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DL school board candidates talk referendum, testing, preschool funding

There weren't as many chairs as there were visitors at Thursday night's Detroit Lakes School Board Candidate Forum. Attendees stood, lining the walls, eager to hear what eight of the nine candidates running for school board had to say--one candidate, Beau Shroyer, was not present.

After introductions, moderator Sharon Sinclair wasted no time getting into the questions, with an hour time limit and a hot room in mind.

The first question was based on the bond referendum, asking candidates if they had a proposal to bring to the table.

Nearly all of the candidates agreed listening to the community was key in moving forward, particularly Amy Erickson and Nancy Young.

"Listening to the community first," Erickson said, adding she would not stop there but also talk to teachers and staff to get a well-rounded solution. "Talk my ears off," she added, garnering a laugh.

Nancy Young felt much the same, saying she would have to "flip" the process and go back to the voters, saying if she earns a spot on the board, she won't be coming up with a solution on her own.

"We need to find out from the community what they'll support first and bring it to a vote," she said, adding that cost is also a concern for her. "What can we afford, and how can we make it happen?" she asked, saying she wants the community to get the best "bang for our buck."

Jane Foltz, Don Tobkin, John Steffl, and Tim Wolfe echoed these sentiments, saying on some level that a better dialog between the school board and the community is key.

"I propose we take a good look at all of our options," Foltz said, adding that she hopes the community survey the board recently put out will have some answers.

Tobkin said he was actually one who responded to the school board survey. "Let's see what they turn up," he said, while also expressing a desire to see Roosevelt and the middle school added onto.

Steffl reiterated that he, along with others who voted the referendum down, "talked to a lot of people," and he feels everyone should be accounted for--business owners, farmers--in order to make the most fiscally responsible decision. Inevitably he said he feels the elementary should be added onto and the high school should be left alone for now.

Wolfe also stated "listening to the community" would be one of his priorities as well, while also adding that it would be "nice to see a new elementary," and he would rather it be a K-6 building. Until then, he said there will need to be some creative, short-term solutions to solve the space issues. And, he added, while capping enrollment isn't popular, he would consider it.

Joe Bergquist also opted for a more creative solution, saying it would be good to "revisit some of the space that the taxpayers already paid for." He has expressed a desire to get creative throughout the entirety of the election, pointing to communities that have built schools in combination with museums. "Understand higher taxes can move people across that line into poverty," Bergquist said, adding that he believes many classroom issues--student behavior issues, poor test performance-- stem from poverty and putting community members into economic jeopardy with something like an expensive referendum will only worsen those issues.

Tom Trowbridge expressed a desire to not "unnecessarily limit our options." As a civil engineer, he said he has experience working on public infrastructure projects, and just because there are issues with a place to build, like a high water table, doesn't mean building there is impossible.

"There's ways to work around that," he added, saying it just might be a bit more difficult and a bit more expensive.

Trowbridge threw out the suggestion of building a new elementary and adding onto the high school but stated, "Frankly, I'm open to all options."

The second question the candidates addressed dealt with standardized tests: making the classroom less about teaching for the test and more about learning.

Both Foltz and Steffl said this is an area where they have some learning to do.

"I'm just learning a lot about this school information," Foltz said, adding that she feels kids "need somewhat of a test to make sure we know that they are learning."

And Steffl said he would have to "echo Jane's thoughts." Although he added, he thinks "testing the teachers--making sure they're up to snuff" is probably a good idea, too.

The rest of the candidates all agreed on some level that standardized testing is needed, however varying in degrees of contempt for the tests.

"Standardized tests, to me, are a necessary evil," Erickson said, adding that "there are lots of factors that go into education."

She said she realizes that some kids just aren't good test takers, and she feels it's important to "reach kids where they're at and help them progress throughout the classroom." Nancy Young said she just doesn't see the tests going away.

"I'm not going to take away standardized testing. We need to empower teachers and students to be able to learn and teach in a flexible way," Young said.

And Bergquist echoed her remarks, saying "empower" was a great way to put it. He sees an importance in "motivating the mind toward success.

Trowbridge, Wolfe and Tobkin said basically the same: testing is necessary, but the curriculum should ideally go along with it.

Trowbridge suggested "folding" desired curriculum into state standard curriculum, and Wolfe echoed the remark, adding that it would be good to "deemphasize the actual testing."

"We can build a curriculum and get to know the students and somehow adapt the curriculum to their personal interest," Tobkin said.

Question number three asked the candidates if they supported preschool funding.

"You picked a hot one there for me," said Steffl, the first to tackle the question. "I look at preschool as an extension of parents not doing their job when the student is at home."

He said he believes it's an issue that needs to be addressed, but he also doesn't think preschool should just be a "free ride" either.

"I'd like to see it partially funded, but not fully funded," he said.

Tobkin echoed Steff,l saying the "mother and father have the primary responsibility of teaching their child." Although he differed from Steffl because he does not believe preschool should be funded. "Give them some time to have an innocent childhood."

Trowbridge does not support an "all-day, every-day" funded preschool.

"I think the state could spend the money better by targeting and making sure that people that can't afford a preschool help them get it," he said.

Wolfe also supported partial funding for preschool, saying he still doesn't feel preschool should be all day.

Young, Bergquist and Erickson were all three for funding preschool.

"Preschool for all would level the playing field," Erickson said.

Young, who said the daycare shortage in the area, which she and her husband struggled with, means she would "absolutely support finding a way to get every four-year-old into preschool, whether that's through a sliding-fee scale or some other need-based program."

Erickson also noted supporting a needs-based program for funding.

"Imagine having a child learning instead of sitting at home watching cartoons," Berquist said, after noting he, too, supports funding preschool.

The final question was wrapped into the closing remarks and paired with a "lightning round question" to get as much information from the many candidates in the short amount of time allotted for the forum. The candidates were asked what they believe the biggest issue facing the district is--other than the referendum--and if they had attended a school board meeting within the last five years.

Steffl's biggest concern was the trust he feels has been lost between the school board and the community.

"The school board and the administration doesn't go talk to people," he said, adding that, if elected, he would like to allow people five minutes to talk at school board meetings, regardless of whether they are on the agenda or not.

Tobkin noted that the biggest issue he sees is "students are being overloaded." He feels that the current culture is different and is encouraging students to be less focused.

"My sense of growing up on a farm...going to a one-room schoolhouse...the addiction to cell phones amazes me," he said, adding that he feels the number of kids being given EBD's (Emotional Behavior Disorder) is too high and it's directly related to the fast-paced, technologically-focused culture.

Wolfe said his biggest concern, other than the referendum, is keeping the community involved in the learning process

"We have a lot of people here tonight that really care...and we need to find a way to keep parents and the community involved with student education," he said.

Bergquist's concern was poverty.

"Poverty, I believe, is our biggest issue," he said, adding that it leads to mental health and behavior issues. "These are just a few issues that put pressure on our teachers and staff."

For Foltz, the issue was setting the bar higher and making dollars spent lower.

"The bar must be set higher for students and teachers alike," she said, adding, "I'm concerned that our dollars toward our school are well spent instead of wasted."

Young and Erickson both feel as though attracting quality educators is of the utmost importance in the face of a teacher shortage.

"I would like to object because Nancy stole my answer," said Erickson, who responded to the final question after Young, garnering a laugh from the crowd.

All candidates stated "yes," they had attended a school board meeting in the last five years.