Frazee-Vergas School Board candidates spar over school issues
Tuesday night, the six candidates running for Frazee-Vergas School Board answered questions about the past and future of the district.
There are three seats open, and those running for them include incumbents Dana Laine and Steve Jepson and new candidates Amie Erickson, Mary Lepisto, Tammie Nunn and Don Trieglaff. The Minnesota League of Women Voters hosted the event.
Erickson said she was running for the school board as an "opportunity to restore the integrity that I felt the district had six years ago," when she led the charge to pass the referendum.
An alumna herself and a mother of five children in the district, she said she has "seen many highs and lows in our system" and would like to add to the transparency of the district, student achievement and bring her business sense to the board.
She has owned her own business for 12 years and has worked in the school district in the past.
Jepson, who is finishing up his first four-year term, said he is seeking a second term because he is "vested in the learning in this district." Both he and his wife are grads of the district, and they have three children in the school district.
Working in law enforcement for the past 19 years, Jepson said he is proud of where the district has come in the last year or so and said he hopes that continues in the years to come.
Laine, whose husband is an alumnus of Frazee district, said she has seven children either through or still in the district. She has served on the board for nine years and is seeking another term to "help to move forward" with the district. She has also served on the Mahube Community Council board for 17 years.
Lepisto and her husband have had six children in the district and now some grandchildren as well.
"I'm proud of the way the district has come," she said.
She has been attending meetings for several years and decided she might as well be on the board since she's there.
Nunn, a graduate of Frazee along with her husband and two sons, has been involved in the wrestling booster club for many years.
"I love this school, the district, the town," she said and wants to see it continue the way it has the past year.
Trieglaff, a Frazee graduate as well, served in the Army, taught at several schools across the state and was an Army recruiter, going into even more schools, for many years.
He said it's good for kids to "get outside the book and get out there. That's part of what I'll bring to the board."
He is now the owner of Third Crossing Trading Co. in Frazee.
There was no beating around the bush Tuesday night -- the first question of the evening was regarding the superintendent buyout. The candidates were asked if the buyout of former superintendent Deron Stender's contract was a good decision.
Lepisto, Nunn, Trieglaff and Jepson agreed that it was a good move by the board, and Laine and Erickson said it wasn't a good move.
Trieglaff said the value of the buyout can be measured by the fact that with a change in administration, the end result is enrollment has increased by at least 45 students. The money spent on the buyout has been recouped with those students coming into the district because of the money the district receives from the state per student.
He added that the school is now a kinder, friendlier place to work and play.
"It was more than a buyout," said Jepson, who was on the board at that time. "It was an investment (in the community)."
The district stopped losing students and the atmosphere improved, he added.
Laine, who was also on the board and voted against the buyout, said that one individual can't be held responsible. She added that at the time of the vote, people (meaning members of the school board) banded together and that it was done very unethically.
Erickson said that many of the 179 students that left the district in the last five years because a referendum hadn't passed yet and they were open-enrolling to thriving neighboring districts.
"It doesn't take one person to make something fail or succeed," she said.
"We need to move forward rather than focus on the buyout," Nunn said.
If no referendum
The candidates were asked what they thought should happen if the proposed $700-per-student referendum doesn't pass this fall and where cuts should be made.
Erickson and Jepson agreed that there wouldn't be a need to panic, because the fund balance is sizable enough to sustain the district for a year or so to come up with a plan.
"We need to wait and see where it ends this year before we project for next year," Erickson said.
Trieglaff said, though, that the district needs to come up with a budget for if the referendum does pass, and one for if it doesn't pass. He said as in a business, the district needs to prioritize items on each list as well.
Candidates were asked what qualities they would like to see in a new superintendent, who will need to be hired next year.
Trieglaff said the best thing is to research the background of the candidates. Talking to people from the town the superintendent is from would give them a better feel for what the person is like, not just reading through a resume and interviewing them.
"Saying is one thing, doing is another," he said.
