us in starting our program. For our district to be competitive and a place where people want to live and work, having a community education program like our neighbors will add to River Falls' vitality.

How is Community Education funded?

Community Education is paid for through the Community Service Fund 80. That is NOT the same fund that can be used for all K-12 instructional programs. Funding for Fund 80 comes from a small tax levy which amounts to 8 cents on every $1,000 of property value, which is an average of $12 per home in the River Falls School District.

Funding for Community Education cannot be used for teachers or textbooks.

In addition, fees will be charged for most Community Education programs, with the goal of Community Education becoming self-supported and more than paying for itself. When that occurs, it is hoped the tax levy can be reduced.

How can the district add this program in a time of already scarce resources?

This is a challenging time for the school district, and it is likely that resources will not be plentiful for years to come.

That is exactly why it is vital to begin a Community Education program now. A Community Education program is an organizational structure that allows a district to leverage educational resources of the entire community and at the same time positions the district as the center of learning for residents of all ages.

For example, a Community Education program can coordinate meaningful local internship programs for high school students interested in learning about the business world. At the same time, a Community Education program can coordinate senior citizens volunteering to donate their time helping in schools in exchange for property tax credit. (That program, called STEP, is now operating successfully in the New Richmond Community Education program.)

Editor's note: A few more questions will be published next week about the River Falls Community Education program.