NEW ULM - Chris Cook hopes to bring a business background to the District 88 School Board: and with it, a perspective that results from operating in the corporate world, interacting with different people, reconciling their viewpoints and helping them come together and move in the same direction.
Cook, 41, one of eight candidates for four seats on the board, is head of sales, agronomy, for global ag company Syngenta. He works to support a team of about 90 agronomists across the United States in "helping farmers grow more from less," he said.
Cook has been a resident of the school district for 16 years. His family has lived in New Ulm and the surrounding area for several generations.
Because of family moves, Cook attended four schools - Mountain Lake, Fairmont, Waseca and Sleepy Eye - which gave him first-hand experience of "the vast differences in school systems."
His college career took him to Minnesota State University, Mankato, the University of South Dakota and the University of Minnesota, and he earned his degree in agronomy.
His professional career began with Farm Land Industries and the Farmers Co-op of Hanska in New Ulm (1995-98), before moving on to Syngenta.
Cook, a single father of three who attend District 88 schools, says he frequently talks with his children about school issues and why things happen the way they do.
"They don't always agree with me, but I try to help them understand the whys," he said, making the connection between his willingness to understand how the system works and his willingness to commit time and energy to it by serving on the school board.
Cook, whose job involves travel, explains that he has learned to balance commitments, between parenthood and career. He studied the board and committee meeting calendar, and determined that even without adjusting his schedule, he would be able to make most meetings.
Cook hopes to contribute what he describes as strategically oriented thinking style to the mix of personalities on the board.
The board should steer the school system in a strategic sense, determining its general direction, and leave day-to-day operation to the administration and staff, he said.
"I feel it's important to find out how staff feels about what we are doing," he said. "We generally hear from the disgruntled few, and often do not know how the middle 80 percent feels. ... In my experience, most of the best ideas come from the field."
His business-like approach also appears reflected in his thinking on the potential parallels between running a company and a school system.
While acknowledging the different nature of the private and public sectors, the candidate also notes that there "could be similarities" between the two, in terms of accountability, for example.
"If you can't measure something, you can't hold people accountable for it," he said.
"I believe strongly in measurable performance-pay," he adds. "I am asked every day to exhibit my value to my organization. I've had to face harsh realities in my career, and I've had to deliver some as well. At the end of the day, people being paid based on their performance is not only fair, but it supports a way of working which drives for superior results, thereby delivering more value for the dollar spent by the district, more value for the hour spent by the student and more value for the effort spent by those individuals who are willing to perform at the high standards we expect for our children and grandchildren."
"When people have some influence, some control, over their pay," they tend to exceed expectations," adds Cook. Conversely, it is easy to fall into a comfort zone because of the lack of incentive.
Cook feels strongly about community involvement in the system.
"One of the underlying issues I believe lies within District 88 is a lack of community involvement, or pride in the school system. Communities that value education ... are often heavily involved in various levels of support - high turnouts at extra-curricular activities, spirit campaigns, financial support, etc In my travels across the United States, and even locally, you can often spot a community that is proud of their school system. You see it in shop windows, you see it in the banners and signs as you're passing through, you see it in the facilities as you pass by or when you're visiting for an extracurricular event. Pride in the school system is contagious - it's not just the parents that catch it, it's the neighbors, the businesses, the faculty and ... the students. Eventually, it becomes something you sense as you're passing through, something you feel as you're a young couple looking for a place to settle down and raise a family. Pride in the school system goes beyond better schools and relates directly to a better community."
Cook adds that New Ulm strong community pride can translate into school pride.
"I see us as having the ability to play on that, build on that," he says.
Acknowledging "the budget" as "the number one, two and three" challenge to the district, Cook sees a connection between community engagement and the likely outcome of local levy votes.
"The levy referendum in 2011 failed, and likely the levy referendum in 2012 will fail as well because the community is not engaged in the system," he muses. "Everyone is under constraint. Every household, every business, every government function is looking at and re-evaluating how it can become more efficient with what it has to work with. As much as I long for the days of $2.25-gallon gasoline and a grocery bill that rarely topped $100, it's not where we are, or where we're headed in the near term. Much like the generations before us, we've been asked to tighten our belts and learn to live with a new norm. Despite those same challenges, the generations before us continued to invest in education. We have not. It is up to each of us, as individuals and as a community to come together and decide to support our schools, decide to support our children, and decide that in this new, global economy where soon China will take over as the largest economy in the world, we want to arm the next generation with the best tools available to compete, not just for themselves, for us, and for the generations yet to come."
"Facilities improvements over the next four years are a harsh reality," Cook said. "District 88 has done an amazing job of getting by with less for many consecutive years, and in the midst of that has continued to strive for improvement on limited resources. Just this year the system is taking a step into wireless internet, a much needed resource in today's modern age which can help facilitate learning with new, more effective tools that weren't available just five or 10 years ago. That being said, many districts were there well ahead of ours.
"The core infrastructure for the District needs to be improved. The temporary units established in the courtyard of Jefferson Elementary and the High School are not a permanent fix, nor were they ever intended to be. While no one likes to ask for more money, the continuous constraint on the operating budget of the school has us utilizing old, used equipment from one facility to try to Band-Aid another. This was a short-term fix, not a long-term solution. In the light of inadequate funding from the state, we will need to put forth a referendum which will enable our schools to deliver education in a cost effective, sustainable means in suitable facilities. This is not the circumstance we're in today, and it will only exponentially multiply the longer we wait."
Commenting on curriculum, Cook said:
"Today's current curriculum is sufficient for the constraints that have been placed on it, but that shouldn't overshadow the need to look for opportunities for improvement. There is no doubt that if the district had more resources, there would also be an increase in curriculum options more classes, more choices, etc. but with limited abilities comes limited opportunities. What's worthy of investigation lies in ensuring we are getting the most value for the dollars spent and the effort put forth. Are there alternatives that provide a higher ratio of value? Are there classes which support a path towards college or vocational schools that are available but not being utilized? Are there synergies in the current curriculum which if garnered would open up other avenues for learning? These are some of many questions we need to better understand," Cook said.