Six people have filed for three upcoming vacancies on the Detroit Lakes School Board this year.

Board Chairman Amy Erickson and Vice Chairman John Steffl are both seeking re-election (Jane Foltz has opted not to file for a second term). They are facing challengers Gary Coson, Courtney Henderson, Ron Sprafka and Ethan Walz.

All six of the candidates responded to emailed questionnaires that asked for their biographical information as well as their views on current school district issues.

The questions were as follows:

  1. What made you decide to run for school board (or for re-election) at this time?
  2. What are the biggest challenges facing the district currently? What would you do to address them?
  3. Do you think the Detroit Lakes school board has done a good job of managing the district's finances? Why or why not?
  4. Do you think the district has a sound plan in place for handling the coronavirus pandemic? Would you do anything differently?
  5. What is your opinion of the recent renovation/expansion project at Detroit Lakes' four main K-12 academic facilities? Do you think there was any need that wasn't adequately addressed, or that should be addressed in the future?
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Here's a look at what they had to say.

Gary Coson

Detroit Lakes School Board candidate Gary Coson
Detroit Lakes School Board candidate Gary Coson

Gary L. Coson, 64, Detroit Lakes, is seeking his first term on the board. A widower, he has six stepchildren and several step-grandchildren and great grandchildren.

After growing up in Wadena and graduating from high school there, he attended the local vocational-technical school, where he studied accounting. Later, he moved out west, entering the paralegal program at Empire College in Santa Rosa, Calif.

Though he is retired, Coson is pursuing an associate's degree from Minnesota State Community & Technical College, which has campuses in Detroit Lakes, Wadena, Fergus Falls and Moorhead. Though he has not held public office before, Coson did run for a seat in the U.S. Senate while living in California.

Question 1: I am tired of our children being taught lies. They are being taught that they "do not have the rights you think the founding fathers gave you" (Rev. Ludder, Political Science Dept., Santa Rosa Jr. College, Petaluma, CA (1997)) by teaching that we are a democracy. Also when I can not ask questions of the Detroit Lakes School Board and receive answers in the board meetings because I might offend someone or I might blindside them by asking them questions about what they should know about their jobs, for instance the attorney for the school board or the teacher that teaches the United States Constitution in our high school. This is their jobs and if they do not know what their jobs are then why are they working for the school district because they might be blindsided by not knowing what their jobs are. We all have the right to know what they are teaching in our schools and whether the attorney(s) for the school board are helping the school board violate the law or not. I have a lot of questions about what is going on in our school district which some I will address here but am not allowed to ask of the school board or anyone else for the aforementioned reasons and time limits.

Question 2: As I said, teaching the truth. (is the biggest issue) Also encourage the students to research and ask questions if they do not understand something. I would make sure that the teachers appear before the School Board and address the issues that I would have of what they are teaching to make sure that, for instance, they are compliant with the law (Constitution and Civil Rights) and all other constitutional laws. For instance, Article 4, Section 4 of the United States Constitution.

Question 3: Right now I would have to say no, they have not, because if they are in violation of the law (the above-referenced Article 4, Section 4 of the Constitution), then they are not managing the school district's finances, because they are just spending money to spend money on spreading lies. Another issue is, why are we paying an attorney from St. Paul, Minn., instead of having a local attorney be the attorney for the school board so that they can be in attendance at the school board meetings as required, to answer our questions?

Question 4: In the beginning I thought the plan was sound due to the fact that we did not know the strength of the virus, but when we learned that it was not as bad as it sounded, we should have let it run its course by building up our immune system like we do with any other virus instead of trying to stop it and prolong the virus.

Question 5: Based on everything that I have read and heard about the renovations, I think it is good as it is proceeding. There is a great concern of mine about the Academy at the High School though. That concern is who is deciding whether a student will go the a community college, tech school or 4 year college or university? Is it the teacher, or the parents and student? My fifth grade teacher made that decision for me when she declared she knew more than the school psychologist, (which was) that I was mentally retarded because I did the will of my heavenly father, and the school district concurred by refusing to allow me to take classes that would have helped me decide for myself where I would go. This needs to be addressed, but no one will address these issues in the school board meetings because they are concerned that I might blindside them or offend them. This is also why I am running for the school board, because I will not allow the school board to treat our children like I was treated.

