What if rural schools had a unified voice at the State Capitol?

That single question is what led to the inception of MREA in 1985 and has remained central to the organization since.

“That was so revolutionary at the time — that we would have all the players at the table,” said Vernae Hasbargen, a school board member who later served as MREA’s executive director for 12 years. “That is the defining moment that continues to drive MREA to this day, and it’s created the vibrancy and the authenticity that you need to be a significant organization.”

See how it unfolded in this video:

A New Approach

Harold Remme, then superintendent of Tracy Public Schools, remembers the initial roots starting at Country Kitchen in St. Cloud, where he met with a few other rural leaders to talk about the concept of a rural education association.

That four-hour Saturday breakfast meeting, he recalls them talking about how they could bring together school administrators, board members and teachers and other education leaders in rural Minnesota together. One of them had heard about the concept at a rural conference and how it was working in other states.

“Rural districts did not have the ability to have the impact that they needed to have; we always felt like we got the short end of the stick,” said Lee Warne, a superintendent at the time who later served as an executive director of MREA.

At the time, there were various organizations representing school superintendents, school boards and teachers – separately in the state.

Gaining Support

Superintendent Jerry Jensen was among the first to hear about the concept and have his school district join MREA.

“One of the key things that was so different when we first heard about it was this is going to be an organization that has all the players at the table,” Jensen said. “As a superintendent, I thought to myself, ‘Oh my, that’s probably not going to work very well.’ … All of those different components of education weren’t really working together as much as they were looking to protect their single issues and serving their interests.”

JulAnn Meech, a school board member from Sebeka, had a similar reaction when her superintendent told her about MREA and she joined the first board of directors.

So, it became all about putting learners first.

“To see the people coming up with ideas on what they thought would be good for students or good for all of the districts was fun,” Meech said.

It was not always easy. They had to put in the work at the board table to come together to effect change at the Capitol. Legislators appreciated their shared position on issues.

“When we were bringing those to the legislature, they were going, ‘Whoa, we should pay attention to this; because this is different,'” Jensen said.

Putting Learners First

DuWayne Balken, then director of the West Central Educational Service Cooperative, convened 14 education leaders to officially begin MREA on March 1, 1985 and became the organization’s first executive director.

“We took a chance,” Warne said. “We thought it would work, but it would take us and many people to make it really fly. In the long haul, it did. … The real strength of MREA is the number of people that believed the vision.”