Four candidates -- two of whom are incumbents -- are vying for three empty seats on the Bemidji Area Schools Board of Education.

While incumbents Ann Long Voelkner and Jeff Haack hope to retain their seats, newcomers Gabriel Warren and Wenona Kingbird are also throwing their hats in the ring. One seat on the board was left vacant by John Gonzalez, who is not seeking reelection.

Each of the candidates answered a handful of questions from the Bemidji Pioneer about their background and goals for the district if elected.

All four candidates expressed their support for the proposed operating referendum, and many marked COVID-19 and its effects as the largest issue facing the district.

Longtime board member Long Voelkner hopes to remain in her seat “to continue serving the children, families and our community as we strive to empower each learner to succeed in our diverse and changing world.”

Newsletter signup for email alerts

She sees COVID-19 and the disparities the pandemic situation has brought to light as the biggest issue facing the district right now.

Long Voelker stressed the importance of passing the referendum.

“The decisions made necessary as a result of a failed referendum are heartbreaking. With more than 80% of the district budget spent on teachers, paraprofessionals, bus drivers, administrators and maintenance employees, there will be lay-offs of people,” she said. “Class sizes will most likely increase, and types of class offerings will change. Ongoing facility maintenance projects will be delayed.”

She also hopes to “broaden and enhance board participation in area coalitions of government entities and educational providers to create and promote opportunities to serve children and communities,” she said.

Current board member Haack also hopes to retain his seat, which he originally sought to be involved in his children’s education. “I felt this was the best way for me to contribute,” he said. He sees COVID-19 and its fallout as the largest issue facing the district.

“The steps being taken to slow the spread of the virus are needed, but will have long lasting academic and mental health impacts on our students and staff. Schools have become the safest place for many students and their best source for a good meal,” he said. “The pandemic has not only made delivering an education more difficult, but also providing these nontraditional supports. Staff have been asked to do more with less, and this is not sustainable.”

In order to help resolve achievement gaps among students of different races, ethnicities or economic classes, Haack said, “This effort has to begin with students feeling safe at school. This means a continual focus on positive student behavior, food service and mental health services.” He added, “Students need to be involved and feel like they belong. Continuing to emphasize the relevant curriculum, student activities and involvement builds trust in a student body that drives student attendance.”

Newcomer Warren said he was inspired to run for the board because coming from a family of educators gave him, “the passion to want to do my part to ensure other students have equal opportunity for educational success through the public school system in our district.”

A large goal for Warren is working to close the educational achievement gap for marginalized students within the school district.

“I think finding ways for students who don't feel connected to the schools to engage in opportunities where they can feel a sense of belonging is important,” he said. “Finding multiple ways to assess students to make sure they are meeting the student learning objectives. Having a culturally relevant curriculum to assist in educating students and teachers to engage in healthy and safe discussions on topics that could help with interactions between students from various racial, ethnic, social economic classes.”

Warren sees the budget crisis and the persistent equity gap as the two largest issues facing the district right now.

Challenger Kingbird said she was inspired to run for the board to help strengthen the relationship between public schools and the Bemidji community.

She sees health and safety relating to the pandemic as the largest issues facing the school district right now. In order to close the equity gap between marginalized students, Kingbird proposes, “continuing to support and strengthen the Title 1, Targeted Services and making sure to utilize the American Indian Curriculum Specialist as well,” she said. “If elected, I would be excited to explore, collaborate and support these services.”

She added that, “What caught my attention last election was the report of our school district and the Native American achievement gap, it was concerning to me, being I was a Native American student that graduated here as well as my children. I think the district has made solid efforts by hiring a curriculum specialist, and that’s a start.”

Ann Long Voelkner

  • Age: 61
  • Public Services Team Leader, USDA Forest Service
  • Has lived in Bemidji area for 26 years

Jeff Haack

  • Age: 40
  • Mechanical Engineer
  • Has lived in Bemidji area for 35 years

Gabriel Warren

  • Age: 37
  • Assistant professor
  • Has lived in Bemidji area for 3 years

Wenona Kingbird:

  • Age: 44
  • Child Abuse Prevention Coordinator Leech Lake Child Welfare
  • Has lived in Bemidji area for 40-plus years