Amy Erickson

Detroit Lakes School Board Chairman Amy Erickson is seeking reelection to her second term. (Submitted photo)
Detroit Lakes School Board Chairman Amy Erickson is seeking reelection to her second term. (Submitted photo)

Amy Erickson, 49, of Detroit Lakes, is seeking her second term on the board, where she currently serves as chairman. She and her husband of 16 years, Jed, have three children who currently attend Detroit Lakes Public Schools.

"I was born and raised in Iowa and graduated from the University of Iowa with a degree in elementary education," she says. "I have been a stay-at-home mom since Alex was born. Jed and I met in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, and started our family there. We wanted our kids to be educated in the United States so when Alex turned 5, we decided that the kids and I would would stay in Jed’s hometown as he traveled between Detroit Lakes and Cabo. I’ve had the honor of being on the Detroit Lakes School Board for the last 3.5 years, and have proudly served as board chair for the last year and a half."

Question 1: I’m running for re-election because there are some things that I would like to see through to completion, such as the building projects and the implementation of the Academy model at DLHS. I’d also like to continue to support our new superintendent, Mark Jenson, as he acclimates to our district and continues the great work he’s done so far.

Question 2: The current pandemic situation is of course the biggest issue at this time. Aside from that, we’ve got some issues in regards to equity and inclusion that I’d like to see addressed and that will have to begin with an open, honest assessment of where we are and where we’d like to be. We are a successful school district by any definition, but it’s healthy to acknowledge that there is always room for growth. I’d like to get more feedback from our community about what their expectations for our school district are, and form a common expectation of what it means to be a Laker.

Question 3: I believe that past boards and the current board have been good stewards of taxpayer dollars. Even with the building project we are on sound financial footing. School financing is incredibly complex, and we’re fortunate to have Ryan Tangen as our business manager, as he understands those complexities inside and out.

Question 4: I am in awe of the way our teachers, administrators and staff have been able to pivot during this pandemic. They continue to rise to the challenge every day and I couldn’t be more proud of our district and our community. We are having to learn as we go, and the role of the board is to foster continuous improvement and to be a conduit between the school district and the community.

Question 5: I was a part of all four referendum efforts, and the chair of the second effort that failed. Going through three failed referendums was very difficult, but the best decision we could have made on the fourth attempt was accepting the community’s desire for renovations and additions as opposed to a single new building. We still have some needs that must be addressed, including Lincoln and the administrative building, and my hope is to be a part of the board that gets to address them.

Courtney Henderson

Former Detroit Lakes Middle School teacher Courtney Henderson is seeking her first term on the school board. (Submitted photo)
Former Detroit Lakes Middle School teacher Courtney Henderson is seeking her first term on the school board. (Submitted photo)

Courtney Henderson, 51, of Detroit Lakes, is a widowed mother of three grown daughters who currently works with Regional Centers of Excellence as an advocate for schools in northwest Minnesota. She and her late husband Mark both taught at Detroit Lakes Public Schools for many years.

A native of Algona, Iowa, Courtney has been a Minnesotan since 1987. After graduating from Garrigan High School in Algona, Iowa, she made the move north, starting classes at the College of St. Benedict in Collegeville, Minn., before receiving her elementary teaching degree (with a middle school license) from Bemidji State University. She later obtained a master's degree in education from Hamline University in St. Paul, and a K-12 principal's license from Minnesota State University Moorhead.

"I spent 23 years as a 7th and 8th grade life and earth science teacher in Detroit Lakes," she says. "Currently, I work for Regional Centers of Excellence as a school advocate for schools in our region. I work with schools that need support with school improvement by utilizing data, equitable practices and Improvement Science.

