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Bemidji school board candidates share views

BEMIDJI – Five of the seven candidates seeking three seats on the Bemidji school board discussed their visions for the Bemidji School District in a public forum Wednesday evening.

Candidates Jeff Haack, John Pugleasa, John Truedson, Ann Long Voelkner and Rob Warmboe took part in a 90-minute debate at Bemidji City Hall sponsored by the Citizens for an Informed Electorate. Not present were candidates Paula DeClusin and Dana Kuzel.

Moderating the debate were John Parsons, a former Lakeland Public Television reporter, and Maggie Montgomery, KAXE station manager.

Warmboe is a former youth pastor and currently works as the transitional housing case manager with Evergreen Youth & Family Services. He said he has been heavily involved in education and volunteered with school districts in Grand Marias and the Twin Cities.

Since Beltrami County is among the poorest counties in the state, he said, the school district must seek funds outside of the state to fund and improve its programs and offerings.

“The reason I’m running for school board is I feel there are a lot of grants out there to better fund our school district,” he said.

Haack, an engineer with two young children, said he is running for school board because he wants to set a good example for his children and to get involved in their education.

He wants the district to improve its communication to better advertise its successes and challenges to the public.

Truedson, a physics and science education professor at Bemidji State University, has three children, one of whom is still in school. He said he has extensive experience with teaching and teacher education that would benefit the school board.

“I think we need to maintain the high quality of education we’ve had in this system,” he said, adding that he believes it is important that voters renew the $501-per-pupil operating levy on Nov. 6.

Long Voelkner, an incumbent and current school board chairwoman, works in the Chippewa National Forest and has four children, the youngest of whom is a senior at Bemidji High School.

“The Bemidji School District provided each and every one with excellent academic classes,” she said.

Long Voelkner, who first ran for school board 12 years ago, said she believes it is important to volunteer and give back to the community.

Pugleasa, an incumbent who has served on the school board for the past eight years, works with Beltrami County Health and Human Services and has four children, the youngest of whom is a senior at BHS. He said his children have benefitted from the education they received through the school district, but that schools always need to adapt to best meet students’ needs.

“We needn’t rest on our laurels,” he said. “We need to continually change what we’re doing.”

Both Long Voelkner and Pugleasa agreed that renewal of the operating levy is one of the biggest immediate challenges facing the district. The levy, which brings in about $3.2 million annually, funds all-day, every-day kindergarten and new buses and helps keep class sizes down.

The levy, Long Voelkner said, helps students achieve the best education possible.

Long-term, Pugleasa said, the biggest challenge will be the school district’s growing enrollment.

Warmboe said he believes the biggest challenge right now is graduation rates and ensuring that no students are falling through the cracks in the educational system.

A strong education provides the necessary foundation for future success, he said, noting those who graduate are less dependent on social services.

Haack said he believes some of the problems, such as overcrowding and funding deficiencies, can be addressed through improved communication. Last year, voters handily turned down a referendum seeking $13 million to build a new elementary school, and the district now is the middle of a campaign to have its operating levy renewed.

It will be hard to pass a referendum for a new school when the perception exists that the district has unused space available already, he noted. Once communication is improved to send clearer messages to the public, he said, it will be easier to pass referendums.

“I think that is the biggest hurdle we have to overcome,” Haack said.

Truedson said he believes state requirements and unfunded state mandates are not providing the district the support it needs.

“Let the school district do what it has to do,” he said.

Two questions posed to the candidates focused on educational options for students, such as homeschooling and charter schools.

All agreed that choice is good for families.

Haack said he supports offering charter school students the option of participating in extracurricular activities such as athletics, much like homeschooled children.

Homeschooled children, by state law, are allowed to participate in athletics if they pay the school district’s required athletics fee.

Further, Haack suggested that charter schools and the Bemidji School District could collaborate to address facilities issues and staffing needs, such as a shared grant writer.

Pugleasa said charter schools brought market forces into public education and offered competition, which is good.

“But along with choices, there are advantages to certain schools over others,” he said.

Perhaps if charter schools are able to offer smaller classes and focused curriculums that traditional public schools cannot, the tradeoff is that traditional schools can offer broader opportunities and extracurricular activities such as athletics, he said.

“Those are choices that parents have to make to determine what is best to meet the needs of their children,” Pugleasa said.

Warmboe said any collaboration between the Bemidji School District and the charter schools would need to be mutually beneficial.

“I think that we need to look at ways that kids are able to get the best education that they can,” he said.

Truedson said charter schools have done very well at meeting the needs of their students. He said he would not describe them as competition for the school district as much as a different, alternative options for families.

The Bemidji School District itself offers different choices, he noted, such as the Alternative Education Center and Lumberjack High School.

As for athletics, Truedson said the athletic fees charged to students only cover a portion of the district’s cost to offer those programs.

“Just the facilities that we have at the high school, middle school, they are just very, very expensive to maintain,” he said.

Long Voelkner said Minnesota is exemplary at offering its families choices for their kids’ education.

She suggested that collaboration with the charter schools already exists with shared resources, transportation and special-education expertise.

The district already shares classes at the middle school with St. Philip’s, she said, speculating that it could do that with charter schools as well as collaborating on teacher training and learning opportunities, such as anti-bullying initiatives.

“It’s truly a parent’s choice, and I believe that wholeheartedly,” she said. “Charter schools are a part of that choice.”