BEMIDJI -- The Bemidji Area Schools board of education will have one new member come January. Gabriel Warren, 37, an assistant professor at Bemidji State, was elected on Tuesday to fill the seat of current board chair John Gonzalez, who is not seeking reelection.
Two incumbents on the board, Ann Long Voelkner and Jeff Haack, have retained their seats.
Haack, a 40-year-old mechanical engineer, received 9,758 votes -- 28% of the total. Haack was first elected to the board in 2012.
Warren had 8,212 votes -- 23% of the total. This election was Warren’s first time running for public office.
Long Voelkner, 61, works for the USDA Forest Service, and received 9,449 votes -- 27% of the total. Long Voelkner has been on the board since 2004.
Wenona Kingbird, who ran unsuccessfully for the school board in 2018, received 7,134 votes as of Wednesday afternoon -- 20% of the total. Kingbird, 44, is a child abuse prevention coordinator at Leech Lake Child Welfare.
All four candidates had expressed their support for the proposed operating referendum, which failed to pass.
“To the community, I'm honored to serve in this capacity, and I look forward to getting to work on the issues that matter most to parents, students, teachers, and administrators within our school district,” Warren said on Friday. “Thank you to all of the people who supported my campaign and voted to elect me onto the school board.”
Warren said he is eager to join the board and mentioned his first priorities upon being sworn in are to build relationships with the other board members and district leadership in order to continue building a quality program that is safe and equitable to all of our students.
He also hopes to help determine how to move forward in light of the referendum not passing, he said.
“I was disappointed to see the referendum fail, however, once sworn in, I commit to working with the other school board members and district leadership to continue discussing the steps we need to take in order to move forward,” Warren said.
In an interview for the Pioneer Voter’s Guide in mid-October, 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.
Superintendent Tim Lutz congratulated Warren on his election Friday morning.
“He, as well as his wife, are both very involved in the community, they are strong supporters of education and of the school district,” Lutz said of Warren. "I am looking forward to working with him and any initiatives that he would like to introduce into the district.”
“I’d also like to congratulate Jeff Haack and Ann Long Voelkner on their reelections, I’ll enjoy continuing to work with them,” Lutz said. He also thanked John Gonzalez for his service on the board, “I have appreciated working with him and having his support.”
In a mid-October interview with the Pioneer, longtime board member Long Voelkner, said she 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.”
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.”
"Students need to be involved and feel like they belong," he added. "Continuing to emphasize the relevant curriculum, student activities and involvement builds trust in a student body that drives student attendance.”