"I think that being a public school teacher and my current position could both be considered public office positions in that I work to better serve students and their families. I am also currently involved in MN EPFP (Minnesota's Education Policy Fellowship Program) so that I can get more involved in education policy as well."

Question 1: I chose to run for the school board because the Detroit Lakes community (families and students included) and school district has done a lot for myself, my husband and my family. I want to give back by being a voice for ALL students, families and staff members. I also believe that my experience as an educator will be an asset to students, their families and the district.

Question 2: I think some of the biggest challenges facing our district are:

  • Meaningfully engaging and communicating with ALL stakeholders, especially with COVID-19, but even before that. We need to get all voices at the table in our decision making. We cannot rely on what we have always done to be good enough. We need to utilize our families and communities as resources in educating our students and in learning from/with them.
  • Educational inequities between our marginalized students and white students in things like academics and behavioral policies. We need to become more culturally diverse in our teaching, learning, thinking and staffing using personal data to guide our practices and to examine policies, programs, systems and procedures with an equity lens. Changing from punitive practices to restorative practices (to repair and improve relationships) with behavior and utilizing Universal Design for Learning and choice (best practices for all students) for academics.

Question 3: I think the Detroit Lakes School Board has been fiscally responsible in the 23 years that I worked in the district. I did not see a time where they over-extended and expect that they will continue in that way.

Question 4: I think the district has a sound plan in place for where we are at with the COVID-19 pandemic and what we currently know. Dealing with this situation is new to everyone. I would expect that as we gain more knowledge that we improve and adjust our practices and systems in place to better serve our stakeholders. If I had my way completely, I would always land on the side of caution when it comes to safety and human lives. I also believe that there are a lot of inequities happening in our schools with the different modes of learning for students, their families and staff members. I think it is very important to continually ask for feedback from all our stakeholders and then to use that information to better serve our students, families and staff equitably. It's very hard for everyone involved to come up with perfect protocols with a situation we have never had to deal with before. We need to give each other grace, knowing that we are all doing our best and that changes will need to be made as new knowledge is gained. We will all need to be flexible as we move forward.

Question 5: I think the district tried very hard to do what was most needed, keeping safety at the forefront with safe entrances. I also think that they tried to deal with space concerns in their gymnasium work, classrooms and cafeteria needs for students. There is definitely a commitment to the academy model at the high school, which could really enhance our high school students' experiences in their learning.

I believe the size of classrooms at some of the buildings are still quite small for the size and number of students that will inhabit them. In thinking of aesthetics, I wondered why new rooms kept old features like carpet or a wall/post unpainted with new paint. (They are easy fixes, but are quick wins in showing that we care about the quality of our facilities.)

I am also hoping that the ventilation/heating/cooling systems in all of our schools were improved in the process. That would be a future item if it was not adequately addressed in this process.

Ron Sprafka

Detroit Lakes native Ron Sprafka is seeking his first term on the school board. (Submitted photo)
Detroit Lakes native Ron Sprafka is seeking his first term on the school board. (Submitted photo)

Ron Sprafka, 42, a native of Detroit Lakes, is seeking his first term on the school board. He and Stephanie have three children: Ava, 14, Layla, 11, and Reza, 6.

After graduating from Detroit Lakes High School, Ron attended the University of Mary. He is currently employed as an information systems technician with Becker County. His previous leadership experience includes serving for six years on the board of the Lakes Curling Club, including one year as vice president and one as president. He has also served for3 ½ years on the Minnesota Flyers Gymnastics board, including one year as vice president and one year as its current president.

Question 1: While co-leading the community group for the school bond referendum project two years ago, I worked closely with the school board members, learning what they do to guide and direct our schools presently and into the future. It really stirred a passion for me to be part of the bigger picture. Having grown up here, attending this district’s schools, I experienced and learned first-hand how great this school system is and the quality of learning and individuals it releases into the world. I think that excellence continues. Now, as the child of a former teacher in this district, and a parent with kids in the schools, I know that credit goes to the teachers, administrators and support staff. I see the board’s job is to figure out how to find, best equip and keep those teachers doing their best job. I want to be part of that team. I want to help those that mold young minds.

