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Brainerd School Board candidates speak out Monday during debate

Brainerd School Board candidates vying for one of three open seats had a chance Monday to give their pitch on why voters should check their name in November’s school election.

Nine of the 10 candidates were present during a candidate forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters and the Students for Political Awareness (S.P.A.) held in the Brainerd High School Little Theater. The moderator was Mark Ronnei.

The 10 candidates vying for one of three open seats on the Brainerd School Board are incumbent Reed Campbell, Randy Heidmann, Bill Cruz, Sue Kern, Robert Passi, Sally Jacobsen, Bruce McComas, Maurice Olson, Bob Nystrom and Kari Green. Green did not attend the forum.

Campbell, Jim Hunt and Kent Montgomery have terms that expire Dec. 31, 2012. Neither Hunt or Montgomery filed for re-election.

Each candidate was given the opportunity to speak for two minutes for an opening, a closing and then answer two direct questions, with the option to answer two other questions. Candidates were given the 10 questions before the forum so they could prepare.

Topics ranged from understanding school budgets to teacher performance and how it should be measured to how they would prioritize budget cuts if needed.

Nystrom, who previously served eight years on the school board, said when determining the priorities when making reductions in programming and staff, he said it is a difficult question to answer.

“You have the good, the bad and the ugly and you won’t please everyone,” said Nystrom. “We have to protect our main core programs and everything outside of that is fair game. Many of those cuts were already cut in the past.”

Nystrom said having the operating levy the community supported in place and having Steve Lund, the district’s business director, who helps guide the district with its finances, that the district is in good hands.

Olson said with all the cuts the district has made through the years, that it all comes down to letting the politicians know that education is a priority and letting them know what the district’s financial need is.

Olson said, if elected, he will listen to the school experts on the budget to help guide him in making the best decision, as he said not everyone will have the answers to all the budget questions.

Passi said he would bring an outside perspective to the board as he didn’t move to the Brainerd area until 2005. Passi said he has a broad background in education.

“The school board won’t solve all the problems, but it can balance all the parts and find a way to have the state do funding again,” said Passi.

Passi said he has background working on school budgets and said it is all about balancing the equation and spending time influencing the legislators.

McComas said he has 41 years of education experience he will bring to the board from being a teacher, a varsity coach, a business manager and he also ran a school consulting firm. He said he also served on a state panel for school funding that will help him to assist the district on its finances.

Cruz said the district has done well in the past five years in educating students and has great staff, but said the district has failed to achieve adequate yearly progress, particularly with special education students. He said special education students are most vulnerable and the district has failed to meet their needs.

Campbell said the district is doing great things with many of its programs, including its advanced placement classes, College in School program, improving its technology and it recently applied for a “Race to the Top” grant that will help bring in more counselors to help students.

Kern said the district did well in hiring administrators and staff and has taken big steps to become fiscally sound, but she’d like to see the district do more long range planning and think more about the possible impact of their decisions, such as when they built Forestview Middle School and closed Whittier.

Jacobsen said she wants to continue the excellence in education that has already been accomplished in the district, but said one area she’d advocate for as a board member is improving its technology so the district does not fall behind.

“We need to prepare kids for the 21st Century,” Jacobsen said.

Jacobsen said the district’s website also needs to be improved so people can navigate it easier. She said for instance there are “quite a few steps” to do if someone wants to contact a board member.

Heidmann said the district does not have a choice in the matter of measuring teacher performance. Heidmann said he attended a recent school board meeting and heard that a plan will have to be in place by 2014 as mandated by the state. Heidmann said he is not sure where it will go, but said that school administrators and teachers must work closely together to come up with a plan.

“A possibility exists that the school may have to bring in outside consulting,” said Heidmann on how to measure teacher performance. “It’s a complex issue. We need to have a scoring system in place.”

Heidmann said being an effective school board member will be hard work. He said he is not a yes man, but more of a why person. He said he will ask questions until he understands an issue, has all the necessary facts and then make a decision.

“Change is constant and we need to think outside the box,” he said.

Reed said he’s proud to have served on the school board for nine years, during tough financial times. He said board accomplishments include making strides in technology, serving more fresh vegetables to students, reducing activity fees and helping students excel in different areas from building robots to building homes.

Olson said education is the backbone of America and without it the country would fail. Olson said he’d like to serve the community and be a public voice and an advocate for the students.

JENNIFER STOCKINGER may be reached at or 855-5851. Follow me on Twitter at