Where do they stand? Questions answered at Frazeee-Vergas Schools candidate forum
Nine candidates for four spots on the Frazee-Vergas School Board fielded questions Thursday evening in the Frazee Event Center.
The candidate forum, sponsored by the League of Women Voters, played host to Carey Alger, Matt Bauer, Brenda Como, Ken Fett, Mary Lepisto, Kevin Litzau, Jim Nelson, Don Thorp (incumbent) and Chris Wacker. Incumbent Rich Ziegler was unable to attend at the last minute, moderator Helen Foltz said, due to a family emergency.
There will be a second school board candidate forum Sunday, Aug. 1, at 7 p.m. in the Frazee High School gymnasium.
The candidates were broken down into groups of three. Each group was asked a question and members of the remaining two groups were given the option to add something if they wanted.
Question: Given a particularly difficult economic situation and the fiscal challenges that the school faces, what skills, experiences and financial background would you bring to the board?
Alger: I have a degree in business management/ownership. I've managed places all my life, been responsible for the money that flows through, and I have a great deal of knowing how to spend and what to spend on and the knowledge to step back and make a good decision.
Bauer: In my previous career, I was responsible for nine multi-million dollar facilities and multi-million dollar budgets. ...focus on what you need to increase and decrease on a monthly basis for production and for expenses. ...good decisions not only with employees, but on what you can and can't purchase. You've got to stick to the budget.
Como: I have an accounting diploma. Work experience, I was an assistant manager of a store down in the Cities for two years and had to do the books there. I do multiple people's taxes at the end of the year.
Fett: I started my own graphic business 15 years ago, made that a successful business and sold that. I'm currently an account manager for an oil company, and I oversee an account that sells about $10 million of products.
Lepisto: My husband is a self-employed truck driver and I am a self-employed daycare provider, and before that dairy farm, and I take care of the books so I know how to make things work and the budget fit.
Litzau: During my time in military, we operated on fiscal year budgets, so what you started at the beginning of the year has to make that through the whole year. Throughout my career I've dealt with large budgets, very similar to the size of the school, where you had to preplan everything, whatever it took to get through the year.
Nelson: Back in 1969-70, I was the only college student to have a major in accounting and elementary education, so I think I understand all the numbers, and with my experience with school (Nelson is a retired teacher.) I think I can follow what they do. That will be a challenge, but I think I can handle it.
Thorp: I managed every federal building in the state of North Dakota. I worked with contract, contracted out $50,000 at a time. I maintained employees, over 60-70 employees, so I feel I have some training in the area of budgeting.
Wacker: Finances is not my area. I hold a plumbing license and an electrical license. One of the big issues for me is the mechanical contracts in the school district, I think I could be a good knowledge resource in that area. Maybe a little more common sense than is there right now.
Question: There is a lot of criticism about how the district spends money -- things like legal fees, association dues, new vehicles and others that don't contribute directly to education. What tighter controls on spending do you recommend to get these things under control before they become headlines in the newspaper and the money is gone?
Fett: It seems there is a lot of foolish spending. I guess the board has let it happen. I don't want to blame any particular person. If the superintendent brings it up and the board approves it, then I guess the board should be held responsible for that. That's why we need change; that's where this group can make a difference. We shouldn't be spending money like that.
Lepisto: Just like I tell my kids growing up, distinguish between needs and wants, and then you have to prioritize those. So, if the safety of our kids is not involved, then wait till we have extra money and don't put us further in debt. Our kids go to school for quality education, and even though buildings are nice, we don't need to spend extra money on things that don't need to be done right now.
Litzau: I agree with Kenny and Mary, but one thing I would add is that the system, as far as purchasings that do show up in the paper, I think the system, because it comes up at the end when it's an issue, is broken and that is something I would like to, if elected, go back and revisit how that system is done so there is more transparency.
Thorp: A school is just like any other building, it has a lifespan. You have an overall operation and ... you can't cut one short and overspend in another. You have to have a balance. You have to investigate and understand what is going on and be willing to make a compromise.
Wacker: Knowing where the money is coming from is an important part. I think some of that money and spending was earmarked for the areas it was going to. I know this summer we received a grant from the Minnesota Twins and some of that grant money is pretty difficult to spend. You're not always open to do whatever you think is best with it.
