Photos by Hillary Ehlen
From left to right: Jeff Pederson, President/CEO, The Village; Joe Raso, President/CEO, Greater Fargo-Moorhead Economic Development Corporation; Beth Slette, West Fargo Public Schools Superintendent; Derrick LaPoint, President/CEO of Downtown Moorhead Inc.; Brandon Lunak, Moorhead Area Public Schools Superintendent; and Rupak Gandhi, Fargo Public Schools Superintendent.
From the school districts to economic development, several new leaders have moved into our community. We sat down with them to have an open and honest conversation about what fresh leadership means for our community.
*Note: While we did ask some questions to Fargo Public Schools Superintendent Rupak Gandhi, due to scheduling conflicts, he was unable to participate in the actual roundtable conversation.
Q1: With all the fresh faces and new leadership in town, what does that mean for the community and why is that a good thing?
Derrick: I think anytime you have fresh leadership, it brings a new perspective. I think that goes without saying. I think all of us at this table come from different backgrounds and that different background leads to different ways of doing business and brings different perspectives to all sorts of things, whether it’s the schools, business process, the way we handle our youth or our community from a health standpoint.
We already have such a fantastic group of leaders in this community, it’s good to be able to connect with so many of them. This community has been on the rise for so long, I think anytime you can interject some new life, it’s only going to make our region that much better.
Workforce Development Opportunities
According to a well-publicized report from 2015 released by the Chamber, Economic Development Corporation and several other organizations, there would be 30,000 new job openings created in the FM area over the next five years. With an unemployment rate of 2.2 percent right now, workforce development is one of the major issues facing the community.
Beth: As somebody who has been in our district for nearly 24 years, it’s still exciting as we’re bringing in new people and starting collaboration with Brandon, myself and Rupak and bringing in that experience that Rupak has from Colorado and other folks from other parts of the country. It just makes our community more diverse and rich.
The growth in West Fargo, specifically, is often represented as a challenge, but really, it’s an opportunity to really continue to expand the great things that we’re doing and bring in those other people to help us come up with new ideas and new ways to make education second to none.
Joe: We’ve all agreed to take on these leadership roles and, to your point Derrick, when I came into the community and started talking to people, I was like, ‘There’s some really sharp caring people here’. It felt a little like you were almost joining a team of like-minded people from the standpoint of, they wanted new experiences, they wanted learned individuals, people who would challenge but would do it respectfully.
This seems like it’s going to continue on. I’m just curious, when you took the jobs that you’ve taken and look at the leadership that you’ve had conversations with, is it pretty reflective of your situations too?
Derrick: I can speak with just working with my board who has a ton of community leaders, including Brandon, Steve Scheel and others, it’s fantastic. Everybody has the perspective of: they want to do good for themselves, obviously, their business/organization and the community.
Coming from the City of Fargo and a different type or role, you hear all the history, whether it’s West Fargo, Fargo or Moorhead, and that isolation, historically. I think the new leadership doesn’t carry that history. I see it as, to your point Beth, we can all work together and really do great things for this region. If our region is successful, our individual communities are going to be extremely successful.
Employee Assistance Program
The Village’s Employee Assistance Program is a service that businesses can sign up for where The Village will work with that employer in many ways to support their employees, including strategic consulting on organization-wide policies to individual assistance for employees. More can be learned at thevillagefamily.org/content/village-eap.
Beth: When you’re recruiting people into your business, we have to have top of the line schools. We’re a service industry in service to our families. The old schools of the past are not acceptable. We have to continue to be progressive to draw people to our community to want to live here and have their children educated here. It is a point that we have to work together to produce students that you want to hire. That’s where the collaboration has to happen.
My last two meetings today, that’s what we were working on. We’re working on, what does the industry need, what are the schools producing and how can we bring that together so that our students are prepared for jobs that aren’t created yet, which is very difficult.
Instead of asking what you want to be when you grow up, the question should be, what problem do you want to solve? Then create problem solvers, not siloed individuals who are not flexible or able to adapt to different situations.
