A number of Bemidji School Board candidates participated in a question-and-answer forum Saturday.
The candidates present answered questions prepared by the Bemidji Education Association that focused on topics including enrollment, student mental health, operating levies, and teacher workloads.
The forum videos can be found on the Friends of the BEA Facebook page.
Note: Larissa Donovan moderated the forums, and the notes taken during the forum were used for this article. The second session including two-year term candidate filers will be in a separate article.
FOUR-YEAR TERM SESSION
The morning session included candidates running for four-year terms. Candidates absent from the forum were: Nicole Jaranson, Carol L. Johnson, Anna Manecke and Wesley Newell.
Ms. Brue said she was running to serve the community, including the district’s staff and educators, and wants to make all Bemidji Schools a safe and inclusive space.
She said a lack of funding is among the most significant issues the district faces, creating challenges for retaining and recruiting quality staff.
For a multiple-part question highlighting some of the issues the pandemic has caused, such as student mental health, workloads for staff, and staff feeling unappreciated, Ms. Brue responded that staff and students need to be heard and acknowledged, and that district policy must be followed.
Ms. Brue noted that since the district added additional social workers through ESSER III, or American Rescue Plan, dollars, that has helped some students with their mental health needs.
For the district’s finances, Ms. Brue says enrollment is key. State dollars do not fund schools enough to keep up with inflation, and she would support an operating levy to reduce class sizes. She said research is needed to determine why students are leaving the district to address enrollment.
Ms. Brue said she would include educator voices in decision-making and would like to form committees that research the decisions that need to be made, with transparent communication key to the process.
Ms. Frenzel said she was running to stay involved and that she has a passion for education. She wants to rebuild trust between the district and the community, support staff and students, with a focus on school safety and increased enrollment.
Ms. Frenzel thinks the strong division in our community is among the biggest challenges facing the district, citing a lack of communication between the two groups. She questioned if personal agendas or grudges are getting in the way of support for public education.
For a multiple-part question highlighting some of the issues the pandemic has caused, such as student mental health, workloads for staff, and staff feeling unappreciated, Ms. Frenzel suggested rebuilding parent-teacher organizations in schools, including parents on curriculum-building teams, ensuring teachers and their union representatives have a voice in decisions. Ms. Frenzel noted strides in mental health needs have been made but more work can be done.
On district fiscal health, Ms. Frenzel said she would want to investigate where enrollment numbers are dropping off. If elected, Ms. Frenzel said she would work on dispelling rumor mills and encourage voters to seek factual information on referendums and levies, not from “vote no” groups on Facebook.
Ms. Frenzel said teachers know what is going on in the schools and should absolutely have a place at the table when it comes to decisions.
She said she may not be everyone’s favorite, but she hopes to bring a balance to the school board.
Ms. Hanson said her decision to run for school board was to advocate for change. She said her own children don’t feel welcome at Bemidji Schools, and would want to be a voice for students and a voice for teachers who feel silenced by the administration.
Ms. Hanson identified enrollment as the biggest challenge facing Bemidji Public Schools. She expanded that with increased enrollment, the district will receive more state dollars, which will help fund more teachers and programs that could lead to even further enrollment numbers.
For a multiple-part question highlighting some of the issues the pandemic has caused, such as student mental health, workloads for staff, and staff feeling unappreciated, Ms. Hanson said she had heard from some teachers that some students are sent to the principal’s office and return to class with prizes. She believes that students need to learn there are consequences for behaviors, good and bad, and the district needs to follow through on policy.
On the district’s fiscal health, Ms. Hanson agreed with Ms. Brue on pinpointing why and when students leave the district. If elected, she would work to improve Bemidji Schools to make it an attractive option for parents and students. She would work to improve the district’s “negative perception” in the community through better communication, which she believes would help get a new operating levy passed.
Ms. Hanson believes teachers on the “front lines” know what’s best for their classrooms, and that the school board needs to do what is best for all students by including teachers in decision-making.
Ms. Hanson said she is willing to do the research, improve district and school board communication, and be a part of committees to address the district’s challenges.
