Elaine Larabee, sitting alone in the Administrative Services Center boardroom, said goodbye to the Eden Prairie School District School Board at its Dec. 14 meeting.
Elected in 2013, Larabee served five years as the school board chair and chose not to run for re-election in November. The odd ending of her tenure in an empty room, due to COVID-19 restrictions, with her colleagues and the superintendent participating virtually was somehow indicative of an extraordinary final year of her tenure.
Superintendent Josh Swanson thanked her for the work she has done over seven years on the board. He outlined a litany of contributions and successes he said Larabee was instrumental in accomplishing.
“I’ve gotten to really have a front row seat to see the incredible care that you have for each of our kids,” he said at the Dec. 14 meeting. “Your work on the board is one thing, but I know that you do so much more behind the scenes and I’ve gotten to see that, as well.
“Our kids and our community and staff have really benefited from your service.”
Larabee and her husband of 28 years, Kevin, have lived in Eden Prairie since 1997. She is a tax accountant at H.W. and Associates in Minnetonka. She completed an MBA at Augsburg University in 2020.
They have two children. Andrea, 26, is a 2013 EPHS graduate. She graduated from the University of Iowa, and earned a master’s degree at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. Son, Joey, 23, is a 2016 EPHS graduate, and graduated from Colorado College in 2020.
EPLN sat down recently with Larabee to discuss her time on the board. Following are her responses in a Q & A format.
EPLN: What are some of the top accomplishments during your tenure on the school board?
EL: The biggest one for me is the long-term financial stability of the district. In 2013 there was a failed referendum. The next year we had to figure out how to renew that. The superintendent at the time said that if renewed it would last five years without (budget) cuts. Right now we’re projected to last through year eight. That’s one of the things I’m most proud of. You just never know what’s coming. Who would have predicted a pandemic?
Personally, there was a lot of change management. That’s what prompted me to get the MBA. We got a new superintendent. We had lots of new board members. It was a great learning experience and I thought we did pretty well through all of that.
There were some turbulent times before I got on the board and some people were deciding to take their students and send them someplace else. We’ve gotten the community to decide that this is the best place to send their kids.
Reading rates are up, graduation rates are up. The board set parameters that say that’s important and then (we hired) a superintendent who says that is important and can manage to that goal.
To manage Designing Pathways through the change in superintendents and keep it moving forward was a big deal (see below for more on Designing Pathways).
We heard from parents that safety and security was really important. I knew how wide open school buildings used to be. I’m really proud of the things the district has done to make children safe and that parents actually feel safe sending their kids to school.
One of the things most important to me in being chair was being sure we had a fair and respectful atmosphere in the boardroom. We’re never going to all agree, but at least we need to be able to disagree respectfully. And that was a goal of mine when I got to be chair.
EPLN: What did you fall short on?
EL: What I really wish I could see is all the kids go back to school safety. I am really sad that I won’t be there to see that. We talked about graduation. Sending these people off after they’ve been through all of the years with us and being able to see that ceremony is a piece of closure that I won’t be able to experience again. We experienced something like that this summer, but it wasn’t the same.
EPLN: The school board and district have received some criticism for its communication with the community. Is that a fair assessment and, if so, what needs to change?
EL: Communication is always a constant discussion with the board. My entire time on the board we have worked to figure out ways to have the board engage with the community in ways that the community wants to be engaged with. That’s a constant learning experience. It’s always easier when you have something going on that people are interested in.
I think the general public sometimes has the perception that the school board is similar to other elected offices. All school board business happens at the board table. It’s doesn’t happen via emails. Directors are not allowed to talk to each other in groups, in private and come to a decision and have that decision be premade at the board table.
Legislators can go in the back room and talk to each other, but school board members can’t. I think sometimes people are thinking that other discussions are happening somewhere else but it’s really not.
I think sometimes people are looking for the board to be more involved in operational aspects of the district. They think board members are making decisions about things like curriculum. I tell people all the time, I’m a tax accountant; you don’t want me picking your child’s curriculum.
The district has professionals with advanced degrees in what they do and we need to let them do their job. Sometimes when people are interested in talking about operational things, they’re not getting the answers they want and that’s frustrating (for them), I think.
EPLN: How has COVID affected your ability to communicate with the community? Talk about the Aug. 24 meeting where a group of teachers appeared unable to express their concerns.