Jeff: You talked about the community and how well it’s doing, I also believe that’s part of how well families do. From my perspective with mental health, I was talking with Beth and working together with her on school-based mental health issues. I talked to Brandon and we provide the Employee Assistance Program for the Moorhead Public Schools. All that boils down to creating that healthy environment for families and kids and that’s a part of what makes Moorhead and Fargo an attractive place.
West Fargo Public Preschool
Thanks to a special collaboration between the YMCA and West Fargo Public Schools with support from the United Way, the YMCA is offering year-round preschool programming at the Early Childhood Center in West Fargo. This is an immersive, all-day program, including preschool, before and after Preschool care, parent involvement and more. More info can be found at west-fargo.k12.nd.us.
Joe: How do we take that and market it? Yes, we have communities and individuals who have challenges, no doubt. That’s absolute gold for people trying to find meaning and purpose in their life to know that there’s a community of support for that.
The strongest thing that connected with me coming into the marketplace is that you feel like you have a support network, even if you don’t know because it’s embedded.
Jeff: It starts in neighborhoods and neighbors knowing neighbors and that support group that you have. The key element of that is the family. When that’s disrupted, we see a lot of negative things happen.
The Rise of the Freelancer
Last year, more than a third of the U.S. workforce were freelancing. According to a report from last year from Upwork and Freelancers Union, those freelancers contributed approximately $1.4 trillion annually to the economy. Thanks to companies like Uber and Lyft, it is easier than ever to make some money with a side hustle. This will have a massive impact on the workforce as this trend continues.
“Today, more than a third of the U.S. workforce, 57 million workers, receive 1099s,” said Raso. “They’re freelancers or contractors. They may have a W2 job but they are an employer of one themselves. That’s growing. When you look at the market or companies, the reality is that no CEOs want to hire somebody. They just want work getting done.
“Individuals saw their parents getting laid off in the recession or they see situations and they see opportunities. I think about these existing people in the workforce and young people coming up through our schools, do they fundamentally have the soft skills and otherwise to survive what is becoming more of a world of, I am an employer of one? How does the community serve as a currency to support that? That’s something that intrigues me personally.”
Q2: Beth, you said, “Our schools are a reflection of our community and meeting the social-emotional needs of our students can be challenging.” If that is true, what does that mean about our communities?
Brandon: In our situation, we’re seeing an increased need for mental health type services and bringing those supports to the family and the classroom. To identify them and to identify them quickly is a challenge. Making sure that we get the appropriate support in place so we can continue to carry out the mission and continue to move the community forward through those services. That’s why services that The Village provide with school-based mental services are critically important.
Beth: I would agree with everything Brandon just said. I would add, again, it’s those partnerships. The schools can’t do it alone. The Village can’t do it alone. The parents, in a lot of cases, are struggling themselves. That early intervention, and one of the things that West Fargo is doing this year for the first time, we’re having a public preschool in collaboration with the YMCA with support from United Way. It was multiple meetings bringing people together to really identify ways to intervene early and then bring those services to the children.
Sometimes, you try and connect them out there but sometimes the parents are struggling so we need to put it right there so that tier one of social-emotional learning teaching strategies, coping mechanisms are things that we can teach our children to calm down with ways of breathing and things like that. We’re doing that early and often as part of our daily curriculum.
Joe: As adults, we can learn that too.
Derrick: It’s an interesting time. I have a younger brother who just finished high school and what these kids and the youth are going through in this time of social media, it is insane. I dealt with it when I was at colleges with fans and other stuff but when you have your peers, classmates and others that take it right to social media, it’s a tough thing to deal with as a young kid. That mental health is a serious issue.
Beth: It’s so fast. In the old days, you had to pick up the phone if you’re going to harass someone. Now, students and adolescents executive functioning is not all there. They don’t have the regulation to slow down.
What’s happening in Downtown Moorhead
There are several things that are happening in Downtown Moorhead that LaPoint is very excited about.
- Downtown Moorhead Inc. is excited to see so many projects underway in the downtown core. From new construction to rehabilitation of some historic buildings. Downtown Moorhead is alive with growth.
