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School board candidates discuss issues in forum

Albert Lea Area Schools board candidates took part in a candidate forum Thursday evening at Riverland Community College in Albert Lea. The seven candidates — three of whom will be elected to the board — discussed the district’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the possibility of the district’s superintendent leaving and MSHSL fees, among other issues in the third candidate forum hosted by the Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce.

Incumbent board member Neal Skaar as well as fellow candidates Jerry Collins, Mary Elizabeth Harty, Angie Hoffman, Bruce Olson, Kalli Rittenhouse and Christopher Seedorf answered questions from moderator Mike Woitas of KATE Radio, who said the questions had been submitted. 

 

School board qualifications

Jerry Collins

Seedorf said he was qualified to be on the board due to his honesty and problem-solving abilities, and that board members shouldn’t focus on one single idea, but ask questions about issues facing the district.

Collins said board members need to be good at juggling multiple responsibilities, as all members either have full-time jobs or other responsibilities outside of serving on the board. 

Skaar said board members need to be able to work as a team, and realize they’re not managing the district, but managing those who manage the district.

Rittenhouse said board members need to be able to compromise, listen and understand each other, while Olson said board members need to have a passion for education and for children. He also said board members need to want all students to have the same opportunities. 

Hoffman said board members should care about the students as well as the community, and be involved in the community. She said the ideal school board should be made up of different viewpoints.

Mary Elizabeth Harty

Harty said board members shouldn’t come into discussions with predetermined answers, should be creative and remember they have a fiduciary duty to the taxpayers when it comes to finding the best possible financial solutions.

 

COVID-19 pandemic response

All seven candidates were generally positive about the district’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. 

“We’re legally obligated to do certain things at the district level, and there’s not a whole lot of variance in how you do it when it comes down through an executive order,” Collins said. “How we respond to things and how quickly we respond to them as a district is probably what the most important thing is, because it seems to be a pretty ever-evolving situation.”

Rittenhouse said as a parent of a student in the district, there’s no comparison between distance learning this past spring and distance learning now, and that the district is doing the best it can in a difficult situation.

Angie Hoffman

Skaar said the board is constantly monitoring community feedback about how the pandemic is being handled, and that school district teachers and other staff are doing an excellent job. 

Olson said he felt the necessary adjustments have been made along the way as things have changed throughout the year. 

Hoffman said it has been amazing to see what the district has been able to pull off with so much being outside of its control, but that the most important thing is getting students back inside the classrooms. 

To Harty, the district has done an outstanding job and the best practices are being carried out across the state. She said initially she was concerned with distance learning that children without access to the internet would be at a disadvantage, but was thrilled to hear the district made internet hotspots available to those students.

Seedorf said it’s a hard struggle, and said he read an article about an increase in the number of teachers in Minnesota wanting to quit or retire because they can’t teach in school, and that concerns him.

 

Possibility of superintendent leaving

With Albert Lea Area Schools Superintendent Mike Funk being a finalist for other job openings in the state and region in past years, candidates were asked if the potential of Funk leaving was a concern for them.

Bruce Olson

Rittenhouse said it would be a concern for her, thinking the board would have to search for another superintendent.

Skaar said it’s a concern that the district would be losing an excellent superintendent, but that superintendents do not generally stay in one district for long, and that it’s normal for them to move on career-wise.

Olson said it was a concern, as he felt Funk has done a very good job, and that he would hope for a superintendent to focus on Albert Lea instead of focusing on getting out of Albert Lea.

Hoffman said she wouldn’t be concerned about the possibility of finding a new superintendent, should Funk leave. 

“What is meant to happen will happen,” she said. “If Dr. Funk stays, I’ll have a positive working relationship with him. And if he leaves, we’d try very hard to fill that spot, find a suitable replacement and put a lot of thought into that.”

The first time Harty heard about Funk potentially leaving the district for another job, she said she questioned his loyalty. Since then, though, she said she has learned that it’s normal for superintendents to move on or even be recruited, as it’s a competitive field.

