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Q&A: Albert Lea Area Schools board candidates share their views

Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series of question-and-answer stories that will print in the Tribune in the next few weeks outlining opinions of local candidates running for office.

 

Voters have a choice this election to choose three out of seven candidates for the Albert Lea Area Schools board.

The following are questions asked of each candidate and their answers:

Q: What are the biggest assets you can bring to the district if you are elected a member of the Albert Lea School Board? Why should someone vote for you?

Jerry Collins

Jerry Collins: I am seeking election to the school board because I can make a difference. I am fiscally conservative and socially liberal. My personal educational failures and successes give me a different point of view on public education. As some know, I was a high school dropout. I received my GED and eventually earned a college degree. We need to leverage all available resources to ensure our youth are ready for the next phase of their lives. That is different for each individual. Whether they go directly into the workforce, enter the military, college or trades; they need to have the foundational skills to succeed. The school board must be the entity that brings together administrators, teachers, students and the community. As a community member I have been active in Save Our Healthcare and in the motorcycle rights community. I have a proven track record in collaborations and in helping organizations succeed. I am not one to stand by while bullying happens — not in the school and not at a board meeting. We have to practice what we preach.

Mary Elizabeth Harty

Mary Elizabeth Harty: I don’t have an agenda. I’m not running for the board because I feel anything is broken or because I’m angry about something. I’m running because I believe in public service and I have a duty to serve others. I believe in public education and that our schools are an important factor in the health of our community. I bring a background of serving on nonprofit boards such as the Jacob Wetterling Foundation, the Twin City Figure Skating Association and Albert Lea Community Theatre. I’ve worked as a professional fundraiser for the Minnesota Medical Foundation, Hamline University and Hazelden-Betty Ford Foundation.

Angie Hoffman: The biggest asset I bring is my drive to serve and see success for both our students and our broader community.

Angie Hoffman

What distinguishes me from the other candidates is my firsthand experience with both home and distance learning. No one else comes from a homeschool background, which inherently values educational flexibility, creativity and customization. Each of these aspects will be crucial to the success of our district as we navigate through uncertain times, and I believe I am uniquely qualified to add this valuable and diverse perspective to our board. Personally, I think there is a lot of opportunity hidden within our current challenges, and I’d love to see our district land in a stronger, more competitive position after COVID eventually dissipates. 

I also come with a proven business background and am passionate about expanding our educational options related to entrepreneurship. Let’s ensure our students are set up for success, whether they choose to pursue college, a trade career or business ownership.

Finally, as a local real estate investor, I fully appreciate the budgeting balance we must strike between investing in our school system and respecting what our community can afford.

Bruce Olson

Bruce Olson: Construction is my background. When administrators bring facility needs or maintenance items to the board, I will be able to help the board make an informed decision. After my retirement from the school district, I also worked as a substitute paraeducator. My roles within the school district have allowed me to have firsthand knowledge of the challenges teachers and staff face on a daily basis, whether it is in the classroom or building.

Kalli Rittenhouse: My strengths are strategic thinking, and being able to evaluate systems from differing points of view. I have experience auditing quality and management systems looking for gaps, and working to improve them.

Kalli Rittenhouse

Christopher Seedorf: I think a big asset is I want to work with the families and students and teachers to make school fun and memories again. I got a lot of area in mental health and in behavior disorders because my oldest boy went to the district. There was not much for him, and that’s one thing I would love to be involved with is a lot of mental health and behavior issues for kids and students. I don’t want them to fall behind or not to graduate. I want to fight 110% for what’s right and problem solve.

Neal Skaar: I believe that it is incumbent on all of us as citizens to be involved in the betterment of our community. All of us have areas where we can contribute and my area is education. I spent nearly a half century in the classroom, and so I think that I know a little about the dynamics of an educational system. I have much to learn, but I love learning. I also firmly believe that as we become involved in our community, we must realize that we are all on the same side. When we have differences, we should engage in polite, rational discussion to work toward resolving those differences, always keeping our shared mission in mind. Superintendent Funk said it very well in his address to the class of 2020, “We should be more concerned about doing the right thing than being right.”

Christopher Seedorf

As I have said many times, I am not running against any of the other candidates. I am not running at all — I am standing for a seat on the school board. Do not vote for me because you know my name, like me or are related to me. Examine all the candidates carefully and vote for the three you think will best serve the district.

 

Q: What do you think are some of the biggest challenges facing the school board/school district right now?

Collins: Top challenges in no particular order:

COVID-19 response

Ballot referendum

Technology

Neal Skaar

Bullying

Poverty

Family factors

Parent involvement

Student attitudes and behaviors

Classroom size

Funding

Staff recruitment and retention

Student disparities

Graduation rate

Harty: Equity in education and opportunities. There is a such a variety of needs among the students (special needs, mental health issues, disabilities, language, poverty, food insecurity) that district staff has to be creative and open to trying new things.