- DMI has been partnering with the City of Moorhead to bring forward new economic policies that will align ourselves with the surrounding communities.
- Construction will begin on the Center Avenue project in 2019. For the first time in a long time, Downtown Moorhead will have a focused urban corridor with on-street parking and shared bike lanes.
- In the coming months, DMI and the City of Moorhead will be undertaking a Downtown Master Planning effort. This plan will engage the community to set forth an attainable action plan for the community vision of Downtown.
Q3: Going back to looking at this as a community versus three different cities, I’m interested in the outsider perspective. When you look at FMWF, historically, each has done its own thing. What are your thoughts Joe about the Red River Valley and the three cities working together versus being siloed?
Joe: Two perspectives. One is human nature. Naturally, we form tribes and groups. There’s a great book called “Sapiens.” It’s from a fabulous Israeli historian who wrote about the evolution of humans and where the future looks. To kind of pull away what I call, my football team or my school versus your school, I think goes against human nature.
Having said that, when I was in Iowa City, there was a gentleman who was a CEO of a top five trucking company called Heartland.
If you look on that truck where it’s from, it says Iowa City, Iowa. He’s never been in Iowa City. He’s been in Coralville, Iowa, and North Liberty, Iowa, two adjoining communities that are a part of the Iowa City region. His focus, and it’s mine too, is how does the outside world view you in a meaningful way?
Internally, I think we have our neighborhoods, our schools and our school districts. We should be very proud of them. Maybe it’s you’re doing something in West Fargo and Brandon, you or Rupak go, “I love that idea. How can we work that into our tribe?”
From the perspective of companies that can locate anywhere and people who are choosing daily because they don’t work locally, they might have five different jobs going on at once and they can live where they want to live. How do they identify a marketplace? I just said to our executive committee today, “We have six taglines.” I don’t know how that plays.
Derrick: For me, making that switch from Fargo to Moorhead, it’s interesting from a business standpoint that the perspective when I crossed the river was, it’s too difficult to do business in Moorhead. It’s too expensive. Whatever excuse you want to put on to be on the Minnesota side versus the North Dakota side. There’s some realities to that perception but there’s a lot of false statements to that perception as well.
For us, what we’re trying to drive policy wise is to create equal playing fields. Certainly, we know that Fargo is a main draw. Downtown Fargo is a main draw and we know that Downtown Moorhead isn’t going to be Downtown Fargo. We can be something, though.
If a business is going to choose to locate here, it shouldn’t be because of how much money they can make or one state versus another. We should really try and neutral that out and allow people to choose based on location or whatever it may be.
I think the one thing that we’re facing on the Moorhead side is breaking down that barrier that is the Red River. We talked about it in our meeting and Dan Mahli, the Assistant City Manager at the City of Moorhead, talked about how we need to view the river as a seam, not a barrier.
It’s going to take time but if we start telling our story, in time, I think we’ll be successful.
Joe: You made a point, it won’t be Fargo but Minneapolis and St. Paul are different but they’re both viewed as really thriving. One has a different vibe because of the nature of what’s happening. From a regional perspective, you can choose and have a really good experience in either one.
Q4: Based on the problems that you marked down, it’s not one city’s problems. It’s a community’s problems.
Derrick: Sometimes, I think our community forgets that we are facing the same issues. It goes back to that partnership and collaboration where if we do work together, we can be successful and accomplish some of these challenges.
Jeff: There needs to be a focus on not what our differences are, even though we are tribal, but what can we do together to build the region. I’ll give the analogy of a football team. When it comes to a football team, there is an offense, a defense and special teams. They all have one goal, which is to win. The same applies to our region: there is Fargo, there is Moorhead and there is West Fargo. We all need to have the same goal, to improve the region economically and socially for all. We are in it together for all people.
Q5: In the FM region, it seems like there are a ton of resources out there to support the local business and nonprofit community. However, it seems like everything is a little disjointed because there’s so many resources out there. Since you all represent your different organizations, how do you think we can work together better?
