That’s All She Wrote

“To go fast, go alone. To go far, go together”. Thank you to the Bismarck Public Schools community. It has been both my honor and duty to lead BPS since 2011.

Along with mistakes made and lessons learned, I feel gratitude that: we built 3 schools, added to and / or renovated 8 more, found a home for SCHS at Riverside, improved campus safety in all preK-8s and emergency operations procedures across BPS, added an SRO, worked together to re-boundary the entire district, and rolled 6th grade to middle and 9th grade to high school. Communications improved through our new web site; BPS is on social media. Advisory groups have assisted BPS in addressing complex issues such as cyber bullying, some of which is sadly modeled by adults. BPS deployed new softwares in accounting and human resources, moving from paper to online. Over 600 policies were improved and a new model of governance begun – and yet, the 2012 school board direct me to bring this school district into the 21st Century. AdvancEd, an accrediting agency for 32,000 institutions worldwide which serve 20 million students is the agency tasked with measuring if that got done.

This spring, AdvancEd conducted its 5 year site visit; they found BPS earned a score of 3.58 out of 4, the highest score I have ever seen. AdvancEd praised BPS for its culture of learning, use of instructional coaches to support teachers, and servant leaders across the system.

Please offer Dr. Jim Haussler the warm welcome and support offered me. Remember the nature of public education: issues arise, issues are resolved. Then new issues come, some days one-by-one and other days by the rail car. BPS will tackle each issue well, particularly with Jim’s leadership and your gracious support.

Best wishes to BPS!


Tamara Uselman

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Toothbrushes and Truth Tellers

So two things happened this week that made me think of the third thing. Bear with me.

Everette, 2, was busily washing her brother Roman’s (7) toothbrush in the bathroom when he came upon her.  He ran to tattle. Within minutes, I got a snap of Everette explaining to 01evvieher mom that she often washes Romie’s toothbrush – in the toilet. Daddy’s too. But no! Not her own or mom’s toothbrush.

Later that evening, my Emrie (8) found a math problem on her iPad and shared it to a family group text. “A bat and ball costs $1.10. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?”

Here are the responses from Emrie’s parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents:

“Sounds like a rummage sale problem.”

“Where are you shopping, Emmie Bear? At Laura Ingall’s sports shop? A bat and ball for a $1.10?”

“I must have hit my head in 2nd grade math because I am thinking ten cents”?

And finally,” five cents?”

Is it not magical to think how much a child’s brain grows from age 2 to age 8, the skillset raised from toothbrush swirling to mathematical logic? It’s all things beautiful, how the brain of a kid lights up at a new discovery to challenge old thinking. So how come our brains as adults get rigid instead of beautifully more expansive?

In Neuro-logic: How your Brain is Keeping You from Changing Your Mind, Joe Queenan explains why teaching others – and ourselves –is so hard. Queenan’s says that humans don’t remember the neurological process the brain went through prior to holding a strong belief. People just latch on to strong belief on, “…politics, religion, euthanasia….” And ain’t nothing going to change that belief, short of, “…a major intervention.”

Social media further entrenches us. Says Queenan, “…we compulsively associate with people who share our opinions and values, seeking out echo chambers like MSNBC or Fox News or Middlebury College.” And now instead of hearing news at 6 and 10, we swim in it throughout the day.

You gotta be brave to allow your mind to consider changing, because, as Queenan says, both MSNBC and Fox News followers are in separate “tribes” and, “…tribes do not welcome strangers. Moreover, to defect from a tribe is a form of treason. Even when you suspect that the tribe is wrong.” Even when you suspect tribe is wrong: seems odd for smart people, doesn’t it?

BPS and institutions everywhere are grappling with how to teach inquiry. The struggle is not because inquiry is a wrong form of teaching but because well, my mind is made up and don’t ask me to think about why my mind is made up. It is too scary and lonely. Yet we were fearless as young discoverers, our learning endless. “You wouldn’t suspect it from looking around, but every adult you know started out as a scientific genius. Children are natural-born scientists. They spend all of their time learning about the world through experiment, deriving what’s true through unrelenting trial and error.” Until we grow up and chicken out.