Hoffman: The uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 is a topic of focus for good reason.  Not only are we uncertain about what to expect from the virus itself over the new school year, we also face uncertainty related to mandates coming from MDE and MDH.  How long will the current executive orders last? What will replace them, if anything?  Will our transition back to normalcy be gradual or abrupt? Much is beyond our control and unpredictability requires us to remain agile.

Intertwined with the COVID-19 issue is the concern and reality that many students have fallen behind academically due to the unexpected switch to distance learning this past spring. The ones affected the most tend to be the ones who can afford it the least.

Funding is another ongoing challenge that has been exacerbated by recent events.  We’ve lost several students entirely from the district, reducing the resources available to us, while many costs have remained fixed or increased. Uncertainty surrounding future financing from the state adds to financial stress. We must find ways to remain both academically competitive and financially balanced.

Olson: Hands down COVID-19, and the effects it is having and will continue to have on the budget and technological needs of the district.

Rittenhouse: I think the biggest challenge facing the school district right now is getting all of our students to be proficient in reading, math and science, and making sure all of them make it to graduation.

Seedorf: Well of course the COVID-19 and racism. Not enough of the right education for kids with needs. A lot of non-communication between school and family and students. Another big area is the teachers are the most important — they’re on the front lines of every day. The staff that works with these kids with special needs or special wants.

Skaar: The biggest challenge is obvious: the COVID-19 pandemic. This challenge is especially problematic because there are no good solutions. Ignoring it is not a solution. It is here and we need to deal with it. I am satisfied that the approach taken by our district is sound. I do not like it, but that is because I do not like the pandemic. Probably the best aspect of our district’s approach is its flexibility. The staff has taken steps to provide for any eventuality. To coin an old educational expression, we need to “monitor and adjust,” and our staff is constantly doing that.

Other challenges are ongoing: paying the bills, recruiting and maintaining good staff, maintaining and upgrading our educational plan, dealing with changing demographics.

 

Q: Do you agree with the district’s pre-Labor Day start in recent years or would you support a return to a post Labor Day start? Why or why not? 

Collins: I would support returning to a post Labor Day start. One caveat to that: If we moved to a 45/15 calendar that would be a moot point. I currently neither support nor oppose the 45/15 calendar. I think it would require more community conversation.

Harty: The pre-Labor Day start for the school district is a positive for our students as it works better with semester learning. It’s a big plus for our older students with the semester ending just before the winter break. If we started after Labor Day, these students would be spending their break time studying for the finals they would take in January. The earlier start gives them a time when they can truly take a break from school.

Hoffman: If I were to list my personal inclination, it would be for a post Labor Day start. However, I do not believe my own desire should be a basis for this decision. We need to hear directly from our students’ families and move forward based on their feedback. What will serve them best? What is their preference? We’ve tried it both ways, which has worked better? I’ve heard compelling arguments for both scenarios, but a common theme is that families want to be involved in this choice. I remain open to either option, and will seek for our board to engage further with our community for feedback.

Olson: I agree with the pre-Labor Day start. An early start allows the district to end the first semester before the long winter break, alleviating the stress of finishing up the semester after a long break.

Rittenhouse: I think there are upsides and downsides to starting before Labor Day. I was against starting before Labor Day in the beginning, but reserved judgement to see how it affected the achievement of students. I think it is difficult to argue that we have seen a significant improvement in student achievement with the new schedule.

Seedorf: I’m post-Labor Day start. Because spring and summer come too quick and that’s time for the families and students to spend time on vacation and time to do family things. The way it’s set up now, school is too long in a year and it’s frustrating — very exhausting for not only the students and the teachers.

Skaar: This is an example of an issue which generates strong emotional reactions from proponents. I like to refer to a paraphrase of a favorite line of poetry of mine, “For school calendars let fools contest/Whatever is best administered is best!” Educationally, I like a modified calendar with regular short breaks throughout the year. This arrangement cannot be in place unless the entire state adopts it, and I doubt if that will ever happen. I support the current calendar because the majority of students and staff I talk to support it.

 

Q: Do you agree with how the district has handled the COVID-19 pandemic? If not, what would you do differently?

Collins: I think District 241 has made the best out of a bad situation. The key moving forward will be to remain agile. React quickly to a rapidly changing situation.

Harty: I do agree with what the district is doing. They are listening to the public health officials and looking at best practices that other schools and businesses are doing. They have established safety protocols for the schools and have installed thermal scanners. The school district is doing everything they can to keep students and staff safe and healthy.

Hoffman: I believe our district has done a great job, considering the tough parameters we’ve had to work within. Our board, administrators, teachers and families have revealed their resiliency and all deserve credit. School leaders must err on the side of caution and follow state mandates. This limits what can be decided locally, but we’ve seen a great effort here to offer as flexible of options as possible while also implementing strong safety measures. I appreciate that our younger students have been able to come back full-time this fall and that our older students were offered a hybrid class option, allowing for some in-person learning.