Brandon: I think the working together is very simple. It’s going back to your local district, local businesses and trying to implement those things because there’s some things culturally that could make it difficult to carry out a unified mission. As districts, we’ve been working on sharing practices that work in the classroom. It’s our goal, once we go back to our individual district, to continue to carry that out.
I think somebody made reference to the river being a seam. That, at least with us, the river is a little bit larger than a seam because we have different funding mechanisms then they have, there’s certain criterias that we have to meet that North Dakota doesn’t have to meet in terms of requirements or vice versa.
Beth: I was a Minnesota person so I know what you’re saying. It’s either, you’re a Minnesota girl or you’re a North Dakota girl. It’s that way of thinking. There are a lot of differences between the two of them but one thing we have in common is our children. Within our school districts, our kids are moving. They’re in Fargo one day, West Fargo the next day and then Moorhead. In the interest of children, we have to collaborate to give them the best experience they’re going to get.
Personally, I think collaboration, going over and doing a walk-through of some of their schools, that takes quite a bit of bravery. We have brought in business people and had them come with us on walkthroughs. That’s terrifying. Just the fact that we’ve got to that part where teachers are opening the doors, we’re doing walkthroughs, we’re talking about what the instruction looks like. What’s the next step? What’s keeping us from really doing something innovative here? Is it the schedule? Is it the calendar year? Is it resources? Is it the mindsets of the staff?
When we have those conversations with other leaders, it’s very exciting and energizing. I think you get a lot of energy from it.
Joe: This comes up a lot because there are CVBs, Downtowns, Chambers, EDCs and most people when you say, “I do economic development.” They go, “What is that?”
One of the core pieces to this kind of work, I think, is really having the X on your back for the stuff you lead, and then what do you partner on and what do you support. As it relates to our organization, part of my messaging coming in is that our purpose and bylaws, we’ll be supporting primary sector business. That’s any person or any company, regardless of the size, who bring money into the economy and creates a bigger bucket. We lead that. I’m not saying that we control it but I’m saying that’s what people invest in us to do.
The Chamber has a role. The CVB has a role. I think the best thing for us to do is to clearly define and communicate what we are charged to doing and not me telling you what you should do but you finding out, “Hey, we do this and here’s where there is a partnership or something we think you should support us on.”
I see partnerships around these types of things by running nonprofits for a long time. I’ve seen a lot of times where people want to be nice and want to partner. But, if you look underneath it, you go, ‘“Was there really anything there? Or was it, you just want to get a drink and golf together?” That’s a different thing. Sometimes, that can create more challenges in relationships.
Derrick: Joe hit it right on the head. When I first took the job, I was thinking, “We have the Moorhead Business Association, Moorhead Economic Development Authority, our new organization, the city itself, the EDC.” It was endless. It was like, “Where do we fit? Are some of these people already doing the work?”
It took a lot of conversation up front and having honest conversations with these organizations of, “What is it that you do? Fill me in. What is your mission?” And then for us to come up with that clear and focused vision of, this is what we’re trying to do. For us, the MBA is a great partner and they have the city as a whole that they focus on and have a lot of business contacts, let’s use them, work together and collaborate.
What is the Economic Development Corporation?
By focusing on primary sector businesses, the Greater Fargo Moorhead Economic Development Corporation (GFMEDC) accelerates job and wealth creation in Cass and Clay county. They do this by developing the workforce, retaining and expanding existing businesses and industries, attracting new businesses and industries and initiating, facilitating and supporting traditional and high-tech infrastructure enhancement initiatives.
Q6: It seems like the business community does a good job engaging higher education in the FM area. Since we have two superintendents here, how can the business community better engage our K-12 schools?
Brandon: I think, as an education profession, we can learn from the business field. I think the biggest thing, from the Moorhead side, we evaluate what it is to educate a high school student and what skills they should have to graduate. The one thing it keeps coming back to is our business leaders want certain things from a high school graduate.
We’ve gone through the process of identifying what those characteristics are and we call that Portraits of a Graduate. Now we’re taking that onto the other side of it and we’re doing an 18-month implementation plan of this portraits of a graduate. Right on the heels of that committee is the Master High School Facilities Committee that’s determining if our current site is adequate and can help us carry out what we need to do to educate our high schoolers.
