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Johnson returns, while Lind, Young will be new faces on Bemidji School Board

From left: Carol L. Johnson, Sarah Young and Jeffrey Lind.

BEMIDJI—The first contested School Board election since 2012 came down to a few dozen votes for newly elected board member Jeffrey Lind.

Lind, like many candidates, kept an eye on the precinct-by-precinct vote totals trickling in on the Minnesota Secretary of State's website Tuesday night. For most of it, he was in a dead heat with Jack Aakhus, a Bemidji Area Schools substitute teacher and football coach, and incumbent Shawn Whiting, a mental health professional who board members picked to finish out the term vacated by a board member who resigned—the three were separated at one point by a single vote between them.

"I was, I'm sure like any other candidate watching, just waiting and hoping," Lind said.

But then the last few Bemidji-area townships reported their tallies, and the Beltrami County social services director ended up with 26 more votes than Whiting and 65 more than Aakhus. When he's sworn in this January, it'll be Lind's first publicly elected position.

Tuesday's two other School Board winners didn't need to worry as much: incumbent Board Chair Carol L. Johnson earned a new term handily, and newcomer Sarah Young, an associate professor and academic adviser at BSU was right behind her. Both earned substantial percentages of the total votes cast that didn't change much as election night wore on.

"I was a little nervous," Young said. Her children paid much closer attention to the rolling vote totals than she did, she said. "They were out on the website more than I was, saying, 'Mom! This is what your numbers are!'"

Johnson, who was first voted to the board in 2004, and husband, Ron, shared a pizza and watched national TV coverage while they kept tabs on local results. They watched returns roll in until about 1 a.m. Wednesday, she said.

"I was very excited," Johnson said. "I was hoping that my experience was going to be beneficial to me, and so I guess I was kind of going into it pretty optimistic that I would get a chance to continue serving on the board and hope that my experience was something that the voters thought was important."

What now?

Now that the election is over, what does each new or returning board member want to work on first?

Lind said he wants to join Bemidji Area Schools' Curriculum Committee and look at what the district can do for students who might be struggling a bit—C and D students—or who might not want to attend college in the first place.

"What are we doing for those kids? That's where I'd really like to go." Lind said. "If I'm not going to college, am I going to need to take real high-end science and high-end math classes? Or do I need some different options available to me that maybe will fit me as I move into the real world?"

That might mean expanding the district's Career Academies, which are packages of coursework and internship opportunities designed to let high schoolers dabble in different careers before graduation.

"I'd like to see some of that maybe started even a little bit younger for kids that...they may know early on that they don't want to go be a physicist or a mathematician," Lind said. "You don't want to pigeonhole kids into one thing or another, but you really need to make sure that there are options available."

Young said she wants to get a better feel for what the School Board already is working on and then, hopefully, bring in some fresh ideas to tackle issues such as transportation funding and hiking up graduation rates, the latter of which she made a cornerstone of her campaign.

"I'm more of a context-type person, and so I need to get kind of a feel for what they're wanting to look at, and what they are looking at now," she said. "And then I hope to contribute some fresh ideas that will assist in achieving that goal, which I have said over and over is graduation."

And Johnson said she wants to focus on school safety, graduation rate bumps and bringing in more mental health services for students.

"If the funding would present itself, we definitely need to look at having more counselors in our schools," Johnson said. That presumably means speaking with Bemidji-area legislators to try to shake loose more state funding.

District leaders will canvass the election results at a special board meeting today, and Lind, Johnson and Young are set to be sworn into their four-year board terms in January.

Joe Bowen

Joe Bowen covers education and health for the Bemidji Pioneer.

He is a Minneapolis native and a 2009 graduate of St. John's University. Before moving to Bemidji, Bowen covered education, local politics, crime, and everything in between for the Perham Focus in Perham, Minnesota, and Sun Newspapers in suburban Minneapolis.

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