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Frazee-Vergas candidates field forum questions

Ten of the 11 Frazee-Vergas School Board candidates fielded eight questions in two hours Monday evening during a Lakes Area League of Women Voters-sponsored forum. Candidate Dennis De Nio came late and was only able to answer the final two questions.

Each candidate was given two minutes to introduce themselves and then was given 90 seconds to answer each question.

Q: What is the role of a school board member and what experience would you bring to the board?

Corey Baker: A school board member is an "advocate and earpiece between the school board and community." He brings a good set of ears to the table.

Jason Bauer: School board members are "elected to be the people's voice," so they need to know what the people want in order to represent them. "I'm not a 'yes' man," adding that he doesn't just go along with what everyone else is saying.

Brenda Como: A school board member "looks out for the well-being of students first, then the taxpayers."

Keith Janu: The school board is the "governing body of the district. Our job is to give children the best education possible."

Steve Jepson: "First and foremost, it's the education of our children." He added that working with the budget is also a main role of the school board members. He said he brings good listening and investigative skills to the board.

Dana Laine: "First, as an individual, there isn't much to do alone, but instead you work together with other board members and the superintendent."

Todd Sisson: "I look toward delivering the best possible service and best education possible." He said he brings communication skills to the board.

Julie Slevin: As a school board member, there "needs to be accountable to the public and school and students." She said she is willing to listen to everyone.

Karen Riggle: School board members "represent the taxpayers and make sure the children are getting a good education." She added that the board needs transparency on spending and to be accessible.

Carey Alger: "The first responsibility should be quality education to students and maintain a budget." He added that not every decision is going to make everyone happy, but he would like to see communications open.

Q: The school board has been accused of not communicating with the public. Describe in detail how you will improve communication.

Bauer: "Be out there with the public and make yourself accessible."

Como: The 7 a.m. meetings are difficult for people to attend (the school board meets at 7 a.m. during the summer months) and one suggestion would be that they all remain evening meetings, for when people are done with work. She added that when people submit questions to the school board they should receive answers.

Janu: "People don't get involved." He believes people should go through channels rather coming to the school board with a complaint that could have been solved elsewhere.

Jepson: He feels the school board has presented information in black and white, but it's gotten to the point that anything said is "rubber-stamped of what they say isn't true."

Laine: She personally has gone to service organizations and spoken about the district, the minutes are published, there is media coverage, and the board has held public forums in the past and no one shows up.

Sisson: "More than anything, being accessible" is important. He added that it's more than just checking a box next to a name to elect a school board member, it's getting out to know the members also. He also suggested forming a PTA and the board being more pro-active on hearing the public.

Slevin: She doesn't know what one solution will solve the lack of communication, but maybe "people can show up and have a three-minute say."

Riggle: The board needs to be more accessible, and when someone asks a question, they should get an answer. There needs to be more transparency in the board's dealings.

Alger: "Bring the respect issue back." He said availability is a big issue, but he added, he's always come to the school for answers and has gotten them. He may not have liked the answers, but he got them nonetheless. He added that people in the district need to start acting like adults.

Baker: "I keep hearing (about) accessibility. I see the board members and I think they are. I can't go a day or two without seeing a board member."

Q: What are the two greatest issues the district faces and how do we solve them?

Como: Financing is No. 1. "The belt doesn't get tightened as much as it should. Yes, I understand it's tight for the school, but it's tight for me, too." Her second issue to look into was solar power, but time ran out before she could comment on it.

Janu: Funding and spending the referendum money. He read a list of cuts that were made last year before the referendum passed, and added that it's important to spend the money wisely so there won't have to be cuts like that again.

Jepson: "Adequate state spending and the ever-changing formulas the state puts on us." He suggested talking to legislators about funding. Adequate education is also an issue the district faces.

Laine: No Child Left Behind -- it's a good concept, but needs change. Secondly, continuing to update curriculum and technology with the referendum dollars.

Sisson: First issue is finances. "As everyone agrees, the school is under funded." He added that the school needs to remain competitive for open enrollment purposes. Secondly, the communications and perception of the district with the public needs to be improved.

Slevin: "Financial issues are first and foremost." The district needs to work within the budget. "We need to start working together and help support the community." Secondly, she said, education needs to improve so there aren't students open enrolling out of the district.

Riggle: Finances. "Costs always go up." She suggested the possibility of a portion of lottery funds going to education, like is done with wildlife preservation.

Alger: "Financing is probably the greatest issue." Second biggest, he said, is education. He admitted he contemplated taking his kids out of the school because of so many cuts in the past.

Baker: "Ditto on the funding." He added, "education and enrollment go hand in hand" as other problems.