Bauer: It comes down to spending my money. It's not an open checkbook. You've got to be held accountable for it. Rather than it be a knee-jerk reaction, be more proactive rather than reactive.
Question: What are your primary information sources regarding school issues and how do you expect to see that change if you are elected?
Nelson: My primary source is the people in the trenches. Being a 40-year teacher I believe the teachers are the ones that know best what's going on. I've also gone to the business office, the administration, with a number of questions. The citizens, that's another important source.
Thorp: From the public, from the school administration, from the staff at the schools and from my person inspection and investigation. I try to look at everything and come up with a solution. Sometimes it's not the right solution or the best solution.
Wacker: Because of the division in our community, I went outside our community for opinions. Today, I met with a former principal, Fred Sailer in the Perham district, "roundtable" of businessmen in Perham, several former teachers from Frazee who are no longer in the system and stayed away from Frazee for opinions. I get a few at the café every morning and a few at games at night, so I'm staying away from the school, staying away from the school board at this point because I want to keep an open mind.
Alger: I have to disagree with Chris. If you aren't in the public and asking and seeing what's going on, how are you going to know? The citizens of Frazee and Vergas are the ones that know what's going on. Also, I've been at almost every board meeting, in contact with teachers, staff, whoever it is. If I have a question, I'm going to seek it out.
Bauer: I think it's a more complicated question than is initially laid out. Go to the source, investigate it. Listen to people, not just hear them, listen. Listen to concerns, what they'd like to accomplish, staff, administration, all concerned.
Como: I know one thing I'm going to get slammed for is because I don't go to school board meetings. I've already heard that before. But, my job takes me down to the Cities Mondays and Tuesdays, so if I get elected, I will have to change my work schedule. I do get phone calls and e-mails from concerned citizens. When I get a chance, I read the paper for the board minutes.
Litzau: For the past 17 years, my primary source has been the minutes published in the Frazee Forum. That has definitely changed in the last few months since I've moved back to the area. I went into the school board meeting Monday morning, and that is definitely the primary source and will be throughout the election.
Question: There has been a lot of talk about better communication with the taxpayers. How do you plan to improve that?
Bauer: There are two meetings a month and my understanding is that the second meeting was supposed to be help communications with the taxpayers. I would say go after trying to pack into that second meeting of the month, more of a working session, more of an opportunity for the citizens to voice their concerns. It doesn't have to be addressed at that time, but I would definitely work hard to make that a viable option and to make that second meeting open to the public to raise concerns.
Como: When a citizen wants to speak at a school board meeting, they should be able to come into the meeting, write their name on a list and speak. They should not have to go to the superintendent's office and be told that they are not allowed to speak because the superintendent has nothing to do with who speaks at a school board meeting.
Alger: I agree with them, and I hope if elected, any of you would feel comfortable to e-mail me, call me, whatever it takes. I'm always around. I'm always open to listening.
Fett: I've done some checking with Detroit Lakes and Perham districts. Detroit Lakes has 15 minutes when they start that they let the people talk. Perham, down there when you walk in, you sign up and you can talk at the beginning of the meeting. She said the board down there thinks you are the taxpayer, you are the person that should have a say. It's hard in this situation when you have all this controversy and this many people, but if we get back to having the trust, it'll go back to the old days when hardly anyone shows up for the school board meeting.
Lepisto: These days there are so many ways to communicate. Some like phone calls, e-mails, old-fashioned letters. You have to go back to the way they asked you. I like to do e-mails so I can print things out and have something in writing.
Litzau: Beyond what everyone has said, be out in the community and hear what they have to say. I don't think there's a lot of that being done right now. Be active in the church, be active in the community, even sit down at the diner, it's important to let people have a say. There's a lot of good ideas out there.
Nelson: One of the things I've been told is the board meetings are set times that are convenient for the board members. I think we need to take a look at the times and days of the meetings. Another thing I like that St. Cloud has is before the regular meeting, they have an informal discussion open to the public to discuss issues before the meeting starts. Then you don't go through all the Robert's Rule of Order. That's what I would like to see.
Thorp: Frazee School Board has a citizen's request form that is filled out in the superintendent's office. This is due to Private Data. As a school board member, you're not allowed to discuss personnel actions or anything and there's a strict law concerning this. So having that go through the superintendent's office helps alleviate a bottleneck of people wanting to request to speak about the same thing. There is a process in place and if it's followed, it helps everybody.