Question 2: Well, I think 2020 has taught everyone many lessons. The biggest lesson learned was how do we continue learning if we’re not able to be in a traditional classroom format, and how can we make it happen at a moment’s notice? Finding innovative and appropriate technologies for teachers and students and teaching them how to use them effectively and immediately is a huge challenge. Almost all school districts struggled with this and Detroit Lakes wasn’t immune. I think we did pretty well, but we didn’t excel. The good news is we adapted and adjusted, and I believe we came back this fall, better prepared for the challenges that our district is currently facing.

Question 3: Yes, I do think the district has been fiscally responsible for many years. They have done very well managing the funds they get and seeing to it that the needs of the district are met, the best possible way.

Question 4: I think the district has done very well handling COVID-19. I think they came into the school year armed with several options and plans in place, allowing the ability to pivot quickly when needed and for learning to continue. I don’t think I would change anything, at least not without being privy to the details behind the decisions. I’m sure there were plenty of behind the scenes details that had to be ironed out in the background.

Question 5: I think the renovation and expansion project has been great! Of course, I loved this plan early on and it resulted in me being out there for months helping inform, explain and sell it to the public. I loved that it did major improvements and expansions to all of our schools. It did the most good, across the largest swath possible.

I know there were two needs that were left off the project list, those being the Lincoln Ed building and the main administration office. I know they were hard cuts to make, but unfortunately, they were made to ensure the project stayed within a reasonable budget number and also to maximize the money going to all the school buildings. I think there are options to eventually meet the needs of these two projects along the way in the future.

John Steffl

Callaway native John Steffl is seeking his second term on the Detroit Lakes School Board. He currently serves as vice chairman. (Submitted photo)
Callaway native John Steffl is seeking his second term on the Detroit Lakes School Board. He currently serves as vice chairman. (Submitted photo)

John Joseph Steffl, 65, is seeking his second term on the school board. A lifelong resident of the Detroit Lakes school district, he and his wife Candyce have five children (three girls, two boys) and six grandchildren.

After graduating from Detroit Lakes High School in 1973, John went into the family business, farming, and has operated a small grains farm in rural Callaway, just 12 miles north of Detroit Lakes, for the past 48 years.

In 1973, he served as district and regional FFA secretary and had the privilege of attending the National Convention. In the early 1990s he was recognized as an emerging leader as Becker County’s King Agassiz, and in the late 1990s he and his family were named Becker County’s Farm Family of the Year by the University of Minnesota Extension. For 9 years he served as treasurer of the Callaway Township board, and also represented Callaway on the citizen advisory board for the Detroit Lakes school district, under Superintendent Bob Melick. He is a current member of the Callaway Lions Club and a parishioner of Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Detroit Lakes.

Question 1: As I am running for reelection, the main reason I ran four years ago was to find a solution, and/or compromise to our space issues. In getting elected I found out the money dynamics to this position. By getting into the schools and visiting with the administrators, teachers, paras, custodians, food preparers and other staff, I truly found out the great people we have working in the district. So I am running to further that relationship, help address the ongoing issues in the district, and to see the current building and renovation project through to completion.

Question 2: The lack of adequate funding for special education is one of the biggest challenges currently facing the district. Originally, many districts were told they would be funded at a much higher rate than they are. Mandates without proper funding put a heavy burden on the district’s general fund. We also really need to address mental health, to a point where we can help all of our students reach their full potential. We really need to do the best job we can. With homeschooling, charter schools and online educational opportunities, there is a lot of competition out there.

Question 3: I would like to say yes, the district has done a good job. Even though we are spending a lot of money to update and expand our buildings, it needed to be done. Technology is always going to be a large ongoing expense to help keep our students on par or above others in the world. I would like to say the financial management of past boards had a big part in putting our district in the position we are in today — a very strong financial position.

