Brainerd Public Schools: Board candidates talk transparency, referendum, fiscal responsibility

About 50 people packed the Washington Educational Services Building board room Monday, Oct. 15, to listen to six of the seven Brainerd School Board candidates answer questions about the referendum, special education and fiscal responsibility.

Candidates for the three open seats on the Brainerd School Board are Matthew Avery (left), Charles Black Lance, Jeff Czeczok, Tom Haglin, Tiffanie Knapp and Ruth Nelson. Not pictured is Sarah Speer, who was out of the country during Monday night's candidate forum at the Washington Educational Services Building. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
Candidates for the three open seats on the Brainerd School Board are Matthew Avery (left), Charles Black Lance, Jeff Czeczok, Tom Haglin, Tiffanie Knapp and Ruth Nelson. Not pictured is Sarah Speer, who was out of the country during Monday night's candidate forum at the Washington Educational Services Building. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

About 50 people packed the Washington Educational Services Building board room Monday, Oct. 15, to listen to six of the seven Brainerd School Board candidates answer questions about the referendum, special education and fiscal responsibility.

Dan Hegstad served as moderator for the forum, put on by the League of Women Voters, the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce and the Brainerd Dispatch.

Candidates are: Matthew Avery, a district parent and owner of Avery Construction LLC; Charles Black Lance, a district parent and director of TRIO programming at Central Lakes College; Jeff Czeczok, who serves on various Brainerd commissions, including the Transportation Advisory Committee, Airport Commission and Charter Commission; incumbent Tom Haglin, owner of LINDAR Corp., Avantech and Tri-Ven; Tiffanie Knapp, a district parent, substitute teacher and assistant middle school Nordic ski coach; incumbent Ruth Nelson, who works at Lindner Media Productions; and Sarah Speer, a district parent and marketing and public relations manager at Sourcewell.

Speer did not attend the forum, as she was out of the country, but provided opening and closing comments for Hegstad to read.

Opening statements


Avery has five kids in district schools and said he can bring a new energy and fresh perspective to the board.

"One of my greatest assets is that I'm able to listen with an open mind and consider each stakeholder's position," he said. "I will encourage input from the district's staff and the community and promote transparency within the district."

Black Lance has three kids in the district and cited more than 20 years of experience in working in education and managing budgets as a positive quality for him as a board member.

"I'd like ... to strengthen the district's ability to meet education needs and then be able to strengthen the district's ability to provide resources to our students," he said.

Czeczok said he is motivated to run for school board by the lack of transparency he has seen in the district lately, citing Open Meeting Law and the timing of the referendum vote as concerns to him.

"I was thoroughly disappointed with the lack of transparency in just the date (of the referendum) alone," he said, adding the district spent unnecessary money on an April vote instead of waiting until November.

Haglin has served on the board for nine years and has two children who graduated from Brainerd High School and a daughter in school now. He cited student success as the main motivation behind running for re-election.

"Providing the right environment and resources from staff to provide our students the greatest opportunity to succeed, not measured by test results, but really measured by their experience in school and out of school," he said.


Knapp has four children in the district and said she knows how to motivate and encourage students to ensure their success.

"Relationships built between students and passionate teachers, based on mutual respect and trust, catalyze student growth and success," she said. "As a board member, I will do all that I can to make sure that those relationships grow."

Nelson has spent 13 years on the school board and has kids who graduated from the district.

"Excellent schools begin with excellent teachers. During my time on the board, it has been my focus to always keep students at the forefronts of our decisions and keep quality teachers in the classroom," she said.

Speer's comments stated she has two daughters in the district and including a favorite quote: "Volunteering is your opportunity to vote every day about the kind of community you want to live in," the quote read. Speer said that philosophy has been her compass for serving on the various committees and organizations she has been a part of and is her motivation for running for school board. Speer also encouraged anyone to contact her with any questions.

Speer's comments stated she has two daughters in the district and including a favorite quote: "Volunteering is your opportunity to vote every day about the kind of community you want to live in," the quote read. Speer said that philosophy has been her compass for serving on the various committees and organizations she has been a part of and is her motivation for running for school board. Speer also encouraged anyone to contact her with any questions.

Teacher shortage

With an apparent teacher shortage in Minnesota and across the county, Hegstad started by asking candidates how they will ensure the district continues to attract and retain quality teachers while staying within budget.


Black Lance said the district needs to have a "soft landing" for new, young teachers coming into the district and provide personal development to attract top-notch teachers. Providing enough opportunities for new teachers in a fiscally sound way, he said, is key.

Czeczok said the referendum will help to attract teachers and promote growth in the district, as teachers and students alike are looking for good facilities. But the district needs to start with transparency, he said, adding parents don't want their kids in a district with leaders who aren't transparent. He said he would make sure everything gets reported accurately to the public.

Haglin said providing the right environment is key, and the community set the stage for that by approving the bonding referendum in April. New teachers also need to know the district is financially stable, he said, and their voices are needed to ensure the district's success.

Knapp believes it starts with good teachers themselves. Good teachers, she said will encourage students to become teachers, which makes it imperative for the district to hire the best teachers. That will be accomplished, she said, through offering competitive pay, which should be a top priority. She also said teachers need to feel like their voices are heard because they know best what they need in terms of resources, equipment and curriculum.

Nelson said the district has been blessed with quality teachers so far. She said the district needs to honor and respect its teachers, as there has been so much negativity about teachers in the media lately. The district is positioned to attract good teachers with the referendum, she said, and the district needs to make sure it posts job openings as early as possible.