Wacker: That half hour before the meeting, that's a great idea. To go farther though, maybe for TV coverage or Web casting. After that 30 minutes, I would like to see the board go to another room. It could be televised back to the library or maybe you need a glass wall between where you can see the faces of the school board, that's not a bad idea. But without interruption, without hearing the "boos," the school board needs to work and get their job done without interruption.
Question: School activity fees were just raised to levels higher than most neighboring school districts. We've done the math, and even though it involves more driving, it's cheaper to send our children to school in Detroit Lakes rather than pay these fees just so our children can be in sports. Are you open to re-evaluating the fee structure?
Lepisto: Yes, definitely. There are some people who may not be able to afford the fees, but they have their pride and won't ask for help for that stuff.
Litzau: Absolutely I'm open to reevaluating the fees. I think they're a little bit high.
Fett: I have to agree. We definitely want to look at anything that would make people want to leave the district. It also affects people coming to our district.
Nelson: We have a relative in the Wolf Lake area who lives in the Frazee School District and they open enroll to Menahga. One of the reasons is because Menahga charges no activity fee. In speaking with the Menahga superintendent, they really want to encourage participation, so that's what they do.
Thorp: I do know that the cost of everything is going up -- referee fees, coaches fees, so there has to be a balance. There is not an individual that goes to the Frazee-Vergas School District that cannot request and receive their activity fee waived if appropriate.
Wacker: Does anyone know what a DeMarini baseball bat costs? $350. Yes, education is free, but athletics are not free. They are not for guarantee. They are not a right. You pass your grades, and yes, unfortunately, we need to pay for activities.
Question: Academically speaking, what changes do you feel are necessary to advance our students in a rapidly changing educational environment?
Thorp: What I feel is necessary is being done. Staff is continuing their education, looking forward, advancing. The administration is looking at new ways of educating. Computers, technology, that's where it's at right now. There are kids that use technology that I have no understanding of. We need to move forward with technology. By 2017, half the students in Minnesota are going to be educated by online services. That's where it's going to be.
Wacker: Turnover in our teacher base. We have been fortunate to have some of the best teachers here on a long-term basis. They are raising their families here. Those are the people I have a lot of respect for. Those are the people that make the difference. Now we have a bunch of young teachers, for the most part. Respect issue that I'm talking about, isn't coming as easy for those younger teachers. That'll come in time. But you've got to set an example, people.
Nelson: When I started in 1970, I was told by another teacher that I'll never see anything new. The last thing I read in the paper is progressive learning in schools is more efficient and cheaper to allow students to go through the grades at their own speed. So, a 10-year-old won't necessarily be a fourth grader, he'll be a sixth grader. I remember (a Frazee student) doing that a number of years ago. We're coming back through the cycle again. The most important thing though is still students being able to work with people, not just machines, not just having somebody on a screen talk to you. Most of the jobs still involved being able to work with people. I also feel we need more higher-level classes for the high school and elementary kids to be more challenged. Not just to bring the bottom ones up to pass, but to help some of the top students excel further.
Bauer: I agree with Jim and just want to add a couple things. The thing about technology in this day and age, it should be a top priority. My complaint is, I understand there is a free hour at the high school level. I don't get this. Why do the kids have a free hour to do what they want? We need to coach these kids more into advance classes.
Como: I think schools need to get rid of No Child Left Behind. Every child learns different, and they should be taught to the way they learn. My boys were definitely more hands-on. I couldn't get them to read a book, still can't. But if he had something concrete in front of him that he could actually do, that kid would be amazing. But that's not the way they are taught. They are taught they have to do this, this and this or you can't get anywhere. That's not right. Every child needs to be taught the way they learn.
Fett: We have to give the kids the best education possible. As taxpayers, you have to hold the board responsible for that. And we're going to hold the administration, the administration is going to hold the staff. The staff are those in the trenches, and they can tell us what we need to do.
Lepisto: Everyone is tired of hearing the word communication, but I think that's a very important thing to do for our children. The teachers need to be sure they get a hold of the parents when kids are getting behind. I know for a fact I saw a printout of a child that had 25 missing assignments in math, and they gave her a zero. She did not have to do those. That's not teaching kids anything, not teaching them how they have to work even if they don't like to do it. School board members and administration need to listen to the teachers.
