Full house for LP-A candidate forum
With two-thirds of the seats on the Lake Park-Audubon School Board up for grabs in the Nov. 8 election, the school district is about to experience a huge change in its leadership.
So it's not all that surprising that the theater at LP-A High School was packed for Wednesday night's School Board Candidate Forum — or that all nine candidates for the five open positions on the board were present and accounted for.
"I was thrilled (with the attendance)," said Terry Kalil, Voter Services Chair for the Detroit Lakes Area League of Women Voters, which co-sponsored the forum along with the Detroit Lakes Regional Chamber of Commerce. "There were 68 people there, plus the nine candidates... The voters are fortunate to have such a committed and passionate group of candidates who clearly demonstrated their qualifications and the skills they would bring to the school board."
As the evening's moderator, Helen Foltz, pointed out, due to vacancies and subsequent appointments created by board resignations, the LP-A ballot is divided into two elections this year.
Five candidates — Corey Askin, Brian Bestge, Jayde Carlson, Mark Johnson and incumbent Darrel Pederson — will compete for three open, 4-year seats while four candidates — Skye Bjerke, Amanda "Mande" North, Marvin Vareberg and incumbent Bryan Anderson — will vie for two open, 2-year seats. (This means that the top five vote-getters on Nov. 8 will not necessarily be the ones who win the election.) Co-hosted by the Detroit Lakes Area League of Women Voters and the Detroit Lakes Regional Chamber of Commerce, the evening included a series of seven questions, with some being specifically geared toward the first-time board candidates, and some that were weighted more toward the incumbents.
Each of the seven first-time candidates was put on the spot and asked if they had attended a school board meeting in the past 12 months. Most of them said they had attended at least one or two, with only Jayde Carlson admitting that he had not. He did, however, state definitively that he was willing to commit to attending the training sessions offered by the Minnesota School Boards Association to help new and returning board members adjust to their changing roles. The other candidates all responded "yes" to this question as well.
Another question where all nine of the candidates were in agreement was the one where they were asked whether they supported the extension of the district's $194 per student operating levy referendum for another seven years — a question that will also be posed to school district voters on Nov. 8.
All of them were in favor of extending the levy, because, as eight-year board member Bryan Anderson pointed out, it will generate $150,000 in revenue for the district with virtually no change to property owners' current tax bill—and without it, the district will be faced with some pretty steep cuts to staff and programming.
"We need this levy," Anderson said, noting that with 70 percent of the district's current budget allocated toward staff salaries and benefits, a loss of $150,000 in annual revenue would inevitably lead to cutting jobs.
Darrel Pederson, who like Anderson has been on the board for the past eight years, said that it was "imperative" that the levy should pass, because cuts in staff would mean that the district's current commitment to maintaining small class sizes, particularly at the elementary level, would be in jeopardy.
Corey Askin pointed out that district residents need to be aware the levy question on this year's ballot is not a building referendum: "It has to do with operating expenses," he said, adding that the existing operating levy has helped the district to keep itself out of financial difficulty.
"I too hope this referendum is extended," said Mande North. "Without it, cuts will have to be made, and that means fewer teachers, fewer classes, and fewer opportunities for students to learn."
The candidates were also asked what improvements they felt needed to be made to the elementary building in Audubon to serve the district's growing population and meet its needs with regard to taking advantage of ever-improving technology and learning opportunities.
Pederson noted that, with the district's population crossing the 700-student threshold for the first time in many years, "We need to build more classrooms, and focus on (keeping up with) technology."
Anderson agreed, noting, "We've just about renovated every space (in the elementary building) that we have. The plan always was to add on."
Askin said that he would like to see more input from the teachers, administration and staff on what improvements are needed before any changes are made.
"The elementary building is full," said Mark Johnson. "There are no empty spaces."
He said that the board will need to come up with a plan to address its enrollment needs for the next 5-10 years, and when the time comes, "We have to ask the voters what they want to do."
"I think our current board has done a great job of thinking creatively... but there is no more space to renovate," said Skye Bjerke, adding that she thinks taking this issue first to the teachers and staff at the school for their input "is a great idea."
After the election
As they will be filling vacancies created due to resignations, the two candidates who are elected to fill the two-year seats on the board will be sworn into office at the Monday, Nov. 28 meeting of the LP-A School Board. (The temporary appointment of longtime board member Dale Binde to fill the seat vacated by Sean Degerstrom when he moved out of the district last year will end at that time.)
The candidates who win the three 4-year seats will not be sworn in until January.
Another vacancy created last month by board member Rich Veit, when he resigned after accepting a teaching position with the district, is expected to be filled by appointment in December. (His resignation came too late for his seat to be included on the Nov. 8 election ballot.)