Meredith Kehoe said she submitted her name in the school board race for the kids. She said the students and the teachers are what matters to her, as an almost-retired teacher who still substitutes. She acknowledged the challenges families in the Bemidji area face, noting the high poverty rate and the district’s unique cultural position with three neighboring tribal nations.
Ms. Kehoe said finances are the biggest challenge the district is currently facing. She recalled when the district cut 76 teachers several years ago. She also mentioned the challenges of fights within the schools, and that community divisiveness is “not healthy.”
For a multiple-part question highlighting some of the issues the pandemic has caused, such as student mental health, workloads for staff, and staff feeling unappreciated, Ms. Kehoe thinks additional mental health support should be included at the elementary school level. She said that too often, parents are not involved in their children’s lives, which can add more difficulty for students in the classroom, but students still need to follow their school’s code of conduct.
On the district’s fiscal health, Ms. Kehoe believes teachers know “where the fluff is,” noting that when it comes to levies, the community has supported facilities. Many of the financial issues, Ms. Kehoe said, is due to the state not fully funding mandated services like special education or transportation.
Ms. Kehoe said she understands how important teachers are, and that they need to be listened to, not just given “lip service.” She encourages school board members to substitute teach, and if elected, she would work toward bringing the school board and teachers together.
Ms. Kehoe said she has a lot of experience in the district and has helped start many successful programs. She said she would bring an honest voice and stand up for beliefs, while also continuing to substitute.
Dave Wall said he entered the school board race out of concern of “the direction this country is heading in.” He believes the curriculum includes “one-sided indoctrination” of students and wants to be involved in “righting the ship.”
Mr. Wall expressed his belief that schools should be about educating, and parents should be teaching students life skills, not schools. If elected, he would work on addressing the district’s deficit issues by getting spending under control, and would work on ensuring the curriculum is not driven by social issues but by objective learning.
For a multiple-part question highlighting some of the issues the pandemic has caused, such as student mental health, workloads for staff, and staff feeling unappreciated, Mr. Wall said, “the pandemic didn’t get us here,” alluding these issues were exacerbated by the pandemic. He said fear, isolation and coercion are recipes for disaster. Mr. Wall also said that education is a privilege, speaking briefly about the time he spent in developing countries abroad. He emphasized that parents should be providing students with a place of structure.
On the district’s fiscal health, Mr. Wall said Bemidji School need to become a place where parents want to send their children. He said would not want to seek any new operating levies until the district can prove it has been a good steward of taxpayer money.
Mr. Wall said he would want to meet with teachers individually, outside the realm of the Bemidji Education Association. He said the elected school board is in charge of the district and would work to ensure the BEA understands “they are not the boss.”
Mr. Wall, in his closing statements, said the school board is second in authority to the students’ parents, and if elected, he would make responsible decisions, commit to parents in the district, and would ensure students are identified by the gender they were assigned at birth.
Sarah Young, the only incumbent at the forums, said she was running for another four-year term to give back to the district that has provided so much to her and her family.
Ms. Young identified some of the district’s challenges including a need to grow enrollment and add additional mental health supports. She also said financial issues including a failed referendum and state funding not keeping up with modern inflation.
For a multiple-part question highlighting some of the issues the pandemic has caused, such as student mental health, workloads for staff, and staff feeling unappreciated, Ms. Young said she’d want to look at “what we can do to make things better.” She said the district is making strides by adding social workers. She also noted that these challenges are not unique to this school district, but across the state and country.
On the district’s fiscal health, Ms. Young said she has some ideas to improve enrollment. The first is that the district needs to “tell our story better,” and to better communicate what happens inside the classrooms. She also believes that adding preschool options to elementary schools will encourage families to stay within the district throughout their students’ K-12 education. She also feels the district can do a better job of expressing the mandated services the district provides to help garner support of a new operating levy.
Ms. Young said she welcomes the public, including teachers, to school board meetings, and would support more teacher voices ahead of district decisions, as she feels “teachers know how to market our schools.”
In her closing statements, Ms. Young said it has been an honor to serve the school district these last four years, as a first-generation college graduate, she has a passion for education and wants to make Bemidji Schools the best they can be.