As do many, I believe we need to offer the choice of attending full-time, in-person for all students as soon as state regulation allows, and I will advocate for that option. In addition to safety considerations, we also need to weigh the very real educational costs to our students and avoid overreacting.    

Olson: I believe the school district has done a decent job of addressing and handling the COVID-19 issues. Adjustments have been made, families have been given options and we have almost successfully completed a full quarter of school. I was at the Sept. 8 school board meeting where district administrators informed the board as to what the district was doing to keep students and staff as safe as possible and appreciate hearing those updates.

Seedorf: Well, yes and no. For one thing, this is new for everybody. And there’s guidelines that the school and districts have to follow. I feel there should be more options. I feel that when they have a plan and then change it and then change it again, it is not good for the students and gets them confused and frustrated. It’s even confused and frustrating for the parents. The school board should have had a special session and had the parents involved and a lot of ideas and also the community and the school and teachers to come up with the best plan. And I have a student that did the distant learning, and, honestly, they don’t get the proper education. But again that would be a choice that the students, teacher and families would have to make together.

Rittenhouse: I think the district is doing a good job handling the COVID-19 pandemic. As a parent I think there could be improvements in communication on how the schools have been impacted and what to expect.

Skaar: I addressed this in my response to district challenges. No one likes this pandemic, and no one should like the circumstances we have been forced to assume. In the spirit of my overall approach, I firmly believe that the only way we can prevail is to work together and become a part of the solution. We are all on the same side.

 

Q: Do you support the question on the upcoming ballot to increase the district’s voter-approved operating levy by $140.93 per pupil? (If approved, the levy total would go from $573.74 to $714.67 per pupil and would support technology needs.) Why or why not?

Collins: I do support the levy. Those taxpayer dollars will contribute to bettering the education of our students. As a taxpayer and a parent, I also understand why our citizens may not support it. Many are still disappointed in the $24.6 million tax increase that funded the athletic complex and other projects. Those dollars were agreed upon by a small group of citizens in a special election. That is not how we should seek funding. That is not being a good community partner. We would do well to remember that we are supposed to be good stewards of our resources — especially the hard-earned tax dollars that we rely on from our community. The school board and administration must do a better job communicating with the community regarding funding needs.

Harty: Yes, I support the proposed levy. If the pandemic has shown us anything, it’s how important technology is to learning. And even without the pandemic, technology is changing how we live and work. We need to be sure our students have the best opportunities in the future.

Hoffman: I am frustrated with the ballot choices. 

The proposed spending increase has generally been explained to me as being necessary because of increasing technology usage connected to mandated distance learning. Ensuring that all students have effective access to their lessons is critical, I strongly agree.

However, the proposed tax increase comes with a 10-year commitment. I am not comfortable with this. It seems excessive for what will (hopefully) be a much shorter-term problem.

I would enthusiastically support a short-term funding increase that solves our immediate challenges and could be revisited in a couple years, if still necessary. Unfortunately, this scenario is not an option on our ballot.

If, instead, we need additional technology funding regardless of COVID-19, I may decide to support an ongoing spending increase, but would need more details to make an informed decision. The benefits must be weighed against the cost from our citizens, many of whom need every extra dollar, and potential loss of investment into our community.

In the future, the ballot choices we give our taxpayers is an area I believe we can improve upon. As it stands currently, I am not comfortable with the 10-year tax increase commitment for our community.

Olson: Without knowing what was discussed at the meeting when the board approved the proposed increase in operating levy, it’s a hard question to answer. I asked each one of my grandkids how they felt about the current state of technology they have, and one said so-so and slow and the others said they are getting by. I don’t like the tax increase myself, but I will be voting yes for the proposed increase in levy, because I believe it is in the best interest of the students and district.

Rittenhouse: I am undecided on the operating levy increase. I’m reluctant to make a change early and in the middle of the pandemic, but I can certainly understand that our current situation is taxing our resources.

Seedorf: Well, no, I do not support. To be honest, the schools need more improvements than we needed a new football field. I mean don’t take me wrong, I love sports, and I know some of the buildings were outdated. But why raise people’s taxes? That was a luxury not a need.

Skaar: I strongly support this levy, and I urge voters to support it. It would be nice if the state of Minnesota provided enough funding for local school districts to meet all of their financial needs, but that has not been the trend for quite some time. In defense of the state, they have funding issues, too, and they do provide the vast majority of funding for public schools — about $9 billion a year and an average of 65% of local district budgets. Virtually all local districts pass levy referendums to meet their financial needs, and we are no exception. The levy on the ballot will replace the previous levy, which will expire. It is a continuation with a slight increase ($3/month on $100,000 residence). We had a number of options for this levy. I like the one being offered because it will not be applied to agricultural property. Farmers will be assessed for their house, garage and one acre, consistent with people who do not live on farms. For more detailed information visit the Albert Lea Area Schools website and select “Referendum.”