Question 4: It may seem at times like we don’t know what we are doing. Starting face to face in elementary, hybrid in middle and high school, then distance learning for high school, then distance learning for Roosevelt elementary. We need to follow guidelines, right or wrong. We may need more latitude, everything is done for a reason. We need to keep all students and staff safe.

Question 5: As a member of the board, and on different committees to come up with a plan to move forward with the referendum. I do believe we came up with a good plan. In the end I believe the taxpayers of the district will be very satisfied with the product they are receiving. I think we addressed most of the concerns everyone had. A district our size will have ongoing needs in the future. It took many administrators, staff and community members to get where we are today, along with many hours. Thank you all very much.

I want to thank my wife Candy, my family, my co-workers on the farm, for the opportunity to have this position. Without their added workload and open ear as a sounding board, I would not be able to serve the district. Thank you.

Ethan Walz

Ethan Walz, 20, is currently seeking his first term on the Detroit Lakes School Board. (Submitted photo)
Ethan Walz, 20, is currently seeking his first term on the Detroit Lakes School Board. (Submitted photo)

Ethan Walz, 20, of Detroit Lakes, graduated from Detroit Lakes High School in 2018. Currently single, he was an agricultural education student at South Dakota State University in Brookings until last year, and now works as an assistant manager and driver at Olander Bus Service in Detroit Lakes.

Question 1: I am a huge supporter of the education system. Before joining Olander Bus Service full time, I attended South Dakota State University to study agricultural education. I am passionate about the profession and would love to be in a position to promote positive changes. Being young and a planned part of our district for many years to come, I believe there’s no better time to start putting an extreme amount of energy and commitment into something I’m so passionate about.

Question 2: Something I am currently looking at is the possibility of bringing level four programming into our district. For individuals who are not aware about level four education, these are students who experience a higher amount of behavioral issues and require slightly more specialized care. Currently, our district is unable to support these students locally and it would be hugely beneficial and cost effective to do so.

I am also looking at better communication practices for our parents, teachers, and students. We have greatly improved this process during the COVID-19 pandemic, but we are still learning. Our community deserves to stay up to date with the happenings in our district.

Question 3: I believe that our district has done an alright job managing the finances of the district. I think the next school board will need to adjust and figure out what each individual school's maximum efficiency is with what we have for resources now. We are facing tough times with extra costs that the district has taken on combined with lower enrollment rates during the pandemic. Our schools will need to get creative with the resources that we possess and I believe our district and the board will do a great job with this.

Question 4: I think districts all across the state are going through a maze of obstacles. Some paths lead to success while others lead towards opportunities to grow and improve. One thing that I would look at doing differently would be to re-introduce the COVID-19 task force the district created this past summer. The task force was composed of people from all areas of the district making it much easier to collaborate. This group would then continue to evaluate and monitor the district's current status and offer advice to the board on what steps they should take moving forward.

Question 5: I feel that the projects were necessary for our district. Our district definitely had an issue with space. I have recently looked at many of the building projects and their progress. They are looking excellent! I think an area the district could've looked at closer would be the Lincoln Education Center. I believe the space and opportunity to renovate wasn’t as seriously considered and could have been made into something quite valuable.

More school board elections

Thaddeus Helmers was the lone incumbent on the Frazee-Vergas School Board to file for re-election this year. Challengers Tyler Trieglaff, Michael Frank, Ronald Post, Cherryann Post have also filed to fill one of three open positions on the board. Board member Tammie Nunn did not file, and the third vacancy was created when board member Steve Jepson resigned earlier this year.

in Lake Park-Audubon, incumbent board members Darrel Pederson, Marge Beaudine and Mark Johnson have all filed for re-election. They will face off against challenger Jason Crabtree in November.

In Waubun-Ogema-White Earth, incumbent school board members John Zima, Terry Dorman and Allan Haugo will all be unopposed in their respective bids for re-election to another four-year term.

The general election, which includes all open school board positions in Minnesota, is scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 3, and polls will remain open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. throughout the state. Early (absentee and mail-in ballot) voting has already begun. Visit www.usa.gov/absentee-voting for more information.