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Bemidji High School students question school board candidates

From right are Bemidji School Board candidates Bonnie J. Rock, Steven H. Johnson and Laura K. Rock. The eight school board candidates answered questions at a public forum hosted by students at Bemidji High School Tuesday at the BHS Media Center. Pioneer Photo/Anne Williams

A Bemidji School Board candidate forum had Bemidji High School students asking all the questions, including a few that had not been asked of the candidates before.

The forum, hosted by the BHS Advanced Placement Government class, was held Tuesday at BHS.

Taking part in the debate were school board incumbents Carol L. Johnson, Steven H. Johnson and Richard (Bill) Faver, and challengers Melissa Bahr, Fulton Gallagher, Bonnie J. Rock and Laura K. Rock. Absent from the forum was Melissa Fitzgerald.

At the end of the forum, several of the candidates commented they were pleased to see students hosting a debate. One candidate said it was "refreshing to see young people getting engaged in their future."

School schedule

Candidates were asked, "Do you support a four-period block or traditional seven-period schedule?"

Bonnie Rock said she thinks students have more learning time with four-period blocks.

Steve Johnson said he would look at the efficiencies and productivities of both schedules before he would make a decision.

Laura Rock said she would have to look at the pros and cons of both schedules before deciding.

Faver said he thinks there advantages and disadvantages to both schedules, but was open to the idea of adding a "skinny" or fifth period.

Bahr said she thinks the seven-period option is more cost-efficient.

Gallagher said he wants what is best for students. He added that he would like to see a longitudinal study on which option is more efficient.

Carol Johnson answered by saying the four-period block schedule offers extra time for classes with labs and are better for students who are enrolled in off-campus ventures.

Class sizes

Candidates were asked, "What are two ideas do you have that would help lower class sizes in the elementary level? Would you support moving a fifth-grade and eighth-grade class up to different schools?"

Gallagher said, "I don't know of any studies that support integrating fifth-graders with seventh-graders. I'd rather see administrators in trailers or something else rather than diminishing opportunities for student to be in a building designed to be a kindergarten center."

Bahr said, "I would keep eighth-graders together and still in their pods if they were moved to the high school."

Faver said, "One solution on the table is to study the option to move fifth grade to the middle school format. Another possibility is redistricting around neighborhood schools."

Laura Rock said she would look into having "semi-permanent structures or perhaps redistricting to open up classrooms."

Steve Johnson said, "I would look into opening up the Deer Lake elementary school. I don't know any other options besides that. The trouble is congestion in the elementary schools."

Bonnie Rock said, "Moving students from one place to another isn't going to do it. We need to increase revenues to build more schools."

Carol Johnson said, "If we could open the kindergarten center back up, that would be a good idea. I would be a proponent of moving the eighth grade up to high school and the fifth grade to the middle school."


Candidates were asked, "Current board members voted for a 25 percent increase in salary and health care for administration...At the same time...payments were delayed to schools. Incumbents, explain how this was fiscally possible. Prospective board members, how would you be fiscally responsible with all employees?"

Bahr said, "I would try to narrow the gap between administration and teacher benefits so everyone has almost the same... I would try to get better health insurance for everyone."

Faver said, "I would disagree with the facts that you are citing, a 25 percent increase. That's not accurate. If you look at teacher contracts, they have opportunities to increase their pay. With inflation and rising health care costs, teachers have actually been losing ground. If it looks like a slight increase, with real dollars it's not."

Laura Rock said, "When you get a job, part of employment is wages and benefits. The higher you are up the ladder, the higher the benefits. I would try to bridge the gap between administration and teachers."

Steve Johnson said, "Not everyone should have full health care. Over the next four years, I would like to put a dollar figure on health care for every employee."

Bonnie Rock said, "Living on an Indian reservation, I have the option to not accept health care packages. I'd like to have options open for whenever an employee chooses to not take it or accept it."

Carol Johnson said, "Health care is rising for everybody. It's a big issue and that's something we have to throw out at legislative bodies to help us all."

Gallagher said, "I know that teachers have really made strong commitments to education and students and I think they got a 1 percent increase, hardly a 'keep-up' with inflation. I think the areas that have gotten more should be looked at."

Expulsion rates

Candidates were asked, "ISD 31 has one of the highest school expulsion rates in Minnesota. What can be done to restore public confidence and what programs would you support to help eliminate this issue from our district?"

Faver said students are expelled for either weapons or assaults. He said state law requires school districts to expel students for bringing weapons to school. Providing a safe and welcoming environment at schools is critical, he added.

Laura Rock said the district should not lower its standards and said rules should remain "black and white."

Steve Johnson said bringing a weapon to school is a criminal offense. He added expulsions are the "worst part of his job."

Bonnie Rock said her son was expelled for bringing a one-inch plastic replica of a pistol to school and the school had "zero tolerance" for his behavior. She said the district should look at expulsion case by case and reasoned that assault can occur because students are sometimes fearful at school.

Carol Johnson said she agrees with the school district's "zero tolerance" policy when it comes to expelling students for bringing weapons to school. She said the district must take all weapon threats and assaults seriously.

Gallagher said he, too, believes the district should keep its "zero tolerance" policy on expelling students for weapons or assault. He said kids should be expelled, and if they want to return to school, the district should question the parental involvement of the student.

Bahr said the school district should look into its level of safety measures compared to other school districts. She said she would not change the expulsion policy if it meant protecting kids.

School board members in class

Candidates were asked, "Do you think it is important for a school board member to observe the classroom?"

Carol Johnson said, "I think it's important. When I first got on board, I made it a point to do that. In my last two years I haven't had time to be available when class is in session."

Gallagher said, "I have served at BSU for nearly 40 years ... I've been a teacher forever. I'd like to get into classrooms."

Bahr said, "I volunteer at school every month. I do believe school board members should go into classrooms because it can affect decisions made which will affect students."

Faver said, "It's a good idea to have the opportunity to visit classrooms. I think there is weakness in being isolated. Personally, I've had opportunities to be in (elementary schools, the middle school and high school in Bemidji) and other school districts."

Laura Rock said, "School board members should engage in schools as much as possible. As a parent, I love going to my child's class. It puts things into perspective."

Steve Johnson said, "I think it's interesting to see the classroom, but I don't think it's necessary. I don't believe the educational process is my expertise. I'm a business man. I get more interested in school business."

Bonnie Rock said, "It's good for school board members to go into the classroom and participate with the kids; also, it's good to let kids ask questions of the board members."

Forum leaders

The school board candidates answered questions read by student moderators Ida Brooks and Andrea Tinsay. Timekeepers were Hollis Barkhaus and Brian Oakes; greeters were Matt Oustad, Ryan Westhoff, Kevin Xiao, Luke Brokl, Alicia Papke Carson, Ben Schmidt, Keannan Ahern and Jade Ness. Sean Murphy and Bailey Drewes asked the candidates for their opening and closing remarks.

BHS teacher Jeff Aas offered instruction and guidance to the students at the forum.