by Elyse Kaner
A few minutes can make a big difference in the path one’s life takes.
Take the time, for instance, when Marilynn Forsberg decided to sign on as a school board candidate just five minutes before the filing deadline.
That was more than three decades ago.
Last week the Minnesota School Boards Association honored Forsberg for 30 years of service on Spring Lake Park District 16’s board.
She received the honor at a Jan. 12 lunch as part of the annual MSBA’s annual leadership conference held at the Minneapolis Convention Center. Hundreds of her colleagues in the audience gave her a standing ovation for having achieved one of the top recognitions at the conference.
“It’s such a huge part of my life,” Forsberg said in an interview about her years on the board. “I feel very humbled that I could serve the district this length of time.”
During her lengthy tenure, Forsberg, who takes her time pondering serious decisions about the future of students, who laughs easily and who fluently spews historical information about the district and surrounding districts at work sessions, served as chairwoman of the SLP board for 13 years in the early 1990s to early 2000. She served as vice chairwoman of the board for eight years.
For Forsberg, who lives in Spring Lake Park with her husband, Fred, the best part of serving has been helping students shape their futures.
“Thirty years times 300 graduates – that’s a lot of kids,” she said last week in an interview at the District Services Center in Spring Lake Park.
Serving on the board has afforded her opportunities to meet governors and attend a number of national conventions in places the likes of Chicago, San Francisco and Las Vegas. She attended Federal Relations Network (an advocate for public education) conferences in Washington, D.C., three times. She has also met many interesting people, she said.
“I love it,” she said. “If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have been around this long.”
And as a board member, for the sake of fun, she has morphed from such characters as a motorcycle-riding mama in a Spring Lake Park High School parade to a rather regal-looking Queen Elizabeth in the district’s Panther Foundation Stafff Folleeez, a fund-raiser for education projects.
The challenging part of the position is dealing with budgets and funding, Forsberg said.
“We continue to do more with less,” she said.
Throughout the 30 years, Forsberg figures she has worked on the passage of three operating levies and two bond referendums. She’s been elected and then re-elected to the board eight times. When she first started in 1982, board terms were three years, not the four-year terms of today. She has two years remaining on her current term.
“She has always put students at the forefront of every decision she ever made and that’s why I respect her so much,” said former Superintendent Don Helmstetter, who worked with her from 1997 to 2009, during the time he headed the district.
Helmstetter said the remarkable thing about Forsberg is she never stays static. She has learned along with new board members and students.
“There’s been so much change and she continues to stay fresh and calm and graceful,” he said.
Colleen Vranish, presiding chairwoman of the SLP board, has worked with Forsberg for eight years. She describes Forsberg as dedicated, someone with a love for education and always focused on what’s best for the students.
“At times, you could describe her as the Eveready Bunny…,” Vranish said. “She just keeps on keeping on.”
Ask Forsberg about what has changed during the years she’s served on the board and her face blossoms into a smile.
“Our wonderful buildings,” she says. She raises her arms in a circling gesture indicating her surroundings. (The district buildings underwent a massive construction and renovation project completed in 2009.)
Forsberg next ticks off a list of other changes.
District 16 has grown dramatically. When she first started on the board, the district served only Spring Lake Park, Melody Manor and a development in Blaine across from Highway 10, she said.
Now, it serves its largest enrollment number to date, 5,100 students in Spring Lake Park, a portion of Blaine and a portion of Fridley.
Over the years, progress ramped up. The sod farms in Blaine were turned into housing developments, meaning more school district residents and more students.
Among many initiatives, Forsberg has been a part of ushering in open enrollment, the post secondary enrollment options program, the Spanish Immersion Program now housed at Westwood Intermediate School, Q-Comp (a salary-based incentive for teacher performance) and the Learning Alternative Schools.
She sees today’s education as being more student-focused than ever before, she said.
When she first ran for office, she had been working as a paraprofessional for about two years at Kenneth Hall Elementary School. State statute, at the time, did not allow school district employees to serve on the school board, she said. So she quit her job.
Another change. The cost of campaigning.
That first year, Forsberg said she would run for a board seat only if she could keep costs down to less than $100. With the help of her family, who distributed pamphlets door to door and a friend who made silk-screen election signs in her garage, Forsberg managed to squeak under the self-imposed budget.
Nearly three decades later, in her last campaign of 2009, an election in which she was the top vote getter out of eight candidates, Forsberg kept the costs of campaigning to just under $750.
She re-used old signs and instead of going door to door, she sent mailers to residents on a voter registration list.
One-room school house
It was Forsberg’s parents who were the impetus for her choosing the education-service route.
Her mother was a grade-school teacher (first through eighth grade) and her father was a school board member in the small town of Boyden, Iowa, where she grew up.
Forsberg was raised on a farm. She started first grade in a rural one-room school house. Kindergarten was not available. From fifth to 12th grade, she attended school in town. She graduated from a class of 14 students. Thirteen of them were girls.
When Forsberg was 15 years old, she contracted rheumatic fever. Hospital workers took many blood samples. Forsberg was curious. What did the workers do with the blood? she wondered. She laughs in the telling.
She later earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Westmar University, a college in LeMars, Iowa (closed in 1997), and became a medical technologist for Allina Health System, a hands-on job which suited her fine, she said. She is now retired.
But it’s being a school board member that defines the essence of Forsberg. She estimates that she spends more than 20 hours a week working on board business.
Among her many involvements, she serves on the MSBA, East Metro Integration District (vice chairwoman), North East Metro 916 Intermediate School District (vice chairwoman) boards and, of course, the Spring Lake Park School Board.
Additionally, she serves on the board of directors of the District 16 Educational Foundation and the District 16/Spring Lake Park Lions Foundation. She is also a member of her homeowners’ association board. She has served on numerous SLP School District committees and teams.
She is a lifelong volunteer in the community and at her church. In 1996, she was named Minnesota School Board Member of the year. In the same year, she received WCCO’s Good Neighbor Award. She has presided as grand marshal over Spring Lake Park’s Tower Days parade.
Last week Forsberg, for the first time, presented a session along with former SLP Superintendent Helmstetter at the MSBA’s Leadership Conference at the Minneapolis Convention Center. The topic was appropriately titled board and superintendent relations.
With the exception of a two-and-a-half year period when her family lived in Overland Park, Kan., (her husband, an electrical engineer for Control Data at the time, was transferred there), Forsberg has lived in District 16 since the mid-1960s.
While living in Kansas one of her sons was designated as learning disabled. Forsberg immersed herself in his schooling. She attended PTA meetings. When the family moved back to Spring Lake Park, Forsberg felt the district had room for improvement, especially in the special education department.
She attended school board meetings for an entire year. When the candidate filing period came around, she was still uncertain as to whether she should run or not. After all, she had four boys at home – a second-grader, fourth-grader, high school junior and college freshman (all of whom graduated from SLP High School), a job demanding in itself.
But luckily, for the community, 30-some years ago in those last few minutes before the board candidate filing deadline, she decided to go for it, with five minutes to spare.
Forsberg said she realizes at some point that her school board tenure will have to come to an end.
“I have friends who tell me there is life after school board,” she says. “I just haven’t come to terms with that yet.”
She laughs. A most joyful sound.
Elyse Kaner is at email@example.com