Candidates dedicated to education

Published 10:24 pm Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Candidates for Albert Lea’s school board discussed their passion for education and how they would handle current and future problems during a debate Wednesday evening.

Six candidates were present at the debate. Four seats are open on the board in the upcoming Nov. 6 election. One seat is a two-year term, and only Jeshua Erickson has filed for that seat. Five other candidates are competing for the three other seats, which are four-year terms. Those five candidates are incumbents Linda Laurie, Bill Leland and Kim Nelson, and newcomers Jenny Edwin and Julie Johnson.

There was no primary election in the race. All candidates for each term run against each other because the ballot will ask voters to pick three people for the available four-year terms and pick one person for the available two-year term.

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During the debate current school board members often referenced the governance model for school board. At one point the debate was paused so the idea could be better explained to the audience. Erickson explained that the model is one that boards can use to think long-term about ideas. It essentially means a school board makes precise policies and then lets administrators carry out those policies. Some of the candidates also referenced that they prefer the governance model because it eliminates board members micromanaging, or getting involved in day-to-day issues that district staff are able to handle.

“In the 12 years I’ve been on the board I haven’t seen a better system in place,” Leland said.

Laurie echoed that statement and said she’s experienced the changes made since the board decided to move toward a governance model. Erickson said he’s researched school board models extensively but that he would also be interested to hear if anyone has heard of different ways to govern.

“If there’s something out there I think we would be well served to learn about it,” Erickson said.


Obstacles in the future

All six candidates were asked what challenges they see now and in the future that the board will face. Laurie said the board will need to continue to be proactive and see the challenges as they come. Other candidates said funding inequities between rural and metro districts in the state is a potential obstacle the board will face.

“Declining enrollment is an issue that’s certainly a challenge that ties into funding,” Johnson said.

Another obstacle several stated is collaboration and making sure the board continues to hear from the community as well as district staff. Nelson said she thinks staying positive is a challenge, and that she wants to keep the mindset that the board is there to do what’s best for students.


Work as a board member

Candidates were asked what successes and challenges they’ve had either as a board member or in their professional lives. Edwin, the Christian education director at First Lutheran Church, said that a success has been the number of kids she’s kept and recruited into programs at the church. She also said she values her relationship with the students. A challenge she see is bullying and keeping children involved in activities at the school.

Johnson, who works at Clarks Grove State Bank, said while she hasn’t served on a school board that she worked closely with one when she was the human resources director at Austin Public Schools. She said the biggest challenge then was making cuts to personnel, but successes included passing referendums and working to get community support.

Incumbent Erickson said a success has been helping administrators in the district fulfill their duties and better defining policies in the district. A challenge has been focusing on the board’s big picture ideas while also trying to lend a supportive ear to concerned citizens.

Incumbent Laurie said she thinks the school board has been doing “incredible things” and looking at different ways to educate students. A challenge she’s seen is financing from the state government and how that affects the district.

Incumbent Leland said he’s been glad to be a part of a board that has had successes like transitioning to a governance model. That is also a challenge he iterated because it can be difficult to not go back to micromanaging as a board.

Incumbent Kim Nelson said she thinks the board has done a good job of connecting with the business community and keeping students in the district. A challenge the board faces is continuing to provide programs with less funding.

“We’re doing what’s best for kids,” Nelson said.


Other issues

Other questions the candidates faced included ones about bullying the schools, how they would deal with unions and how they felt about lobbying for support staff in the schools.

Candidates all agreed that bullying is an issue that needs to be discussed. Incumbent school board members said that they would like to see the anti-bullying policy enforced by administrators, principals, teachers and anyone who sees the problem.

“Bullying isn’t just kids, it’s an entire community problem,” Edwin said. “It isn’t going to go away.”

On the topic of support staff like lunchroom workers and custodians, the candidates all agreed that all district employees are valuable. Laurie said that the district’s buildings are great because of all the support staff, but that labor is sometimes vulnerable to cuts.

“Sometimes that’s the way it has to go, but every employee is important,” Laurie said.

Regarding the board’s dealings with unions, Leland said the district is lucky to have administrators who are knowledgeable about bargaining units to deal with issues and contracts. Nelson agreed that the district handles bargaining units well and keeps the board members informed and knowledgeable.

“Unions are a significant reason why our district works,” Erickson said.

Candidates were able to make an opening statement, have one minute to answer all questions and the opportunity for a closing statement. Questions were submitted before the debate and during the debate to the moderator. About 35 people attended the debate, which was also broadcast on the city’s government access channel.

The school board debate was held by the Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the City Council chambers at City Hall. Moderator was KIMT’s Raquel Hellman.