Cottage Grove — and the world at large — has been rife with changes both big and small over the past two months and another is coming to the South Lane School District (SLSD) board.
On Monday, May 4, board vice chair Alan Baas stepped down from his position while remaining a member of the board, allowing first-year board member Dustin Bengtson to step into a leadership role.
Sherry Duerst-Higgins will continue on as the board’s chair.
While there were multiple reasons for the decision, Baas said recent health concerns are the primary catalyst for his decision.
“My health has been getting me down for a couple years,” said Baas, who resigned from his position as board chair last year. “And then, my health got messy months back and I kept trying to resign.”
The board has been exceptionally busy the last couple of years with its normal month-to-month work as well as multiple superintendent searches and, now, a global pandemic to consider.
For Baas, just getting his resignation as vice chair on the board agenda took some time, but now that it’s complete, he’s more than happy handing the reins over to Bengtson.
“The board is very comfortable with Dustin coming on,” Baas said. “He’s coming with a lot of experience in doing management thinking and we’re at a time where the kind of thinking that Dustin’s trained in is good for us.”
On top of health issues, Baas — who takes board members’ roles as community representatives seriously — also felt it was time for a new perspective in the vice chair position with his prior work experience having fulfilled its usefulness leading up to the current viral crisis.
“I will claim that the training I had in my work experience was good for where we were at,” Baas said. “I was a research analyst and a magazine editor, so I came on when it was time to pay attention to a whole lot of different kinds of details and be ready to listen to everybody and not make judgments. That’s sort of what I did for all these years.”
At a time when institutions both public and private are rushing to work in collaboration to solve the growing number of societal issues facing communities everywhere, Baas felt a different kind of leadership was needed.
Enter Dustin Bengtson, who was elected to the board in 2019 and currently works with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“I think everybody was aware that Alan wanted to step back and I think I’d been transparent in my willingness to take on things for the board,” Bengtson said. “It’s been really helpful to have had nine months here to be able to watch a process go through, then get through that superintendent selection.”
Despite still being in his first year as a board member, Bengtson’s extensive background in policy and bureaucratic processes will likely prove invaluable to SLSD in the future.
“I’ve been a federal employee for almost 30 years,” Bengtson said. “So organizational leadership, public institutions, policy process stuff, facility stuff, managing people — I’ve been a supervisor for a large part of that time … I think almost anybody who comes to a board wants to come in and do things. There are reasons they feel they need to be a part of it and have to understand the systems that are in place first. I don’t believe that I have my arms around every aspect of school board work, by any stretch of the imagination, but there are some similarities and we’re seeing some of that play out right now.”
Baas was also quick to back up the importance and potential efficacy of his successor’s professional background as it relates to his new leadership role.
“Dustin has learned how to shape and frame a job filled with responsibilities for managing kinds of people you never grew up with, in terms of their background and training,” Baas said. “His background and where he’s landed really speaks to what he can do.”
While the approaches to — and experiences in forming — the role of board vice chair differ between Baas and Bengtson, both board members share a common view, which is that the position is one of service to the community at large.
“The term that has always resonated with me is ‘service leadership,’” Bengtson said. “If you want to serve others, if you’re comfortable doing that and that’s the reason that you’re here — and I think if you looked across our board you’d find that true for everyone — then you’re starting in the right spot.”
Who occupies the position of vice chair, however, is not the only recent change that the SLSD board has had to contend with. Like the rest of nearly every corner of life around the world, the threat of coronavirus has upended the process of normal board operations.
While it is still working out kinks to streamline its now digital monthly meetings (typically held online via Google Meet), larger questions loom as they look to the future of board processes, district operations and local education in general. Chief among these larger issues, particularly for a board that still has relatively new members, is simply learning how to be flexible in finding its footing amidst a chaotic social backdrop.
“The board has been making real efforts as best it can under all these changing circumstances to learn how to be a better board, to learn how to be an appropriate board for this town,” Baas said.
“It’s been a real pleasure working with a board that has been very self-aware in terms of learning how to best be board members, follow the protocols, understand the best practices and all those sorts of things.”
More concretely, the board must now deal with the fallout of coronavirus-caused school interruptions as it look towards an uncertain future. Seniors have essentially graduated three months early, sports have been completely cancelled, classes and schoolwork have moved entirely online, and no one can say for certain what the situation will be like in the fall.
But the board and its new vice chair are busy brainstorming.
“We’re forming an entirely different approach to budgeting,” Bengtson said. “Where we were two months ago was a budget with additional funds coming in ... [Now] we’re going to have to formulate a much more constrained budget. What does that recovery phase look like for us? How do we take care of kids? How do we take care of teachers? How do we set, from an economic standpoint, the district up for long term success?
“I think there are opportunities in there, it’s just a big change of direction … We’re going to learn things about what’s possible — things we never would have done had it been a normal situation.”
The challenges facing SLSD and other school districts around the country are immense and, given the uncertainty of the current moment, difficult to immediately solve or predict. But, both Bengtson and his predecessor agree that community collaboration is key.
“You see a big change happen and there’s this in-between zone where all sorts of stuff hits the fan and it’s not very comfortable,” Baas said. “It’s so important that we uphold collaboration as something with high value.”
Bengtson, who is both an involved member of the community and parent to children in SLSD schools, has already seen the dividends of a district that works together efficiently.
“Teachers, the building leadership, central office staff have been amazing in communicating,” Bengtson said. “It’s put a lot more burden on [superintendent] Curtis and her team to communicate directly with people and plug them in. But they’re working at that really, really hard and, from a parent standpoint, it’s really been amazing how much engagement I’ve seen given all the challenges.”
Bengtson offered direct postcards from teachers to the kids as just one example of the district’s outreach to students and families.
“It’s stuff that sometimes not everyone sees. But to a kid, with all this social and emotional separation going on, to get a postcard in the mail? You see the effect.”
It’s a unique situation that requires all parties to rise to the occasion.
“It’s all going to be a little harder,” Bengtson said. “It’s going to require us to think a little differently and communicate to get comfortable with the environment. But then again, that’s what we’re asking the kids and teachers to do.
“Honestly, in 15 or 20 years maybe we find that we’ve prepared people for the future in a way that we wouldn’t have otherwise.”