The one thing that it keeps coming back to is that the folks from the private sector want college and career ready graduates. They want graduates and kids who can collaborate with others, work with peers and have the skills that make them ready to work.
How do they play a role in that? I think we have to continue to engage the private sector in terms of what are they looking for in a graduate? I think it’s our responsibility to listen to what those qualities are and how we can fit those qualities within our graduate requirements moving forward.
Beth: I would agree with what Brandon said but I think our system of education is set up based on 100-years ago. If you can Google it, it’s irrelevant. Shifting the whole mindset of the community as well as the parents and the educators of the old model to a new model that prepares students for careers that are out there and those that we don’t even know about. It sounds easy enough but it’s a very big shift to change people’s thinking.
Even as we work towards it, unless we’re constantly vigilant, the old habits come back. Even things like raising your hands to more of a classroom where students are doing the work instead of the teacher. We know that’s best practice but without constant vigilance, it slips back into those old patterns.
Thinking about the workforce, we’re hearing there’s so many businesses that are in Fargo and want to be in Fargo but if we don’t have the workforce for them to move their business, we’re going to lose that. We’ve been so focused on pushing kids toward that four-year degree. It’s your ACT score, you need to have those AP classes. You need to do this, this and this. I think we’ve forgotten that we have a whole field of very good careers that don’t require a four-year degree.
In North Dakota, it’s the ESSA, Every Student Succeeds Act. Our plan is that we have to prepare students to be college ready, career-work ready or military ready. We want them to have two of those three moving forward. Can a student really be all three and fit that in their schedule? That’s on us. Until that shift, it goes back to the higher ed and that ACT score. Does anybody really care once you get that scholarship? That’s the focus right now to get them to a four-year degree and then what job do they have then?
They might be in their parent’s basement or they might be making $120,000 a year. Having those conversations like Brandon said about what skills do you need and working together to make sure that the students are getting those.
Also, giving the opportunities for students to shadow in businesses. I know it’s kind of a nuisance but we need to give the students the opportunities to get out of the schools and into the world.
That was one of the meetings I was in today about how can we make that happen. How can we pay for it? Brandon has been in those conversations too. All it takes is money.
Joe: I took my car in. I had hail damage in Colorado and it’s going to take a year for my car to be seen because they were so busy. I come in here, the guy looks at my car and says it’s going to cost $8,000 just to fix some hail damage. I’m talking to his dad and he’s giving me this story about, “We have honest to God great jobs here. Life long careers and I can’t find the workers.”
It’s a community issue. What you’re saying is not a K-12 issue, it’s truly a community issue. We all have a responsibility. I think what you’re saying is 100 percent right on because these kids come out of school – the World Economic Forum says, 65 percent of all work, not jobs, all work is not even known.
Derrick: I think it goes back to one of your initial points, Joe. We need to create that brand for our community and how we’re going to draw people.
Joe: Let’s not forget that this market is doing incredible things. We get focused on this issue or this issue. When we decided to move here, one of the reasons, is that when we were looking at the needs for Zoe who’s 12 and going into seventh grade, is that this market, you can do online classes, homeschool and go into the classroom. We’re literally mixing up her educational needs because of where her interests lie, what inspires her.
What’s interesting about the conversation is that there’s nobody who tried to pigeon hole the process. Well, if you go to Liberty, you have to go the whole time or you’re just not going to get socialization. I can honestly say that’s not the experience everywhere.
Those are things that we, as a business community, can sell. We’re not going to be perfect and we’re not always going to have all the answers but, as people have said, ‘What do we have to do?’ I said, ‘Be better than most.’
Beth: It can’t just be Liberty. In West Fargo, it has to be wherever you go to school, you give people the opportunity for experiences. It can’t be left to chance. It has to be a system thinking or else we’re going to have the haves and have nots.
Q7: What would you like to say to our reader?
Jeff: From my perspective, we’re here to help. The organization that I manage is here to support you from zero to death. We’re here to help your workforce stay healthy. Everybody has depression or anxiety or we all know someone who does. The Village can be seen as a resource for the schools, businesses and the community.
