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Forum held to inform public of Bemidji school board candidates

With about a hundred people in attendance, the forum was split into two sessions. Candidates vying for three four-year positions took part in a question-and-answer session moderated by Larissa Donovan in the morning. Candidates vying for two two-year positions then participated in an afternoon session.

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Two-year candidates participate in a Bemidji school board candidate forum hosted by the Bemidji Education Association on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022, at Gene Dillon Elementary School.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer
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BEMIDJI — With 23 candidates running for five positions on the Bemidji Area Schools Board of Education, the Bemidji Education Association hosted a candidate forum on Saturday at Gene Dillon Elementary so the community can be better informed once they cast their votes in the general election on Nov. 8.

With about a hundred people in attendance, the forum was split into two sessions. Candidates vying for three four-year positions took part in a question-and-answer session moderated by Larissa Donovan in the morning. Candidates vying for two two-year positions then participated in an afternoon session.

Ten candidates are running for four-year positions including forum attendees Jenny Frenzel, incumbent Sarah Young, Meredith Kehoe, Ashley Brue, Kerin Hanson and Dave Wall.

Incumbent Carol L. Johnson, Nicole Jaranson, Anna Manecke and Wesley Newell did not attend the four-year candidate forum.

Thirteen candidates are running for two-year positions including forum attendees Miriam White, C.T. Marhula, Guy Drevlow, Michael Meehlhause, Justin Hoover, Rebecca Whiting, Julie Laitala and Marie Claire Richey.

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Jake Hemingway, Kimberly Jannson, Daniel Nynas, Danielle Thorson and Brian Dow did not attend the two-year candidate forum.

Four-year candidates

The biggest challenge

Each candidate was asked what they think is the biggest challenge facing the district, which came with some common themes including enrollment issues, mental health support and rebuilding trust between the board and community.

“As a growing city, as a growing district, we should see growing numbers in our school systems,” Hanson detailed, “and that enrollment floods into all of the other systems and issues that we have, including funding.”

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Four-year candidate Kerin Hanson speaks during a Bemidji school board candidate forum on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022, at Gene Dillon Elementary School.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

Young referenced the district’s two main funding sources: state funding through an enrollment funding formula and taxes. She agreed with Hanson that growing enrollment is a challenge for the district, especially coming off of two failed referendum attempts in 2020 and 2021.

Brue referred to a lack of school funding along with difficulty in recruiting quality staff, while Wall spoke on responsible spending as part of his platform.

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Four-year candidate Dave Wall speaks during a Bemidji school board candidate forum on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022, at Gene Dillon Elementary School.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

“We have resources, we have revenue. How can we operate in debt and move forward,” Wall said. “To operate in a deficit is not the quality of operation that we want to see.”

Beyond finances, Kehoe brought up inclusion among students being an issue along with community divisiveness, which Frenzel credited as the catalyst for needing to rebuild community support of the school board.

Funding and enrollment

Donovan asked candidates about their ideas to improve district enrollment numbers and support the passage of levies.

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“It’s important to understand why students are choosing to go to other schools than our school,” Brue said in reference to private and charter schools as well as families who homeschool their children. “If we can ask the parents of those students ‘why are you choosing those schools?’ we can consider making changes that draw in those other populations.”

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Four-year candidate Ashley Brue speaks during a Bemidji school board candidate forum on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022, at Gene Dillon Elementary School.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

Brue, Young, Frenzel and Kehoe expressed support for passing an operating levy alongside a public understanding of where tax dollars are being spent and mandated services the district is required to fund.

“We need to do a better job talking about mandated services and how much that takes out of our general fund,” said Young, who also spoke about expanding preschool options within Bemidji to draw more families into the district. “If we had mandated services covered in full, it would make an enormous difference on our bottom line and we would not have to depend as much on those levies.”

Kehoe stated a need to advocate for full funding of special education from the state legislature, which isn’t required to fully fund mandates such as special education and transportation. She would also speak with teachers to find areas where budget cuts may be feasible.

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Four-year candidate Meredith Kehoe speaks during a Bemidji school board candidate forum on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022, at Gene Dillon Elementary School.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

Opposing another operating levy, Wall emphasized the district being good stewards of the resources it currently has and figuring out wasteful spending that could be removed from the budget.

Frenzel encouraged the public to get in touch with their board members to learn accurate information regarding a levy, and Hanson noted the need to change the negative perception that the district has and in doing so, make it more likely for a levy to pass.

Other thoughts

Candidates were able to speak on how they would collaborate with the Bemidji Education Association — including educator voices in district decisions — and also shared additional information about their school board candidacy.