So I leave you with a question. Since we all want to avoid raising a generation whose belief system stops at washing toothbrushes in toilets and we want to know how much the ball costs (c’mon, you thought it through, didn’t you?), then what do you think are the best levers inside our wheelhouse for changing our adults back into natural-born scientists?

The answer to that may not only save public education but provide peace in an increasingly divided world.

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Don’t Be Frank; Be You

Let’s be frank. Improving our lives is hard work. Why is it so hard? Seems like it should be as easy as breathing. So for a few seconds, try change the rate of your breathing: breathe slowly….deeply…slowly. Seriously, try it for me: breathe slowly….deeply…slowly. Adjusting your breathing for a few seconds is easy but by now, you are back to breathing in your regular pattern, aren’t you? So let’s be frank, all of human behavior is a pattern.  Want to change your home life? Work life? Feeling of self-worth? Change your behavior pattern – no one else’s, just yours. After all, the only pattern you can really change in any case is yours. When change your pattern of behaving, you change you change what results from your behavior – and that is how you change your reality. Thus, you have power to change your reality by working on you.

So what does Frank have to do with it? I met Frank when he presented his “why” through a personal 21 day challenge (see video here). Frank can speak four languages and still believes he needs to improve his life. So here is this young man from Kenya choosing to be kind to himself (exercising, eating better) and extraordinarily kind to those around him (paying for groceries, complimenting others).

When Frank decided he wanted a better life, he did not point out where others were shortchanging him, even though they may have been. Instead, Frank changed the only person he could change, himself. The assignment empowered him with voice and choice and required sustained inquiry over 21 days.

An article I read ended like this:  “… our job is to grow the most amazing humans possible”. So let’s be frank: I dare you and me to commit to living our “why” for 21 days in a row, reflecting each day on our actions. Will changing our pattern of behavior change the results of our behaviors and thus, change our lives? Ask Frank.

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March Madness

When I got into the administration business about 20 years ago, I noticed a strange phenomenon. In about the middle of March, school people (myself included) began to ever so slightly unravel. It took some teeth clenching and positive self-talk to make it to the end of May; stress, panic, and more worry than usual gave us the 5th-cup-of-coffee kind of jitters. Those affected most brutally begin to talk faster, walk faster, and could be seen nibbling snacks while standing over a stack of papers, one foot jiggling nervously.

Some of us became more terse and volatile. Why did that happen? What causes this predictable annual phenomenon? Does the annual agitation hatch from deep in our brains due to the changing of the seasons? Was the more direct mid-March sunshine waking our souls from their winter hibernations, sending us into a “to do” list in a short time frame kind of urgency? When resetting our clocks for daylight savings time did we, of a sudden, realize we had but three months to get students college, career, and community ready (or at least ready for the next grade level?) After a three decades as participant observer in this crazy pattern of behavior, I conclude I have no idea as to the why; I only know the when. And it’s right about now, mid-March.

So what to do? Jim Stenejhem who worked with NDCEL shared the near-perfect worry tool with a group. Today I want to share that tool with you in the hopes you can have a less stressful, more joyful spring season. Hang in there folks. The ides of March have come but not gone, to quote a soothsayer.



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Is it Bullying or Conflict and Does it Matter?

Is it bullying or is it conflict?

By Tamara Uselman, Supt. of Schools

Is it bullying or is it student conflict? Does it matter? In a word, yes. The difference between student conflict and student bullying is similar to the difference between speeding and reckless driving. Both require investigation; sanctions will differ. Whereas student conflict often includes sharp disagreement between two or more, bullying is defined in policy and NDCC to be conduct (which includes the use of technology or other electronic media)

  • so severe, pervasive, or objectively offensive that it substantially interferes with the student’s educational opportunities;
  • Places the student in actual and reasonable fear of harm;
  • Places the student in actual and reasonable fear of damage to property of the student;
  • Substantially disrupts the orderly operation of a public school

For the school to act on bullying, the action must occur or be received by a student while he/she is in a public school, on school district premises, in a district owned or leased school bus or school vehicle, or at any public school or school district sanctioned or sponsored activity. In short, conflict between students is a normal part of school life. Bullying is not.

