***Published in the Mower County Independent on Jan. 17, 2018***
MSBA award is a testament to Paul Hamlin’s dedication to school district, education
By Axel Gumbel
Being a school board member can be a thankless job. Long meetings. Contentious discussions. Little compensation. Paul Hamlin has experienced all those things. But even after 14 years on the Le Roy – Ostrander School Board, he says the reward is priceless. Last week he received a special recognition by the Minnesota School Board Association (MSBA) - a Director’s Award for 100 or more hours of attendance at MSBA or National School Board Association-sponsored events.
“Paul doesn’t have to be out front,” says superintendent Jeff Sampson. “He is a quiet leader with a strong resolve for kids.”
Hamlin, who has seen his own kids journey through L-O, says he does not need a family connection to stay motivated.
“Just because they’re not my kids or grandkids, I consider them my kids, and I feel responsible for them.”
Hamlin says he takes his responsibility as a school board member very seriously by taking advantage of a wealth of opportunities the MSBA provides to board members.
“They put all these trainings out there to make us the best we can be,” he says. “We expect that from our teachers and from our kids, so why not also expect that from our board?”
A bigger role
Hamlin’s dedication earned him an additional role a few years ago. That’s when Sampson encouraged him to run for southeast Minnesota district representative at the MSBA delegate assembly. The group meets twice a year in St. Paul to discuss and vote on issues in education, which the MSBA then takes to the state legislature. Hamlin is now half way through his second term on the assembly.
“Special education, teacher licensure and teacher retirement are getting to be a big thing,” he says.
One resolution the assembly recently made, he says, was to ask state legislators to take a closer look at special education funding.
“We really need more help on this,” Hamlin says, “to take the burden especially off smaller school districts. If you figure in inflation compared to what we’re getting, we end up having to dip into our general fund.”
Hamlin says he is proud of the work the Southern Minnesota Education Consortium (SMEC) has accomplished in that area. SMEC is a cooperative of several districts in the area providing support for special education.
“I think the leadership between Jeff and [SMEC director] Armagost has been outstanding,” Hamlin says. “We have been able to keep those kids here or close to here, and we are not shipping them to Rochester or Austin. Our districts in the area have definitely benefitted from it.”
Hamlin says he is very happy with his larger role, enjoying a lot of friendships with other districts in the area and in St. Paul.
"I don’t know if it’s a good thing,” he chuckles, “but you go up there and you are recognized.”
At the same time, he says it’s sad that everything comes back to money and that kids are “almost like a special interest group, where we have to go up and fight for them.”
An ear to the ground
Sampson says Hamlin is doing a great job spanning his attention between his role with MSBA and in the L-O community.
“He does good a job of connecting with community members. People call him, and he has his ears to the ground,” Sampson says.
One example he shared about Hamlin’s effectiveness deals with student transportation.
“Realizing we are a full district, not just Le Roy, Paul helped pass a motion to provide the opportunity for student transport to Ostrander after activities,” Sampson explains. “That’s advocacy for the entire district.”
After the referendum
Hamlin admits that locally it has been a “tough working environment” ever since the failed building referendum in 2016, and he says he regrets that districts have to go to voters to levy money, unlike cities or townships. A farmer, Hamlin likens the struggle to the current environment the farming community is going through.
“It’s pretty tough,” he says. “We’re not farming like we did 50 years ago. It has evolved, and education has evolved, and we have to change with it.”
Somehow, he says, the board has to find a way to give kids a safe and healthy environment to learn.
Hamlin says he respects the work the task force has done after the referendum, but that a band aid approach isn’t enough.
“I want the school to stay. The school will be gone of we choose to let it go,” he adds. “It’s an asset and you’ve got to be open to change and taking care of the building. Let’s put it out there for the long run and show everybody that we care. I graduated 40 years ago and somebody else paid for it. I am hoping and praying that we can find common ground.”
Looking into the future, Hamlin says a robotics program has been on his wish list for a long time, and he says he has brought it up several times.
“I realize there is an upfront cost, but we need to keep trying to put something in front of the kids to help them develop a passion, something to strive for.”
As for himself, Hamlin says he continues to enjoy his time on the board, even though it has been tough lately. His hope is that students will remember they went to school at L-O and that they know they can always come home. And he is ready to continue advocating on behalf of kids, both at L-O and on a state level.
“I would like to stay involved if the people want me to stay involved.”