Seedorf said Funk is a “heck of a guy” who he has worked with on issues concerning his son, but said if Funk did leave it would be an opportunity for the district to start fresh.

Kalli Rittenhouse

Collins said it would be a concern, as he would want a solid succession plan in place should a new superintendent be needed. He said as a parent and taxpayer, he has seen good and bad from Funk, but that he wouldn’t fault anyone for wanting to advance in their career. 

 

Passing a referendum 

Skaar urged people to support the District 241 referendum on the ballot, as he said there is a disparity between what the state funds and the district’s costs, and that it is a gap that doesn’t meet inflation. He said virtually every district in Minnesota needs to pass an operating referendum for extended periods of time. The reason the one on the ballot is more than the one it would be replacing, Skaar said, is due mostly to the cost of technology and the resulting cost of the pandemic. 

Olson said he was in favor of the referendum.

“Three people in this room are going to have some tough decisions if it doesn’t pass on renewing the operating referendum that expires next year,” he said. “I surely hope that the district will come forward and pass the referendum.”

Hoffman said she wasn’t comfortable yet with the proposed levy, but said she is open to changing her mind. As someone who is careful about spending and taxation, she said that while the short-term needs have been explained very well, she needs more information on exactly what’s needed for the long term. She said she wishes the levy had been proposed in a way where there was a short-term increase, and then the issue could be revisited after the district knows more about what’s needed after the pandemic is over.

Christopher Seedorf

Harty said she believes everyone should be voting for the referendum, especially with the cost of upgrading technology constantly changing. She said the levy makes up for the gap between what the state gives the district and what needs to be spent.

Seedorf said he was 50/50 on the referendum. He said he has done his studying and that he has heard from others that they don’t want to vote for the referendum because it hasn’t been explained to them. 

While Collins said he will vote in favor of the referendum, it could have been tweaked a bit. He said he understands why people are “salty” about this levy after the way the bond for Hammer Complex was passed. He said taxpayers were asked for a lot of money in an all-or-nothing way for the updated sports complex, and said that is not the way tax money should be requested. The levy is different from the bond, though, as he said it is directly related to education, and he encouraged people to vote yes on the levy. He said a better job could have been done to explain the difference to voters.

Rittenhouse said she also needed more information to feel comfortable about her vote, and that she, too, understood why some may be upset. She said many are feeling the economic pain of the pandemic, and questioned whether it was necessary to vote on the levy before the one it’s replacing actually expires.

 

The MSHSL

A submitted question in the forum said the Minnesota State High School League increased the funding to play sports across the state and asked candidates what their ideas were for helping students pay the increased fees.

Neal Skaar

Olson questioned whether or not the different booster clubs could fundraise or get creative in helping students, especially since ticket sales would be down this year due to limited attendance under COVID-19 restrictions.

Hoffman said she didn’t know if she had the answers but understood it would be an issue to look into. She said she wondered whether or not there could be other ways of structuring leagues and events or ways the district could manage those things on their own.

Harty said she agreed with Olson about talking to the different booster clubs and fundraising in other ways. She said it sounded like a government relations issue, and wondered if working with the Big Nine Conference to figure out why the MSHSL decided to triple the costs for all the school districts. She questioned what the league would be doing with the money and said the district and board would need to take a good look at it.

Seedorf said he hoped there could be creative ideas for fundraising, something he said he has had to do in his role with the Fountain Lake Sportsman’s Club.

Collins said he thought all the school districts in the state should go back to the league and ask for proof as to why the funding needs to be increased. He said being a parent who has had a child participate in basketball, football and wrestling, he knows the booster clubs will do what they can. He has heard of other districts and groups advocating to pull out of the league if the costs aren’t explained. 

“Deciding how each tax dollar is spent can’t be easy, and it feels like robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Rittenhouse said.

As a mentor for the robotics club, she said the club has had to figure out different ways to raise money, and that it has always been the club’s goal to make sure everyone has the opportunity to participate. She said booster clubs and other organizations might have to help students figure out how to do the same.