Bauer: Finances. "What to do about it, I can't tell you." He said money is a big issue, but taxpayers can't afford to foot the bill anymore either. Second is enrollment. "It goes hand in hand with money, I suppose."

Q: What are your thoughts on special education and students with disabilities?

Laine: "They are the most unique gifts, these children." She said that they should be given the best advantages and the program should be funded regardless of cuts and money problems. "Every step they take is a milestone."

Sisson: On both the state and federal level, special education is under funded. "There is great willingness among staff to put the extra effort out."

Slevin: "There is a real need for the special education department." There will always bee a need for students that need the extra help, and she suggested a tutoring system for those who don't quite qualify for the special education program.

Riggle: She lost a brother to cerebral palsy two weeks ago, and can remember that he had to be sent away to a boarding school as a child, being away from his home and family. Now there is more support and the program should be funded no matter what.

Alger: He told of his son who has a child in his classroom with special education needs and how by helping the boy, the kids learn how important it is to help others. "It teaches caring. The school does a wonderful job. Kudos to the teachers and staff."

Baker: "They're kids. Aren't we here to educate out kids?" Just because some kids can't learn at the same speed doesn't mean they shouldn't get all the chances other students do.

Bauer: "It is a very vital part of the school." He added that the special education program is a necessity in the school district and that Frazee does a good job with it.

Como: "The school does a great job." She suggested working more with other schools to utilize staff as much as possible. She added that she does worry about the students who are slower at learning but don't qualify for special education will slip through the cracks.

Janu: "Special education is very important." He said he hopes the Minnesota Miracle legislation passes. It's a great program but needs to be funded.

Jepson: "What can we change to get funding?" He suggested working with other schools and a change in criteria.

Q: If the district had not passed the referendum, what would you have done to keep programs and staff intact?

Sisson: He would have spent time talking with others, but unfortunately cuts would have happened. "We would be selling our kids short."

Slevin: At what point will the DNR have to have bake sales like the school does? Cuts would have had to been made if the referendum wouldn't have passed. The school has to live on a budget, but the state needs to open its eyes on funding. The petition to revoke the referendum did that, bringing statewide attention to the district.

Riggle: "We'd have to balance our checkbooks and live on a budget like all families do" until the state helps with more funding.

Alger: "I don't think there's a thing we could have done." Cutting is about all that could have been done, which would result in more students leaving the district.

Baker: He said he doesn't know what would have happened other than cuts, and that would "drag the community down."

Bauer: He said cuts would have had to be made and "try and gain money" yet tighten up and "try and hold the fort" like everyone at home does.

Como: "Go to the public and say if it's not going to pass, give us your ideas."

De Nio: First asking people if they want to take a pay cut, which no one does. Do what the district can to trim on buildings, bills and educate teachers on ways to cut.

Janu: "Some say it (the referendum) was a Band-Aid, but I think it was the blood that kept the school alive."

Jepson: "There's a direct correlation between the quality of education and enrollment." With the referendum funds, the school was able to up technology and other things that are needed. "If we don't fund them, we'll end up with hollow halls."

Laine: The district wouldn't have been able to do anything to keep programs. Communication, she said, goes both ways though. The district hosted several forums, asking for opinions, and only two or three people would show up.

Q: Is there a question you wish you would have been asked? (Closing comments)

Slevin: "I would like to see the city, school and community pull together. We need to work on trust."

Riggle: "I hope to be a part of the solution of the split that is in the community." She added she'd like to see everyone pull together to get the community back.

Alger: He noted it was great to see all the people in the audience and that everyone needs to work together to see that many people at every meeting.

Baker: He thanked everyone for coming to the forum and thanked the school board.

Bauer: He expressed his surprise that questions weren't asked about how the candidates voted on the referendum and about revoking the referendum.

Como: He said she was glad the audience was more adult this time because at the previous one, which wasn't sponsored by the League of Women Voters, people were giggling at answers and being rude.

De Nio: He joked that he would have liked to been able to answer all the questions asked that evening. He does have a Web site though, www.frazeevergasvoice.com, where he asked people to visit and ask him anything they'd like and get involved with the process.

Janu: He said he'd have liked to hear his wife's question, that if given X amount of dollars, how would you spend it? "On early childhood education. It starts early and (students) grow up to be educated adults and will succeed."

Jepson: He said he hoped all of the audience's questions had been answered. There are no easy answers to tax increases, but hopefully answering these questions helped ease the situation.

Laine: She said she wished to have all the questions that weren't able to be asked for time reasons to get a better understanding of what the people want to know about. She added that one thing she would like to see changed is seasonal property being added to the tax roll.

Sisson: He agreed that more time would have been nice to answer more questions, but that people should seek out candidates they are interested in and see if they support them or not.

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