If the report of bullying involves a student of a “protected class”, the issue is investigated in accordance with the district’s anti-harassment / discrimination policy. Protected classes are protected from discrimination by state and federal law and include characteristics such as race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability (physical or mental), and status with regard to marriage or public assistance. Both bullying and harassment /discrimination must be referred to law enforcement if there is evidence of a crime. Protected class individuals may seek redress in the court system as well.

You might be surprised to learn that while the term “bullying” is used in a fast and loose manner when there is an issue of student conflict, most principals and School Resource Officers (SROs) find very few incidents rise to the level of bullying or harassment. Often what is occurring is two students who are just not getting along. School staff assist in student conflict issues differently than with bullying, much like speeding is dealt with differently than reckless driving. In issues of conflict, staff assist with conflict resolution.

At BPS, we find much of physical bullying has gone by the wayside and cyberbullying has taken its place. Sometimes two students have an argument when texting back and forth, for example. That’s conflict. However, it can rapidly get out of control if one person chooses to take to social media to spread lies or inappropriate photographs about the other person and if adults jump without facts. Many of the bullying incidents school administrators and SROs investigate these days are cyber in nature.

Please know that whether an issue is one of student conflict or one of bullying, BPS is committed to protecting the children in our care. But know as well bullying is not solely a school matter. Schools and parents share a joint responsibility with the larger community to set and live a standard of expected behavior. In the goal of partnering wisely, Bismarck Public Schools has convened a task force to study bullying and make recommendations about curriculum, policy, and parent education.

There is potential for public forums this spring, similar to the sessions held to educate parents on sexting, to share out information on responses to student conflict, bullying, and harassment / discrimination.  Together we can teach students the life skills of self-regulation, conflict resolution, and how to be upstanders rather than by standers when it comes to extremely harmful actions like bullying.

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The Three R’s and the Four C’s: Education in a World of Innovation

Years ago my book club read a book entitled, Down the Common: A Year in the Life of a Medieval Woman. Marion, the medieval woman, and her husband, Peter Carpenter, lived in a village that had one but one book, the Bible, and one person who could read it, the priest. Her village had no school for her children nor were parents able to read a book if they had one. The Carpenters lived a life of toil, with little chance to improve their lot in life through learning.

Hello, Siri, hello Google Now, hi Alexa, sitting somewhere, awaiting our quest for the score of a game or the recipe for pumpkin pie or the capital of Zimbabwe or the answer to a complex statistical problem. Today, unlike when Marion lived, information is both ubiquitous and instantaneous. Wisdom, arguably, may be rarer.

In the last month I learned: autonomous vehicles are on a road today. Flying cars already exist. Medical patients share personal health data via upload from sensors carried on or in their bodies. “Office calls” are sometimes a video conference call made from home in comfy clothes with a cup of coffee (OK, that’s my dream). Goodness, even prisons are innovating incarceration with the use of GPS monitors and ankle bracelets.

What should schools teach in this whole new world? Clearly, students deserve the challenge of rigorous content, yet if students can (and I suspect do) find answers from Alexa and Siri, education at the knowledge level is simply not relevant. Please don’t read what I didn’t write. Do students need skills in reading and math, science and social studies? Absolutely. And moreover, at BPS you are aware that employers want employees who have practiced and mastered the four C’s while in school: collaboration with peers, critical thinking in applying content to solve sticky, wicky, and wacky problems; creativity to find answers not yet found; and deep skills in communicating with a variety of audiences (talk about a new demand in the doctor’s bedside manner). Plus, society wants people who can show up on time and self-regulate.

