8 people file for 3 open seats on Albert Lea School Board

Published 10:24 am Friday, August 12, 2016

More than a half-dozen candidates have filed for election for Albert Lea School Board.

Candidates as of Thursday are incumbent board Vice Chairwoman Julie Johnson, Aaron Phillips, Sonjia Hill, Neal Skaar, Angie Hanson, Ellen Kehr, Kendall Langseth and Ken Petersen.


Julie Johnson

Julie Johnson

Julie Johnson

Johnson, 47, of 205 Ridge Road, is looking for an election to her second term on the board.

She said there is a lot of good work the board has done, and a lot of good work yet to be done for the students and families in the district.

She said she wants the district to continue to offer a variety of academic and extracurricular activities, such as its art and music programs, youth apprenticeship program, College in the Schools, Advanced Placement courses and technical classes that are being offered at Albert Lea High School.

Johnson, director of human resources in Steele County, said she also supports infrastructure improvements made in the district, such as HVAC system work at almost all of the district’s buildings and Hammer Field improvements.

She said she enjoys being on the board and ensuring each student reaches their highest potential. She said she thinks public schools allow students to reach their highest potential.

Johnson, an Albert Lea native, said her time in the community has allowed her to be invested in the city’s future, noting her belief that the educational system is an integral part of the community.

She said she was concerned about potential coaching cuts addressed in the 2015-16 school year, noting her no vote on non-renewing former girls’ soccer coach Rick Barnhill that passed by a 4-2 vote in May.

She said she has heard from many teachers and district employees that there is a problem with the district’s culture and climate, and said that if given a second term, she hopes to continue to be the voice of the community and employees in the district to ensure the district is the best place for students to be.

Johnson is married and has two children.


Angie Hanson

Angie Hanson

Angie Hanson

An Albert Lea resident, Hanson, 38, of 2325 Larson Ave., filed last week.

Hanson said she is running for the board to improve the district’s climate, noting her belief that some members of the community feel they are not being listened to.

“I think if people were listened to and thought they were being heard, that would improve the climate,” she said.

She said she thinks the district sometimes makes decisions without thinking about how those decisions will benefit students, such as starting school earlier and proposed coaching cuts to attract teachers.

“I’m not sure that’s going to benefit students, either,” Hanson said, noting her belief that because she knows she cannot improve the district’s climate by herself, she plans to listen to and respect everyone’s opinions and concerns.

Hanson, who grew up in Albert Lea and has a 9-year-old child who is entering fourth grade, said she has a unique perspective from having a child in the district and from teaching special education through the Southland School District in Adams.


Ellen Kehr

An Albert Lea native said she has a passion for education that drives her to want to serve on the Albert Lea School Board.

Ellen Kehr

Ellen Kehr

Ellen Kehr, 68, said her filing for election is a direct reflection of her commitment to education, noting her belief that education is the pathway to success.

“Once you have it, nobody can take it away,” Kehr said.

Kehr worked with special education students in her early 20s, then moved on to a nearly 20-year career in early childhood education as a director and trainer for Kindercare learning centers in Kansas City, Missouri.

A Blue Zones Project organization lead, Kehr has also been involved with education since moving to Albert Lea and is a member of the Riverland Foundation Board.

“I will never back off of that commitment to education,” she said.

Kehr, who graduated from Albert Lea High School, said being a board member is about the children, the community and promoting a positive district culture.

“It’s never about us,” she said, and expressed confidence that the board and other community entities can work together to help students succeed.

“We all need to be committed to a positive culture for our children,” she said.

Kehr and her husband, Randy, have two children, Molly and Erin, and three grandchildren.


Neal Skaar

Neal Skaar

Neal Skaar

A retired longtime Albert Lea High School teacher and wrestling coach said he is running for school board to stay involved in education.

Neal Skaar, 70, said if elected, he looks forward to working with everyone to realize the district’s mission of equipping all students to care, achieve and think.

Skaar, a 1964 Albert Lea High School graduate, said the district does a good job of providing a liberal arts background for students, but said he thinks the district needs to provide more educational opportunities for students interested in jobs that do not require a college degree.

“We have a lot of good people working both for our district and outside of our district who are interested in this approach, and I would like to encourage them and work with them to develop apprentice-like programs for our students,” he said.

Skaar, who was inducted into the Albert Lea High School Athletic Hall of Fame this year, said he thinks each workplace has greater productivity when workers are meaningfully involved in the decision-making process.

“This applies to all employees,” Skaar said. “Staff must be willing to involve themselves in making determinations about what is best for our students, and management must be willing to work with staff in making those determinations and then act on them accordingly.”

He said management must realize that one of their primary purposes is supporting employees who are directly involved with students.

Skaar, who retired from teaching in 2014 and lives on a farm in rural Hayward, said he is not a big fan of the modified school year, noting his belief that student activities need to be in sync with other districts.

“The board should work with staff in making determinations about what is in the best interest of students,” Skaar said, noting that while he was a teacher he represented several bargaining units and appreciated the presence of board members on the district side.

“School board members must be intelligent about the issues brought before them, and they must have the courage to respond in a responsible manner,” he said.


Sonjia Hill

Sonjia Hill

Sonjia Hill

An Albert Lea woman said she is running for school board to heal and unite the district.

Sonjia Hill, 47, of 2520 W. Main St., said there are positive and negative aspects of the district.

Some of the positives Hill cited include the district’s teachers, noting she has heard from them that they have appreciated technology and curriculum upgrades.

Hill said she thinks there is mistrust within the district, and thinks the district has a teacher retention problem due in large part to teachers feeling like they do not have a voice.

Hill said her three children who are in the district are her No. 1 passion, and said her passion started to grow during the district’s calendar discussion during the 2014-15 school year.

Superintendent Mike Funk has shown an unwillingness to accept different ideas and criticism, Hill said, noting her displeasure with what she deems as the district’s top-down governance model.

Hill, a Lakeview native, said if elected, she will work hard to address the district’s problems and find the facts before finding a solution.

She said healing the district will be a long-term process.

Hill and her husband, Tony, have two sons: Trey, a seventh-grader; and Chase, a ninth-grader, and one daughter, Ahnnalie, a fourth-grader.


Aaron Phillips

Aaron Phillips

Aaron Phillips

An Albert Lea man said he is running for school board to address his concerns with the district.

Aaron Phillips, 43, said he is concerned about the education his children are receiving, and said he wants to create a better learning environment for teachers, employees and students.

Communication is an issue between administration and teachers, Phillips said, noting he wants to make sure teachers feel safe communicating their concerns with administration, an issue he said teachers have told him about.

Phillips said he wants the board to hold Funk accountable, noting his concern with what he claimed as unprofessional behavior from Funk.

He said he wants to increase teacher retention and be a representative of the community.

Phillips and his wife, Jeanette, have three daughters and one son.

The filing period for Albert Lea School Board lasts until 5 p.m. Tuesday.

Interested applicants must file at Brookside Education Center using the affidavit of candidacy provided by the secretary of state, said Albert Lea Area Schools secretary Ashley Mattson.

Look to the Tribune for a future article about Langseth and Petersen.

About Sam Wilmes

Sam Wilmes covers crime, courts and government for the Albert Lea Tribune.

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