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4 interview for vacant school board seat: 1 more interview set before board appointment

Candidates fielded 10 questions — which they received ahead of time — covering topics like communication, equity and inclusion, opportunity gaps facing students of color and areas for board improvement.

Washington Educational Services Building
The Washington Educational Services Building. Brainerd Dispatch file photo
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It will be another week before the Brainerd School Board has a sixth member.

Current board members interviewed four of the five finalists Wednesday, Oct. 27, for the seat recently vacated by Bob Nystrom, who resigned for family health reasons.

The board chose to interview five out of the 10 applications who applied for the positions — Shelly Muñoz, Derek Owen, Tom Peterson, Sarah Speer and Mike Stanek. Stanek will interview Nov. 3, after which the board will decide who to appoint.

Candidates fielded 10 questions — which they received ahead of time — covering topics like communication, equity and inclusion, opportunity gaps facing students of color and areas for board improvement.

Shelly Muñoz

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Shelly Muñoz
Shelly Muñoz

Shelly Muñoz is a science teacher at Pierz Healy High School who recently moved to Brainerd from California and has been an educator for 23 years. She said she is passionate about education — especially the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics — and would bring critical thinking and creativity to the board while being a team player and listening to others.

As to why she wants to be on the board, Muñoz referred to a Teddy Roosevelt quote, summarized as: It’s not the critic who counts, but the credit belongs to the man who steps into the arena and dares greatly. She said she wants to dare greatly for students, parents, teachers, administrators and community members to make the best changes possible. But her biggest “why,” Muñoz said, is the children. Any decision she made on the board would be for the students.

Muñoz said she would like to see a stronger focus on diversity and the health and safety of children at the board level and a broader scope of after-school activities.

Muñoz said she is aware of an opportunity gap between white students and those of color and said her place on Education Minnesota’s Racial Equity Advocate cohort program has given her tools to address that issue. Through that group, she hopes to facilitate community learning experiences to address racial divides. In Brainerd, she said she would like to work closely with the American Indian Parent Advisory Committee.

Helping all students feel seen, heard and understood is vital, Muñoz said, and in order to do that, staff have to be trained well and aware of systematic barriers for students. She said she would like to see the board adopt an equity statement, not necessarily as a guide, but as a framework for decision making. Sometimes it’s easy to fall into the status quo, she said, but she would work to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Open communication and creating trust with the community are also important, she said. Public forums with a designated mediator and a set agenda could be a good mode of communication, and she said board members have to be able to take constructive criticism.

“I’ve worked so many years in education, and I’m now ready to take that next step to make formative change and help create our community to go through these times of change, too,” Muñoz said.

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Derek Owen

Derek Owen
Derek Owen

Derek Owen is a Brainerd High School graduate with two students in the district and a wife who is a teacher at BHS. He coaches baseball and football and works as the general manager at the Northern Pacific Center.

Owen’s top two reasons for wanting a seat on the school board are making a difference in the lives of kids and making sure all students have as good an experience at Brainerd Public Schools as he did himself.

Owen said the board could do better at accountability and being proactive rather than reactive.

“If we’re not held accountable for what we’re doing, it’s hard to be leaders,” he said. “We should be leading by example. If we say we have open door policies, that door better be open.”

Board members should be out in the community talking to people and getting to know as many educators in the district as possible.

Owen said he understands there is an opportunity gap between white students and students of color and said everything should have the same learning opportunities when they walk into school. He said he has realized not every student has the same support systems at home and believes the district needs to do its best to figure out how to lessen the gap both in and outside of school.

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Equity and inclusion are huge responsibilities for the board, Owen said, noting additional resources should be allocated to the students who need them without taking anything away from students.

Keeping communication open is key, Owen said, both internally in the district and with the community. Public communication, he said, is important yet difficult. With the board not responding to public forum comments at meetings, he proposed the idea of having separate meetings where the board could interact with members of the public.

“For any job that we’ve ever had, we’re always doing PR no matter where you go, either for your company or yourself, which you guys are doing. You’re constantly in the community. You are PR for ISD 181,” Owen said to the board. “And I have, I feel like, a lot of connections in our community being a homegrown boy here, and I think those qualities would be beneficial.”

Owen said he is an energetic team player who is ready to help the district achieve its goals.

Tom Peterson

Tom Peterson
Tom Peterson

Tom Peterson is a retired educator who moved to Brainerd 17 years ago and has five grandchildren in the district. He has worked in schools in New York Mills and Staples and served as the district administrator of media and technology for Sioux Falls Public Schools in South Dakota. Peterson said he has a background in curriculum development, leadership and technology training and staff development, which would serve him well on the board.

Peterson’s top reasons for wanting to be on the board are for his grandchildren and because he believes in service and the importance of education.

The school board can always improve on communication, Peterson said. The district’s website has great information but is not always user friendly and could use some updates with graphics and more video content, which students could help with. Board member profiles could be a good addition to the website, too, he said.

The opportunity gap between white students and those of color is an issue that needs to be addressed, Peterson said. He believes the district does a good job as a whole, but non-white students — especially American Indian students — are not succeeding as well as their white counterparts. He said that achievement gap is something that will take a while to address, but the board needs to be aware of it and discuss action plans to make sure all students can succeed.

The board also has to take responsibility for equity and inclusion and make it a priority, he said, because if it’s not a priority it just becomes a talking point. Board members need to make sure they instruct administrators to develop action plans that address equity, as the board has the responsibility of oversight.

While social media is a valuable communication tool in this era, Peterson said radio and newspaper shouldn’t be overlooked either. He would like to see students get more involved in the communication process, too, and proposed the idea of having a student school board member who would participate in discussion and give insight from their perspective.

“I really believe in service-based leadership, that we’re here to accomplish a task, and I want to be part of that,” Peterson said.

Sarah Speer

Sarah Speer
Sarah Speer

Sarah Speer is the marketing and public relations manager for Sourcewell and parent of students in the district. She has lived in Brainerd for 18 years and has experience in marketing, public relations, journalism and education and a master’s degree in business administration. Speer believes she would have a unique perspective as a board member because of her time as a classroom teacher and growing up in a house with educators.

Speer’s reasons for wanting to be on the school board are helping to shape her community and being a role model for kids, who she said need to see what it’s like to participate.

A challenge board members face, she said, is making sure people understand what the board’s role is, how much information goes into their decision making process and what kinds of things are and are not actionable items for the board.

Minnesota struggles with opportunity gaps between white students and those of color, Speer said, and board members need to look at data to find areas where they can take action. Differentiation must occur in core instruction, she said, adding she is proud the district has chosen to take on this issue.

Speer said she does a lot of work around equity and inclusion through her job, which has given her awareness of her own biases. Every student deserves to be able to be themselves when they walk into school, she said, as they will not perform well otherwise, just as adults would not do their jobs well if they were not able to be themselves at work. It is the district’s and the school board’s responsibility, Speer said, to chalk the field on that vision of equity.

In communicating with the public, Speer said the district has to try to reach every type of person — those who seek out information and those who need it brought to them. As everything the district does is public, the board needs to stay ahead of the story, she said, and make sure all members are on the same page when disseminating information.

“I am a lifetime learner. I love to learn. I am humbled to have the opportunity to continue to learn and get better,” Speer said. “... Whoever steps into this role — and if it’s me — I’m going to make mistakes, and I’m going to learn, and I’m thrilled that there would be people around me that are doing it well.”

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa .
Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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