Derrick: For me, I’m a staff of one and pretty new to it. For us and the efforts of revitalizing Downtown Moorhead and putting Moorhead’s best foot forward, I can have the grandest vision but it has to be a community-led vision. We’re really seeking public comment. We’re going to be leading some master planning efforts to get out in the community and engage the community of what they want to see.
I can say all the things I want and paint a pretty picture but the reality is that we need a community to help build it. Certainly, we’re thankful to be in a region that’s so prideful and really wants to see things happen.
Brandon: I truly believe, and if you look at the days from when I was teaching and coaching, one individual couldn’t win the game by yourself. It took the collaborative effort of everybody working within their lane and their roles to move the team, district or community forward. I don’t view this any different than if you’re coaching a peewee hockey team or a professional hockey team. If you’re all in it together, on the same page, moving forward and you’re all doing what you’re supposed to do, we’re better together than we are apart.
Beth: We’re here for the students. We’re here to prepare students for a world that we don’t know what it looks like. We need to continue to partner together with our community, the parents. The challenges our students face, you can talk to other adults and parents, we don’t even understand the challenges that social media and the immediate, 24/7 constantly being on it has on their brains. We don’t understand the ramifications on our children. It is going to take our community working together.
Enrollment in FMWF Public Schools
Numbers are from 2017-2018.
- West Fargo: 10,573 students
- Fargo: 11,253 students
- Moorhead: 6,594 students
Joe: Your question, with all due respect, is unfair. No good idea comes fully formed. No individual model or focus makes for the success of the intent when we talk about things like this. When I think of what to say to the community, I think in stories and things I’ve heard and learned over time.
I remember one from a guy by the name of Pike Powers. He’s one of the godfathers of development of Austin back in the 80s when Austin was the size of Kalamazoo, Michigan. I got to know him for several years and the first time I met him, I just sat down with him at dinner and said, “Pike, how did you do this?” The guy is probably 80 now. He said, “This morning and this afternoon, I probably helped connect eight to ten people. That is, essentially, what we have done for 35 years. We’ve gone in with no pretense. No, ‘I’m going to view you different because you’re wearing a suit or your hair is down to here.’ What are your needs and how can I connect you? I may not have the answers but others do.”
That struck me that it’s the culture and community that was created. Nobody talks about it but it was really one of the underpinnings of why they became successful.
A California native, Rupak Gandhi completed his undergraduate studies in Political Science at Texas A&M University. He holds a master’s degree in special education from Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, AZ, and is obtaining his doctorate in educational leadership from Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa, Idaho. Gandhi began his career in education in the Houston Independent School District. After serving as a Special Education resource teacher through Teach For America, he served as a high school assistant principal, an elementary principal for a campus of 750 students and lastly, the principal of a comprehensive 6A high school serving nearly 3,000 students. Most recently, Gandhi served as the research, data and accountability officer (Assistant Superintendent) for Harrison School District Two in Colorado Springs, CO, where he provided leadership and strategic direction for accountability planning, implementation of performance measurements and reporting of practices for the District.
Please provide a brief synopsis of what you are bringing to your position.
“I have been fortunate enough to have held a variety of positions in K-12 public school districts prior to my role as Superintendent: special education teacher, high school assistant principal, elementary principal, high school principal and assistant superintendent. Having the experience at each of these levels working in large and mid-size school districts with diverse populations has allowed me the opportunity to gain further experience in how to meet the needs of all students, something we are committed to in Fargo Public Schools.”
What do you hope to accomplish in your position?
“Equity: high-quality education that is tailored to meet the individual needs of all students in Fargo Public Schools, even if those individual student needs differ from one another. We want to ensure that all students are educated and empowered to succeed.”
What are the three biggest challenges facing the FM area, in your opinion?
1) Keeping up with enrollment growth.
2) Social and emotional support for all students.
3) Adequate funding to support meeting the needs of all students.
Is there anything else you think the FM community should know about?
“My family and I have been overwhelmed by the incredible individuals in our FM community and couldn’t ask for a better place to raise our son.”