Litzau: We need to slow the turnover of teachers. Also, online education is important. Also technology and keeping current with materials. Also the educational opportunities beyond high school that juniors and seniors get to take advantage of, like college courses.
Question: What will you do to rebuild trust and respect between the administration and the teachers?
Como: First thing you have to do is listen, and that's what our school board doesn't do. They don't listen to the teachers' needs, they don't listen to what the teachers have to say. They are the ones in the trenches, working with our students, they know what's best for our kids cause they spend more time with our kids than we actually do. If kids are in activities after school, they spend more time at school than at home and that's where the knowledge comes from. They need to be able to be heard instead of put down and told they don't know what they are doing.
Alger: First of all, I think it comes down to restoring chain of command within our district. The board works for the citizens. The superintendent is governed by the board. That needs to be upheld and changed the way it is now. The board is run by the superintendent, which makes for a hostile environment for teachers and for some of the administration. Secondly, it comes down to accountability and actually listening to what everyone has to say. The teachers have not been heard and if they bring something up, they're afraid they're going to lose their job. This isn't right, folks.
Bauer: I think it comes back to communication and listening to the teachers. One of the things there should be is monthly walkthroughs, meet the teachers, see the classrooms, see first hand. You can't manage and operate a school from behind a desk, just like a business.
Question: This school district spends a great deal of money with companies not in the school district. The maintenance contract shifted hundreds of thousands of dollars to an out-of-state business. Advertising is done in the Detroit Lakes paper and not our local paper. Legal fees of over $4,000 just one month went to a Minneapolis law firm. How do you plan to keep taxpayers dollars in our school district so that the local economy remains strong?
Litzau: I think that goes back to the basic root of the problem, and that's reevaluating how the school board, the superintendent and the administration does its business. I think the contracts should stay local, absolutely. Maybe there are things, like the janitorial services, that shouldn't have been outsourced. Those things have happened, so now it's just a matter of going forward from here.
Fett: Yeah, that janitorial deal was a joke. We've got to bring that back to our own people and this community. We should be supporting our own local businesses here. We need to change some of the responsibilities of the person deciding those issues. Those $4,000 for legal fees in one month, lots of that is over grievances. We've got to stop the grievances.
Lepisto: This is a small community and jobs are very important. We lose jobs, we lose families. We lose families, we lose students and our financial situation gets worse.
Nelson: I agree with Carey's comment on chain of command.
Thorp: First of all, when you contract locally, I do not believe there's a cleaning contractor within the Frazee-Vergas District that submitted a bid. These bids are sent out locally and statewide. Also, I believe, there was no janitorial employee let go by the school district. A cost analysis was done. The cost to high the staff necessary to clean the school at the standards that were required was over the cost of the contract.
Bauer: Since Don brought it up, in going to board meetings ... it cost almost the same as keeping the same staff, so it really wasn't much of a cost savings. It was minimal. Now we've turned around and hired someone for the HVAC, something I thought we were taking care of ourselves. Then we hired someone for maintenance of the grounds. So this was definitely not a cost savings.
Question: Have you ever negotiated a contract? Do you think the board should renew a contract due a year a head of time? Why or why not?
Alger: Personally, I've never negotiated a contract. But in my belief, if you have a year left on your contract, what's the hurry? I think the writing is on the wall, but once again let's not hear the public. All the board members (candidates) agreed that they felt the new members should get to negotiate the contract. I would have looked forward to that. But no, we had to hurry and renew it. Pretty sad. It's deceptive if you ask me. It just goes to show the board is not looking out for what is good for the district, what is good for the citizens, the school, the teachers, for everyone. There was no rush in doing this. Because there is the wrong people backing the wrong people in this school.
Bauer: Yes, I have negotiated contracts. No, a year ahead is not acceptable to me. After sitting through these events at the board meeting, the biggest problem I have is there are two groups of subordinates that don't have their contracts yet. But yet he wanted his done first. You take care of your (teachers) first, and then you take care of yourself.
Como: No, I've never had to do a contract, but my husband is an independent contractor and every year he has to renew his contracts with his customers. He doesn't do a year ahead of time. He waits until about three or four months before the contract is due, then he will start negotiating with his customers.