In addition to rigorous content and the four C’s, students and parents want the modern education experience to be less factory-style like we had where we sat in rows doing the same work at the same time. Consumers today demand a more personalized education. Alexa and Siri cannot design and facilitate quality personalized project based lessons. Such is the forte of good teachers. The two (great teachers and good project based lesson design) are innovating education right now, today. Never fear, the academic standards for ND ensure students still experience rigorous content. Thus, innovation in education is not an “either or” (content only or soft skills only). Instead education is “content plus more”, with more being the four C’s and personalization. You have shown me that on my site visits; I admire your innovative work, teachers.

Whether we like the pace of innovation or we don’t like it may not matter; innovation is happening with or without our permission. As we move from the “old” world to the new world, one step at a time, we are able to ensure students are equipped not only with important skills of the past but also equipped to be “choice ready” – ready to choose the post-secondary education needed for careers they choose in a world that is innovating at the speed of the internet.

Marion and Peter Carpenter had a life of toil with no access to learning outside the rare hour at church. Today, our students have access to that hour, to instantaneous content, and what at BPS is beginning to look like the blossoming of a personalized education. Can public education survive the disruption it faces in the modern world? It must. It is. Watch for it.


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A Life Well Lived: Celebrating Lorraine Carmen Emily Perala Olsen

lifesaverMy uncle made me cry last week. My sister Tawnia helped him. Before you ask for names and addresses to send thank you notes, let me explain. My 91 year old aunt Lorraine passed away. Lorraine was famous for repeating her mother’s, my Grandma Lempi’s, line: “Laugh and the world laughs with you; cry and you cry alone”.

My uncle Paul made me cry when he shared that Lorraine graduated high school, took a short course at a “normal school” on how to be a teacher, and a few weeks later, found herself in a one room school house, serving grades first through eighth. Lorraine was the teacher, principal, special education coordinator, English language provider, playground supervisor, physical education teacher, custodian, cook, and maintenance person. She arrived early to put wood or coal in the stove. In that one room school house, it was just Lorraine and a room full of kids. Outside it was miles to the closest farmstead.

The footings of today’s education was poured in Lorraine’s era. Classrooms in schools functioned, for some time, as one room school houses. Over time, expectations rose and resources were added. Why? Back when Lorraine taught, students were invited to learn. Today, all student are expected to achieve. The focus has changed from teaching to learning. And that is a huge change which requires a bit of magic.

What is the magic? In part, professional learning communities, where the big questions are asked and answered: what do all students need to know and be able to do? (standards, expressed to students in “I can’s”). How will we know if they know it and can do it? (assessments: formal and large scale, formative and common across the grades, or simply teacher observation). What will we do when students do not know and cannot do? In the old days, students received a D or F and the teacher moved on. In a learning-focused organization, PLCs help work interventions so each child becomes more skilled, in spite of ugly roadblocks children face. And finally, what will we do when students already can do and already do know? How do we accelerate learning for them? Quality learning experiences designed around projects provide one good answer. PBL’s have no lid. Acceleration happens in a good PBL.

I wanted to say two things in closing: one, as little as five years ago, people were bewildered at spending time in a PLC meeting; there was no extra time to waste! Today, PLCs are valuable enough that most staff now crave PLC time. This change is a sign BPS is more learning-focused as opposed to teaching-focused. And two, was it bad we were a teaching-focused organization? Not at all. That’s what students needed in Lorraine’s era through the very beginning of my teaching. Now students need to be skilled problem solvers. Teachers build toward a learning-focused organization every day. You rely on other professionals from custodians to bus drivers to cooks to specialists to support the learning of the child. I am deeply glad BPS kids have you.

When my Uncle Paul shared the enormity of my Aunt Lorraine’s first teaching job, he made me cry. To see how my sister made me cry is a whole ‘nuther story. Tawnia shared a conversation she had with her Godmother, Lorraine, which you can read here if you wish. You will want to bring both a red Lifesaver and a tissue.

