Editor's note: Beltrami County officials announced on Wednesday morning that due to an error some absentee ballots were not correctly added to the Secretary of State's website, causing vote counts to be listed inaccurately. Vote totals now reflect the official numbers.
BEMIDJI -- Four candidates -- two of whom are incumbents -- competed for three empty seats on the Bemidji Area Schools Board of Education on Tuesday.
It looks like Gabriel Warren will be a new face on the Bemidji Area Schools Board of Education. Board members Jeff Haack and Ann Long Voelkner have retained their seats.
As of 2:45 Wednesday afternoon, 37 out of 37 precincts were reporting, but this may not account for all mail-in votes.
Haack a 40-year-old mechanical engineer, received 9,758 votes, or 28% of the total. Warren, 37, an assistant professor at Bemidji State University, had 8,212 votes, or 23% of the total. This was Warren’s first time running for public office.
Long Voelkner, 61, works for the USDA Forest Service, and had 9,449 votes, or 27% of the total.
Wenona Kingbird, who ran unsuccessfully for the school board in 2018, received 7,134 votes as of Wednesday afternoon, or 20%. Kingbird, 44, is a child abuse prevention coordinator at Leech Lake Child Welfare.
Warren's future seat was left vacant by current board chair John Gonzalez, who did not seek reelection.
All four candidates expressed their support for the proposed operating referendum, which failed to pass.
Each of the candidates answered a handful of questions from the Bemidji Pioneer for the Oct. 24 Voter's Guide about their background and goals if elected.
Longtime board member said she Long Voelkner hoped 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.”
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 hoped 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.