Fett: Yes, I was also amazed at how that happened Monday morning. I would rather wait and have the new board do the contract, but if the current was going to do it anyway, there was no hurry and I wish it would have been done in a different manor instead of putting it on the agenda Sunday night and 14 hours later vote on it.
Litzau: Yes, I have negotiated several different contracts over the last 20 years. I agree strongly with what the others have said about the current contract and he way that was done.
Nelson: Some of the board members said they have found out hours beforehand. One of them had read and found out the details just before he had gone to meeting. At the meeting, the board chairman said she had seen the contract Tuesday.
Thorp: I have negotiated many contracts. A negotiated contract provides stability for long-range planning. The reason the contract was brought up was it was requested by a board member. And once something's put on the agenda, it's discussed and that's how it was.
Wacker: I have never negotiated a contract. I don't necessarily agree with how it was handled this week. I think things could have been done a little different.
Question: Do you feel the referendum dollars should be used for needs or wants or both? How will you differentiate between the district's need and something the district wants?
Fett: I definitely think we have to go with needs first. The wants are second and they will have to be talked over as a board. But you have to involve the staff, board and taxpayers. That's where we look for people's opinions.
Lepisto: I agree with Kenny, but we also need to know that in our economic times, wants need to be put on the back burner. We also need to strive for better communications so that our kids can learn a better quality education with this new software.
Litzau: I agree with what Kenny and Mary said. One person's want is another person's need, and it's hard to differentiate. That's where that whole transparency comes from so there's no surprise.
Nelson: Needs are things that go to the kids directly in the classroom. Wants are things that affect the kids but not directly. We can't just say we don't want the sidewalks plowed and let the kids climb through the snow, but maybe there's a cheaper means of plowing snow. We don't want to short-change our educational materials. We need to listen to the staff more to determine the wants and needs of more than just a small group that's making those decisions.
Thorp: The referendum funds were specific items within the budget. It could only be spent on items passed due to the referendum. You can't take the funds and spend them on other items except educational items already specified. That voted on by the citizens of this district.
Question: Now that Superintendent Stender has a long-term contract, how will you seek to define his role as an administrator under a board that may not be as receptive to his ideas and management style?
Nelson: It goes back to the chain of command again, where the board, if there is a change, will need to be more 'here's what you're going to do,' rather than being told what is going to be done. The school board represents the community. The school board is the boss and it has to take that role.
Thorp: The superintendent reports to the school board. The school board reports to the citizens of the school district. That's how the chain of command goes and that's how it's been.
Wacker: My first question, Deron, are you going to be here for three years? That's a tough question and we'll find out here soon. Where do we go from there? I guess I have to have that answered first.
Lepisto: When I first started going to the school board meetings, it was in the administration building, and the board sat at table, not everybody. I'd like to see that again.
Question: If you were to choose one member on the current board to be your mentor, who would it be? If you are an incumbent, who was your mentor?
Bauer: I don't think I'd choose one board member to be my mentor. There are several that are very good, but I suppose it would come down to Mr. Jepson or Mr. Ziegler.
Como: He took my answer. Yes, that's who I would ask to show me the ropes is Steve or Rich. Rich has been there long enough he knows what's going on, and when Steve was elected, Rich finally got someone to cover his back so he wasn't all by himself.
Alger: I have to agree with those two that it would be either Mr. Ziegler or Mr. Jepson. They have shown me in every meeting that I've been to that they're for what the public stands for and unfortunately, they aren't being heard either. They're bold enough to stand up for what's right and keep getting knocked down.
Nelson: I sat with former Superintendent Jim Lamont, we worked directly with the boards and he's worked with many of us. He would be a great resource. We have some other retired board member in the community like Mike Hiemenz. Steve Jepson has done a great job recently. And a former teacher in Frazee named Vicky Grondahl is the board chairman in Lake Park-Audubon. She's been through a lot of trials and tribulations and is a great resource, too.
Thorp: Since I'm the only incumbent up here, I'll answer something different. Everyone one of the school board member was willing to answer questions and guide me in my endeavor to provide the Frazee School District with the best school board I could. Talk with these people. They'll answer your questions.
Wacker: Here we are picking sides again. I don't want to be a part of it. It's just not right. I'm going to take advice from everyone. Steve Jepson. I certainly look forward to hearing Keith Janu. Look forward to hearing from all of them. I go to church with Don, so I probably hear more from Don than anyone else.