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Careful Planning and Steady Growth


This fall, RSP Associates, the school planning firm who we have used with 98 percent accuracy told us that BPS is projected to see 1,900 more students in the next 5 years, with most of them  in our secondary schools. Where will we find space for 1,900 more students to learn? And how will we pay for that space? A Community Facilities Task Force of 75 people began wrestling with that question over a year ago. The information below should help you talk with your friends and family when they ask about the proposed bond to expand and improve secondary space:

The Bismarck School Board responded to the Task Force’s recommendation to invest in additions on to Horizon Middle School, Simle Middle School, Wachter Middle School, Century High School, and Bismarck High School. The Business & Operations Manager, Darin Scherr, along with five secondary principals and four architects shared plans with the Board. Not only would the “remodel and expand” be less costly than building a fourth new middle school, doing so makes sense because the “bones” of our secondary schools are good. In addition, the community seems to appreciate the feeder system – knowing which elementary schools feed into which middle schools and which middle school feeds into which high school. This plan presented keeps the feeder system intact.

2016-17-projected-mill-levy-for-bondThe Board is sensitive about debt and directed administration to find ways to fund the $57.5 million in projects while keeping the mill rate of 2015-16 flat into the future. The only way to do this is to use a “retire and replace” strategy. Basically, as mills come off the tax rolls for former school construction projects, we would replace them with new mills for the three middle schools and two high schools the mill rate flat can stay flat or a slightly reduce. (See chart).

Most of us don’t talk in mills. We talk in dollars. Here is an example of a $200,000 home. You can do the math to get an assumption for your own home:


This chart shows the tax impact regarding school bonds. If this plays out as we believe it will, you can see there could actually be a small savings to taxpayers as shown by the (bracketed numbers) even if their home values increase. If the bond failed, people would pay less on school bonds.

Please feel free to use the FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) document online at under the green Bond Election 2017 tab. Email questions to She will ensure your question is answered and help us build a robust FAQ.

Finally, please plan to attend and invite others to attend one of these bond information meetings:

Tues., Jan. 17   Wachter cafetorium   7-8 pm

Thurs., Jan. 19  Horizon cafetorium     7-8 pm

Tues., Jan. 24   Simle auditorium        7-8 pm

Thank you for your interest in managing steady growth in our schools.


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A Thank You to Our Veterans

It was my honor to learn from three BPS veterans. Here is their wisdom (copy and paste into your browser):


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Budget 101

There is an old African adage that says, “When the pond starts drying up, the animals begin looking differently at each other”. That adage applies to school budgets as well. The other saying that applies to school district’s is, “In absence of information, people make stuff up.” This blog, then, has a dual purpose: 1) to acknowledge that when budget gets tight, people may take it personally and blame someone else for “hogging all the water”; and 2) it is best that people have information so they can respond to both fact and fiction.

Here is some budget 101.