Skaar said the question was misguided and confused. He said the MSHSL increased its dues for member schools from a little less than $5,000 to a little less than $15,000.

“We have contacted the high school league and told them in no uncertain terms we’re not interested in paying $15,000,” he said. “… The other issue has to do with student activity fees, and we have a policy in place now where, when students fill out all the paperwork they need to participate in an activity, part of which is to pay the activity fee, (they) now have the option of paying whatever they can afford. If they can’t afford anything, they pay nothing.”

 

Most important issue

The candidates had varying issues that motivated them to run for the school board. For Hoffman, she felt her experience being home-schooled could translate into helping the district with its distance learning plans. She said the district needs to be more flexible and creative, and that she didn’t want to see it lose more students.

For Harty, there wasn’t a singular issue that motivated her to run. 

“It was more wanting to be a public service,” she said. “But if there’s one idea I want to bring forward, it’s equity among our students and for our staff.”

Seedorf said mental health was the main issue that encouraged him to run for the board. He said students with autism and different disorders struggle, and he wishes there were more programs and resources out there for those students as he didn’t want them to be left behind.

Collins said there wasn’t just one issue that motivated him, but multiple issues. Whether it’s slowing down what he called a pipeline of adjudicating minors that runs from the high school to the courthouse, or equity for students and staff, he would probably pick making sure students have life skills and are given options. He said not everyone is going to college or trade school, and some are going directly into the workforce. 

Rittenhouse said equity is an important issue to her as well, and wants to bring the district together to serve the students and the community, and efforts need to be extended to preschoolers through high schoolers to make them prepared for life.

Skaar said every issue motivates him to serve, but if he had to pick one, it would be “full-service schools,” where the schools in the district work with multiple entities in the community to provide for students.

Olson said he would like to see the district work hard to retain the good teachers and staff it has. He said that if he could go home at the end of the day knowing he had done something good for the students and the district, he would know he had done his job as a school board member.

 

What can improve

Candidates had different answers as well when asked what was one area in which the district could do better. 

Harty said it was hard for her to think of one. She thought the district was doing well with teacher retention and with the child care options it now offers. She said maybe community relations could be the area it could improve in more.

Seedorf said the teachers are one topic the schools should really look at. 

“Don’t take it wrong. These teachers are good, but I was raised up to have the good health of teachers. I mean, the old-school teachers. The ones that, if you had a question, you could stay after and they would explain it to you one way than they did in class,” he said. “These days, I think the teachers are just there. ‘Teach it and let’s go home.’ So that’s one thing, I wish they would go back to getting these good old teachers in there, the ones that would work extra miles for the students and the families.” 

Collins said if he had to choose one topic, it would be being good stewards of resources. He said he is a fiscal conservative, and that when tax dollars are being requested, every penny needs to be accounted for. He said the district needs to be proactive in tightening the belt now, as he said the state will face a deficit and could start telling the district no when it comes to funding needs.

Inclusion was a big topic for Rittenhouse.

“I would like to see as much effort put into all of the other things that make our students better people, and not only the big sports,” she said. “I think that there are so many things that can light a fire in a student other than sports, and I just think that we need to make sure that everybody has a place in the community and that everybody has an outlet for their creativity.”

Skaar said he believes there’s nothing out there that the district can’t improve upon. If he had to pick one, he said he believes it could focus on staff morale and staff retention. He doesn’t think the district is doing poorly in that area, but that it’s an important subject and would continue to be an area of focus for him. 

Olson said he thinks the people voting early in Freeborn County didn’t get enough information on the district referendum to vote intelligently on it, and that the district could have done better with communication on the issue.

Hoffman said one thing that has come up for her repeatedly when talking to district teachers and staff is that many of them have a hesitancy to share their perspective with the district because there’s a fear of retribution. She said she doesn’t know what is behind that perception — if there’s something there or if it is just a perception — but she thinks it is something that needs to be addressed. 

 

About Colleen Harrison

Colleen Harrison is the photo editor at the Albert Lea Tribune. She does photography and writes general-assignment stories.

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