Regarding a partnership between the school board and BEA, Frenzel said, “(teachers) need to help with some of our tough decision-making. They know more about our classrooms (and) our buildings than anybody on the board. When important decisions are made, I do believe teachers should have a voice and their voice should be considered.”

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Four-year candidates Sarah Young, left, and Jenny Frenzel participate in a Bemidji school board candidate forum on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022, at Gene Dillon Elementary School.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

Kehoe referenced different opinions of not only school board candidates but also teachers and the need to work together as a district.

“We’re not separate buildings. We are one group,” Kehoe said. “Just because you’re at the high school or (anywhere else) doesn’t mean your opinion is any less.”

Following closing remarks, the forum turned over to the two-year candidates.

Two-year candidates

The biggest challenge

Staff retention, rebuilding trust in public education and managing the district’s budget were just a few concerns had by the two-year candidates.

“The greatest problem that we’re facing today is retaining our quality staff and teachers,” Hoover said. “We’re losing our best resource that we have. If we continue to lose them, it’s going to affect generations to come.”

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Two-year candidate Justin Hoover speaks during a Bemidji school board candidate forum on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022, at Gene Dillon Elementary School.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

Drevlow and White both spoke on district funding as an area of concern with Drevlow detailing alternative methods for addressing the budget deficit without increasing class sizes.

“I think we need to look into different methods of how we can go about cutting down our fiscal plan whether it be alternative resources for fuels for buses or cars, shrinking down land sizes that the district owns or anything along that line,” Drevlow detailed.

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Two-year candidates Guy Drevlow, left, and Michael Meehlhause participate in a Bemidji school board candidate forum on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022, at Gene Dillon Elementary School.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

Laitala, Whiting, Richey, Meehlhause and Marhula touched on the relationship between the district and school board.

“The burden of rebuilding that trust, that falls on the school board,” Meehlhause said. “The school board needs to be making sure that they’re leading the charge in building the trust in the community … making sure that we’re rebuilding a strong foundation of education after the damage of the last two years.”

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Attendees listen to a candidate speak during a Bemidji school board candidate forum on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022, at Gene Dillon Elementary School.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

Post-pandemic issues

Donovan asked candidates about how they would address issues within education that the pandemic has exacerbated, citing crisis-level mental health issues, unmanageable workloads for teachers and nurses and difficulty with retaining staff.

Whiting proposed having a representative for each group within the district be present at board meetings so the board can seek their expertise when making decisions, and also detailed a legislative approach to address the budgeting issue instead of a property tax increase.

“We need to be approaching our representatives legislatively to be able to fix, at their level, and take some of the burden off of us at the school districts,” Whiting said. “Being able to manage the things that we’re required to have. Help them fix the budget on their end.”

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Two-year candidates Rebecca Whiting, left, and Julie Laitala participate in a Bemidji school board candidate forum on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022, at Gene Dillon Elementary School.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

When asked about increasing enrollment numbers and supporting the passage of levies, Laitala mentioned that a majority of a district’s funding comes from property taxes and addressed the financial and social costs of failed levies.

“There’s more crime, there’s more students dropping out, there are less workers to work in local businesses, less community enrollment, less business growth,” Laitala said in reference to communities where levies fail. “We need to really ask ourselves when it comes to a levy, ‘are we moving forward or are we moving backward?’”

White and Marhula worked on the second referendum levy and White was surprised when both levy increase attempts failed.

“We were making sure people understood … that what was eating our money was not wasteful spending, and so it was really hard when I watched a group attack the school district and the levy process,” White said. “I really did think we worked hard to make sure that accurate information was out there.”

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Two-year candidates Miriam White, left, and C.T. Marhula participate in a Bemidji school board candidate forum on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022, at Gene Dillon Elementary School.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

Previously referring to the district’s mask mandate, Hoover stated that the board needs to understand why the past levies failed in order to rebuild community trust and grow enrollment in the process.

Other thoughts

Marhula detailed his support of having a BEA representative present at board meetings to speak on each agenda item.

“I would support very strongly a seat at the table with the ability to speak on any subject on the agenda,” Marhula said. “They have speaking privileges on every item … that will ensure that their voice is heard.”

Emphasizing the community having a line of communication with the board, Richey explained her reason for why the public votes for school board members as the election arrives in just over a month.

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Two-year candidate Marie Richey speaks during a Bemidji school board candidate forum on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022, at Gene Dillon Elementary School.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

“We vote for school board members so that the community has a voice in how their tax dollars are used and what happens in those schools,” Richey said. “That’s an opportunity for everyone to have that voice.”

The full livestream of both candidate forums can be found on the Friends of the BEA Facebook page.

Daltyn Lofstrom is a reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer focusing on education and community stories.
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