Bemidji School Board candidates differ on issues
A forum hosted by the Citizens for an Informed Electorate had Bemidji School District candidates speaking about issues of class sizes, facilities, teacher pay, charter schools, budget cuts and more. The forum was held Wednesday at the Bemidji City Hall.
Taking part in the debate were school board candidate incumbents Carol L. Johnson, Steven H. Johnson and Richard (Bill) Faver, and challengers Melissa Bahr, Fulton Gallagher and Laura K. Rock. Absent at the forum were Bonnie J. Rock (family emergency) and Melissa Fitzgerald (declined to participate).
The candidates gave opening and closing remarks, and answered questions from the moderator and the audience.
The debate was moderated by Brad Swenson and Maggie Montgomery.
Reason for running
Steve Johnson, a lifelong resident of Bemidji, has been on the Bemidji School Board for eight years. He said he brings a business perspective to the board, is "a little conservative and looks for efficiencies."
Rock, who has lived in Bemidji for seven years, said she is a good communicator, has experience in sales and marketing and has "a social responsibility to make sure children reach their potential."
Faver, a longtime Bemidji resident, has been on the school board for eight years. He said he is "thoughtful, not hurried, values dissent, is patient and tolerant."
Carol Johnson, a Bemidji resident of 32 years, is married to Ron Johnson who is running for Mayor of Bemidji. She has been on the school board for six years and said she joined the board because "it was time to get more involved and give back."
Melissa Bahr, a lifelong Bemidji resident, wants to "ensure all children receive the highest quality of education available." She said she is a leader, a team player and is not afraid to voice her opinion.
Fulton Gallagher, a Bemidji resident of nearly 50 years, said he believes strongly in accountability, specifically how dollars are being used in the school system and parent responsibility. He added he has "a good sense of what it is like to be a member of the community."
The candidates were each asked, "Why are teachers not paid and/or rewarded on the merit system?"
Rock said, "Teachers deserve to be paid on their merit."
Faver said there is a Q Comp merit pay system within the state of Minnesota, but it must be approved by unions in order for a district to participate in it.
"While Bemidji School District has raised that flag to see if teachers would be interested, they've declined to participate in that," he said.
Carol Johnson also noted Q Comp has not had a lot of support by the Bemidji Education Association.
"I think our teachers are more than teachers these days. It's an issue I struggle with," she said.
Bahr said, "It would be nice to reward teachers if their kid does well, but it would be a hard thing to determine which teachers should be rewarded and which ones should not."
Gallagher said he is opposed to merit pay.
"If there's going to be a merit system, it should be placed onto groups of teachers that come up with innovative ideas and are then rewarded by means of purchasing additional classroom materials. Numerous studies indicate merit does not work."
Steve Johnson said, "I think (merit pay) is a possibility, but it needs to be laid out well and talked through first."
The candidates were asked, "What do you identify are the top three issues facing Bemidji's public schools?"
Faver answered with poverty, special education resources and student mobility.
Carol Johnson answered with student mobility, increased student enrollment and inadequately state funded transportation costs.
Bahr answered with class sizes, the school district's budget and state funding.
Gallagher answered with underfunded state mandates, parental involvement with children who are at risk, and having a school board that is responsive to needs of the community.
Steve Johnson answered with facility crunches due to high enrollment, budget efficiency and the amount of time students spend testing versus classroom learning.
Rock said answered with school finances, parent involvement and clearer communication between the district and parents.
The candidates were asked, "If budget cuts have to be made, where would you cut first?"
Bahr said, "I would not want to cut anything that would affect any of the kids."
Gallagher answered, "We must retain the heart of school, which is the classroom, not everything that supports it, and then we proceed from there."
Steve Johnson said, "We have to get more efficient. We will have to look at a couple of options and then decide on the best action."
Rock said, "I am not in favor of any cuts that will affect a child's education. We have to raise revenue and cannot rely on the government."
Faver answered, "At the district we've been raising revenue through partnerships in athletics, music and the arts. There are a lot of teachers who do grant writing. We have over 100 ideas we've been researching in preparation for this upcoming spring."
Carol Johnson said, "We have to hold our legislators accountable."
Candidates were asked, "Should the district allow charter school students to participate in sports in schools that have the facilities?"
Rock said she thinks children should be invited to participate in activities at the school district.
"Every child needs an education and if we have something that can enhance a child's life, they should be able use our facilities," she said.
Faver said he is opposed to charter school students using district facilities.
"There should be a level playing field regarding regulations and resources to both parties. At present, we provide the resources for special education and transportation to the charter schools," he said.
Carol Johnson said she does not think charter students should be able to play sports at the district.
"We need to hold on to what our schools offer. When you're part of a sports team you are representing the school you attend. How you perform in the classroom as a Lumberjack determines if you can participate in our sports teams," she said.
Bahr was open to the idea of charter school students using district facilities.
"Charter schools are in competition with public schools and are more academic. But our school hours are totally different than their school hours and that would be hard to work out," she said.
Gallagher said he is "a fan" of charter schools and believes charter students should be able to participate in district sports.
"I find it difficult to turn down the best trumpet player we ever had going to one of the charter schools and not allow him to play in our band. I don't know how we could do that," he said.
Steve Johnson said he is opposed to charter students using district facilities.
"We're in competition for students. They get the same amount of money per student as we do. They could start a football team or a marching band if they wanted to. Other small schools do that."
Candidates were asked, "What do you think about extending the school year?"
Faver said he is in favor of a year-round schooling if state and federal governments and the community voted to have adequate funding for it.
Carol Johnson said she opposes year-round schooling because summers are short and families need that time.
Bahr said year-round schooling is expensive and she did not think teachers would like it.
Gallagher said year-round schooling is not necessary until there is a good reason for doing so.
Steve Johnson said he is against year-round schooling because kids and teachers need a break in the summer to refuel. He said Minnesota is a tourist state and depends on students to work in the summer.
Rock said she "is not a fan of it" because northern Minnesota has short summers, a time when families can get together.
A Bemidji School Board candidate forum will take place from 7-8 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 26 the Bemidji High School Media Center, located at 2900 Division St. W. It will be broadcasted live on Channel 90 with BHS students moderating the forum. The general public is invited to attend and submit questions.