EL: COVID has been a challenge. We discussed how we were going to have meetings, how we were going to be able to interact. One of the challenges with COVID is that everything was changing all of the time. You would make a decision and a week later realized that decision should have been something different. We were in uncharted territory.
(At the Aug. 24) meeting we thought we were doing the right thing by having it in the performance center where people could stay away from each other. We had it set up so that there were two separate microphones set up for public comment and no one came for public comment. The agendas are posted the week before the meeting. A decision was made prior to the meeting about the way the meeting was going to be held. I just think it was a hard time, a very difficult time. It was all new and it just was a very emotional time.
EPLN: What about concerns raised about transparency?
EL: We hear concerns about transparency all the time. Before I was on the board I probably would have said the same thing. It’s not bad for people to want information from their school board. It’s not a bad thing.
Over my time on the board there have been peaks and valleys of high interest items. Designing Pathways was a time where people were very interested and we got a lot of emails. Of course, COVID. And the superintendent transition had attention from some people.
There are certain issues that come up that people are interested in and they get a group of people together and come and talk. One of them was school start times. And that’s being worked on. And who knows, that might be the next thing people are really interested in.
Being a school board member is not a thing for people who aren’t interested in being scrutinized. You do all of the work in public. So you have to be willing to take people’s criticism.
EPLN: What happened to the 143 emails that were received before the Aug. 24 meeting?
EL: The chair answers them all. And school board members can answer them if they want to. If it comes to an individual board member they are responsible to answer them. I answer them all – that’s how we know there were 143 of them (laughter).
EPLN: Central Middle School (CMS) is undergoing massive construction and 6th graders will move there next year under Designing Pathways. How did Designing Pathways get started and how will it benefit students?
EL: It started with the discussion about getting 6th graders into CMS and the need to upgrade the CMS building. It needed an update. In my opinion this is going to be a tremendous opportunity for 6th graders. They are going to be able to spend three years in a building with staff that is dedicated to the middle school experience. Middle school administrators and teachers are special people. Those 6th graders will have more choice in what they get to do with their day. It’ll be less of a grade school experience and more of a middle school experience.
(CMS is) going to be an amazing learning space. There are sections of that building that I’m so excited for kids to experience. It is wide open and light and bright and a lot of spaces have the ability to be flexible for what teachers need.
The performing arts space is really amazing. And that’s going to be an expanded experience for the middle school kids to take and run with things they are interested in. It’s also going to be an asset for the community. It can be used separately from the school building.
From the parenting perspective, the parking lot is going to be shifted. You will be able to come in off of School Road, drop off your students, drive around the back of the building and you can zoom right up to 212 on Wallace.
I know a lot of people who were on the school board before me, people who were on the school board when the majority of the buildings in this district got built. I always felt a sense of responsibility to them, because they made such good decisions back then, to make sure that we continue to make good decisions. We want the community to say, “I’m really glad they did that.” And I think this will be one of those things.
EPLN: Teacher contracts are coming up this year. How do you see that going?
EL: The relationship (between the board and teachers) has always been good. Historically, the negotiations have always been fair. I’ve been on the negotiations committee almost the entire time I was on the board and I sat through negotiations three times. And I’ve always been struck with how fair it is, how both sides are really respectful of each other. So I don’t see anything different.
EPLN: What are some of the most important issues facing the school board going forward?
EL: It’s always a challenge as a good board member to remain focused on the long term while dealing with the short term. It’s really easy to be interested in things that aren’t really under a board member’s purview. The challenge is to focus on things like financial security for the district. It’s going to be a big deal. How are we going to come out of COVID? What’s going to happen? What does the board want to decide is next?
Part of being a good board member is figuring out how to get other board members interested in what they are interested in. It’ll be interesting to see what the new board comes up with.
EPLN: Any final thoughts?
EL: I just go back to thinking about what an asset the schools are to the community. We have an administration right now with a relentless focus on the achievement of each student. And it’s producing results. More kids are graduating, reading rates are going up. I really think the taxpayers in Eden Prairie are receiving value for their tax contributions to the district.
I think the district is well positioned for the future. We’re going to be able to come out of this unprecedented time and students are still going to be able to achieve. Because we were well positioned going in, we’ll be able to weather this storm.
Personally, this hasn’t always been easy, but – it’s such a cliché – I’ve gotten more out it than I ever gave.