Jepson said it's important to hire someone who is business savvy, has high energy for the community, and knows how to rally the district around the kids and bring everyone together.
Laine said the superintendent would need to be confident, experienced and have a sound base knowledge of negotiations.
Nunn said that she wished Interim Superintendent Chuck Cheney would stay, but since he won't, she said a candidate like him would be great.
She added that the superintendent should be honest, have experience, and not just be educated but be a down-to-earth person who can relate to people.
Lepisto said the superintendent should pay close attention to details, look at options to save the district money and be open to new ideas.
Erickson said the superintendent should have a strong business background, be student- and community-oriented and have experience in a rural district. The person should also be legislatively active, she added.
Candidates were asked that since the outsourcing of the food service and custodian service were recently reversed, should the district be outsourcing services in the future?
All the candidates agreed that outsourcing, in some capacity, is a good idea -- or at least a possible one.
"It's always a good idea to talk to neighboring districts," Laine said of possible shared services.
Nunn said, and others agreed, it depends on the services being outsourced. The food and custodial services were not good ideas, she said, but some services might work for the district.
Lepisto agreed that the larger businesses, like the food and custodial services, should be kept local, but services that don't warrant a full-time teacher or staff member could be outsourced if it worked best for the district.
"I don't think it's a terrible thing," Trieglaff agreed.
Importance of community education
The candidates were asked what role community education plays in the district.
All agreed that community education is important to the community, the district, the kids and the adults.
"I think it's critical to continue to offer" these programs through community education, Trieglaff said.
"I liken community education to the heartbeat of the community," Laine said.
It provides education for everyone, and it's one of those programs that hasn't been a part of the conflict in the last few years because of the vital services it provides the public, she added.
Lepisto said it brings people together, helps people learn and grow and that it has lots of good programs for children.
Nunn, who said she had just attended a community ed class before the candidate forum, said community education is important to the community and that staffers have been doing a great job.
Erickson said that community ed brings people from the community into the school building, giving the school district an opportunity to showcase all it has.
Jepson added that it needs to be a priority because of the lifelong learning it provides for people of all ages.
Candidates were asked what they see as the greatest resource on the school campus in terms of building and grounds.
All of the candidates said it was hard to pick one building and many took a more creative approach to the question, avoiding naming an actual building.
Several mentioned the FFA and industrial arts programs as key elements to the district, and also the technology growth the district has seen.
Trieglaff added the school forest is a huge asset, one that no other school in the area can boast. Lepisto also added the opportunities the students have to earn college credits are a great resource.
Erickson said the foundation of the school -- the kids, staff and community -- is the best resource.
Laine said the buildings in general are in "pristine" condition because the voters passed the referendum five years ago.
"The buildings are alive with children and great staff," she said.
Nunn agreed that the students and staff are the heart of the school and that "everything in general our school has to offer" make it a great resource.
Jepson said that when he comes into town and sees the billboard claiming Frazee as the home of the largest turkey, he actually sees the school as the symbol of the town. The school is the investment in the children and their futures.
Each candidate got a couple moments to offer any last words.
Nunn said she hoped that she could live up to people's expectations and that she would try to do her best if elected to the board.
Laine said she has learned a tremendous amount during her time on the board and would like to continue bringing that understanding to the board.
Erickson said that she will continue to advocate for the students and the district whether she's elected to the board or not.
Lepisto said she has been to many meetings and understands the stress and time that goes into being on the board, but that she's willing to make that commitment. She also vowed to listen to the public if elected.
"I'm proud of the change that has come to the district," Jepson said, and added that he would like to continue with that. He pointed out that Frazee-Vergas is the only district in the state to ask for a lower referendum, due in part to the financial responsibility that district has taken on the last year or so.
Trieglaff said that his three successful children are prime examples of a good education coming out of the Frazee district and that he would like to be a part of continuing that quality education.
Follow Pippi Mayfield on Twitter at @PippiMayfield.