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As Tim Truebenbach enters his fifth year as superintendent of Milaca Schools, he faces many challenges. 

Among them are dealing with budget cuts, declining enrollment and bouncing back after a failed referendum last November.

With slightly more than two months remaining before the doors open for the 2019-2020 school year, Truebenbach sat down with the Union-Times to discuss issues the district faces in the near future.

Q: You’ve been at Milaca four years. What are a couple of things you’re most proud of accomplishing?

A: First and foremost, if you take a look at our student achievement, we have increased. When I came here in the summer of 2015, in the spring of 2016, we were at or above the state average on MCAs in three areas of the 24. Over the past three years, we’re at about 18. So that’s significant growth. I’m proud of the staff and the leadership pulled things together and using data wisely. We’ve got some great people in great positions. There have been great additions to the team and they’ve worked really hard. I’m fortunate to be part of that growth. I can say we’re looking positive as we’re looking into the future.

Also, the other piece I’m proud about is we’ve done extensive work on our facilities. Since 2017, we’ve got new parking lots, curb and gutter, new scoreboards. It looks good. That’s been a total team effort between the school board and the community. You can see several businesses chipped in for marketing, and in a small town, there aren’t that many businesses. It’s marketing for them, and we need that. They know that any given Friday night in the fall, there will be 1,000 people there, and there are track meets too. The community has been great with that.

There are also some things that people don’t see. Ceiling tiles and flooring. Some of those things that facilities-wise, the roof and some windows, we are sitting good for facilities for the next 10-20 years. But the roofs need it bad. This summer, when it’s raining, we’ll have buckets out. We have every spring. That’s the kind of stuff that we need.

We are also part of a PNI grant through the Minnesota Department of Health, and it’s called the Milaca Coalition, to curb underage drinking. I was the president of the coalition for a year. This is a group of community members who come together and wrote a grant, and we received roughly $1 million, and it’s all to curb underage drinking. I always tell people, “It’s all about keeping our kids safe.” What it does is it challenges the perceptions. We look deeper than the “kids will be kids” thing or “everybody is drinking.” That’s not necessarily the truth. I really feel like it’s opened the doors for us to start talking about this. The reason why we qualified for the grant was because our on-average per month alcohol consumption by underage kids was higher than the average. So we qualified because of something not every good. But in the same respects, we’re starting to hear that conversation with kids because we want them to be safe. I try to build those relationships with the culture with the school, with the students and with the parents, and it just breaks my heart when bad things happen as a result of poor choices. If I haven’t done my best as a leader, we’re not doing our jobs.

Q: What are your biggest challenges for the upcoming school year?

A: I was recently asked, “What do you like about the district?” I said we’ve got some fantastic momentum going. Just like when you win a game or you get an A in a class, sometimes the hardest thing is to maintain that. To maintain that into the school year is important and remove any obstacle and hurdles. The nature of the job is negotiating contracts. You wouldn’t believe the difference it makes to have a contract settled before the start of the school year. We just got a tentative agreement last Thursday. It feels really good, so that excitement is there.

Q: At this year’s Milaca commencement ceremony, one of the student speakers mentioned that the Class of 2019 was the first one to graduate in the district as all-day kindergarten. How important is this program to the district?

A: It’s critical for lots of reasons. Research will show that when a kindergartener starts to experience structure education at an early age, it’s going to benefit them. It helps from an educational standpoint, but it also gets these kids into a school groove and allows us to become part of a healthy culture with school pride. This graduating class was a fantastic group in so many different ways. Academically, they did well and socially too. It was a great group of young adults.

Q: Will the Milaca School Board be considering an operating fund referendum this year, or this fall? If not this year, next year?

A: I am anticipating some form of election in November. It’s going to be all-hands-on-deck and it will be a challenge. We’re going to have to all work together. I know we’re going to need those roofs and those windows. From a board perspective, and I know they didn’t officially vote, but consensus-wise I think there’s some agreement there. The operating referendum, I’m not exactly sure how that’s all going to shake out. It will probably be an operating and bond referendum.

We’ve had some elections that went down. We’re in a challenging place in Minnesota. Our county taxes are higher. When you are a community member and you look at that bottom right corner, you say, “My taxes are high.” But you fail to look at the school taxes (that) haven’t moved. We’re dealing with some increased costs that makes it challenging for our community to vote yes in my opinion. We also have a community that we’re between 45-50 percent free and reduced lunch, which is poverty-level by federal guidelines. That’s a higher percentage for a rural community, and people can’t afford increases like that. And when given a choice, they’ll vote no. And that’s a challenge. We have some challenges, but that’s the right thing to do for our kids and we’re going to keep doing what we can with what we have.

We had three new board members this past spring and we were faced with tough budgetary decisions. We made almost $1.2 million in reductions, which in a district this size is significant. We did that because of our declining enrollment as well as our special ed cross-subsidy. We had the conversation at the board meeting about “OK, so the legislation came in with significant funds” but we really don’t know what that means. I’m not going to communicate any inaccurate information. So we’re kind of waiting on that until we have the official word from the MDE that “this is the final run of what you’re going to be getting.” I do think we’re going to see some benefit to those increases and I’m hoping that will help us out. But I don’t know to what degree.

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