  1. The BPS has a budget of approximately 161 million, 83 percent of which goes to staff. Sometimes people are surprised by that percentage. They say, “83 percent of your budget is people!” However, in any service business (think school, hospital, or government) 83 percent is not atypical.
  2. The BPS projected an ending fund balance in the neighborhood of six percent. As a superintendent, I have always known by rule of thumb a good place to end the year is with a balance of ten to twelve percent. Six percent is on the low end, fifteen percent is, most years, higher than the BPS needs. Other school districts’ ending fund balance will differ from ours. Their fund balances makes sense for their context. In North Dakota, the context of a Class B school may be very, very different from a Class A school.
  3. The BPS student body is growing at about 2.3 percent a year or an average of 350 students. Growth is a good thing, at least when compared to the other choice of decline. Note that state aid for last year (2015-16) is being received this year, in 2016-17. In other words, expenses for educating students are incurred the year before the reimbursement in state aid is received. This is one reason we need an ending fund balance as costs to educate more kids are high. (As a side bar, if you look askance at the legislature for this pattern of aid, you are that animal at the pond. The legislature, I believe, instituted the current pattern of aid for good reason: at one time, most North Dakota schools faced declining enrollment. Not so long ago, North Dakota was the oldest state in the union, in terms of citizens’ age. Today, North Dakota may be the youngest state in the union. Whether the legislature should go back to funding in “real time” is a good question. Another good question is could the state could afford it, now. I suspect it could not, this session). However, a decade or more of reimbursement trailing a year after expenses at a time where each new school year brings hundreds of new students and thus, new huge expenses can and will erode ending fund balance unless cost containment / budget cuts outpace enhancements and inflation – difficult at best while maintaining quality education.
  4. Salaries of staff who provide services in new space (teachers in additions, teachers and support staff in new schools / additions) are a general fund expense and do impact the general fund. See #1, above, for the impact of such costs.
  5. The BPS has added teachers, support staff, professional support staff, and administrators in response to increased student numbers. People generally understand the need for additional employees of their category. Building understanding for additions to other categories may be harder to grapple with. Yet every person not at teacher, including myself serves in a support role to the classroom and acts as a liaison to families and the larger community. Teachers and students should see more administrators in classrooms, problem solving issues, and advancing the mission. Extra-curricular coaches and advisers should have more “go to” immediate help than before. Still it is hard to keep pace when there are so many needs, so many more students and families to serve, and limited dollars. We can only spend a dollar once and then that dollar is gone for good.
  6. Health insurance increased seven percent. Under the Affordable Care Act, more BPS employees qualify for health insurance benefits. This impact of both the increased rate and increased number of employees participating is projected to cost BPS four million dollars this year. That being said, the BPS health insurance increase is significantly lower than increases other school districts are facing.
  7. Growth in student numbers certainly provides challenges in terms of space. For secondary schools, HMS and SMS are over capacity and WMS will be shortly. CHS will not be big enough for the incoming enrollment. BHS and CHS are gorgeous high schools and yet need improvements to the physical plant. The BPS continues to be short on space in particular areas of the school district: for elementary schools, on the NE, the NW, the SW, and SE.
  8. The closing of Saxvik Elementary can be a “confounder” for some and a clash point for others. The Saxvik Building with its dirt crawl space on its very tight lot would need millions of dollars invested in it for adequacy reasons. That investment would have been wise for a building on a larger campus, with a better physical foundation, in a growing neighborhood. Students from Saxvik were routed to neighborhood schools, and nearly a million dollars in annual efficiencies resulted. Still, I recognize it is painful to say goodbye to a school that served so many;
  9. Construction of new schools does not impact the general fund positively or negatively. The BPS community has built three new schools, provided additions to several more, and made improvements to many “core city” schools (think office remodel, added air conditioning, safety improvements to the building access, science rooms, improved school kitchens, etc). Voter approved bonds pay construction costs for new schools and the building fund (not part of the general fund) pays for additions and improvements such as those at Highland Acres, Grimsrud, Prairie Rose, Moses, Murphy, and others. Controllable budget (or dollars line-itemed in our budgets) pay for remodels to classrooms such as science rooms and for new roofs and better heating and cooling. A state grant as well as controllable budget was used for safety improvements. The enhancement process was used to provide furniture, fixtures, and equipment in Legacy High School. These dollars impacted the general fund.
  10. In determining to build new or add on, the BPS has been guided by broad-based community tasks forces and the work is done via public Board meetings which invite and encourage public input.
  11. As we continue to grow, new space (new buildings, additions, or equity work) will likely require a bond. We have been studying how to get this work done without adding an additional tax burden much beyond what all taxpayers carry today.

My hope is these info bites will provide you with facts so people do not have to make stuff up. And as North Dakota experiences a bit of a drying pond, having facts can help reduce your stress as we all adjust to a new business climate.

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