Avery agreed the district's new facilities will help attract quality teachers and mentioned fair compensation as a priority, as students spend roughly one-third of their day with teachers. That compensation, he said, should come in terms of pay and necessary resources. A stable work environment is also important, he said, as teachers should have freedom to teach how they want to and not feel like they're judged on things like standardized test scores, which can be way overblown.

Open enrollment

Candidates were asked where they stand on the issue of open enrollment, which all candidates said they support because it gives options to parents and students, brings in students from other areas and promotes competition between school districts.

Though some bigger schools in the Twin Cities struggle with open enrollment because of sports and other activities, Nelson said she doesn't think that is an issue in Brainerd.

Black Lance added the district needs to make sure it has the funding to support all students who come, as students, he said, should be the top priority.

Board contribution

As no board member has power as an individual but rather as part of the whole board, Hegstad asked candidates what skills will help them contribute to the board as a whole.

Haglin said he developed helpful board skills during his more than 20 years of business experience and his history of nonprofit work. He cited his abilities to listen, reason and hear all sides of an issue as positive qualities. He said he is on the board to help facilitate the plans the district carries out and noted he has a thorough understanding of the issues currently facing the board.

With four kids, Knapp said she has good negotiation skills. She also cited her ability to look at many different ideas and synthesize them in new ways that aren't always obvious. She excels at listening and bringing people together, she said.

Nelson said she sat on her church council before becoming a board member, which gave her experience in running meetings. She said she is open-minded and a good listener. The board as a whole, she said, is great in terms of coming together to run meetings, share ideas, be open and respect each other's perspectives.

Avery said board members need to respect each other, and said he is good at listening without interrupting and without jumping to conclusions. He said he doesn't make rash decisions and will have the stakeholders' interests in mind.

Black Lance said collaboration and communication are important for board members, and those are skills he has. Through his current job, he said he works with nine area districts and has to understand their various and individual needs. He said he brings a unique background to the board, with his work in education and with nonprofits, and is used to communicating outside his comfort zone.

Czeczok said he has served on various public commissions and boards in Brainerd since 1996 and will make sure the school board follows the Open Meeting Law, as the business being conducted is the public's. He said he will make sure nothing is kept on the "down-low" so community members know what's going on.

Special education

Hegstad then asked candidates what they know about special education needs, services and funding within the district.

Knapp said her experience is limited but through her time as a substitute teacher, she knows the district has amazing special ed teachers. Special ed needs are on the rise, she said, and the district's goal should be to meet the needs of every student. She said training and education are important, and the district might want to look into training substitute teachers specifically in special ed so they can better fill in when those teachers are gone. She admitted she needs to learn more about the funding aspect.

Nelson said the district does a great job with special ed, citing the Paul Bunyan Co-op as a great resource for special ed needs and funding. She said the state gave additional funding to the district for special ed this year and noted the wide variety of resources offered for special ed students in Brainerd.

Like Knapp, Avery said his knowledge is limited but he has heard the special ed program is understaffed and underfunded. He said it is the district's responsibility to meet every students' needs, and he said he'll make sure that happens.

Black Lance said he has worked with special education students a lot over the years and is very invested in that group of students. It's important for the district to understand it's not just providing resources, he said, but providing access to education and the opportunity for a career or a better way of life for special education students. The district needs to make sure it provides adequate funding and a safe place for all students to learn, he said.

Czeczok said paraprofessionals are the backbone of the district and the teaching department, as not all special needs students are the same, and those paras and special education teachers need to adapt to meet every need. That takes a lot of funding, he said, as teachers need to spend a lot of one-on-one time with students. He said he doesn't know a lot about funding, but getting more funding requires getting more special ed students, which can only happen by investing more money in the program.

Haglin spoke of a 15-year-old niece who doctors didn't expect to ever walk or communicate, and seeing her walk down the aisle at graduation in the coming years will be a testament to how far the district's special ed funding goes. He said every child should be treated equally and given the same opportunities. The district, he said, needs to keep working with staff to provide resources to all students, special needs or not.

Blueprint 181

With the passing of the district's referendum in April, candidates were asked what they think the strengths and challenges are of the Blueprint 181 plan, which is the many projects coming out of the referendum.

Nelson said each school building will be positively impacted with updates and secure entrances, and there will be more community space. She cited moving everybody and everything within the four-year time frame as a challenge, as well as communication with the community. Though updates are published in the newspaper and online, she said there always still seems to be those who are uniformed.

Avery also noted the building updates and secure entrances as positives. Challenges, he said, come with working with such a large budget. Unforeseen costs can add up and cause the district to go over budget if not kept in check, he said.

Black Lance said the referendum gives the district a competitive edge and will bring new people to the community, and long-range facility planning will give teachers the ability to meet future needs. Transparency, he said, is a challenge, though the district has worked hard on that issue. Communication to voters and taxpayers is key, he said.

Czeczok said the referendum has huge advantages, as the facilities will help attract new teachers. He said he wants to bring the public-especially taxpayers-back into the district. With the referendum cost already being large, Czeczok said change orders coming through during projects could prove even more costly and cause the district to exceed its budget or some projects to be overlooked. He said he will make sure nothing gets overlooked and will hold engineers responsible.

Haglin said the pros far outweigh the cons. The plan will bring a better environment for students and staff, he said. As a member of the district oversight committee, he said he is involved with sticking to the budget and does not want to see change orders. He said he'll focus on completing projects on time at or under budget. Like others, he also cited communication as a challenge, noting many of the public meetings before the referendum had very little turnout. The district needs to work harder there even though it is difficult, he said.

Knapp noted a big positive comes as buildings allow class sizes at the size they're meant to be. Windows in classrooms and buildings with elevators are exciting, she said, noting the district will be able to better work with special needs students. A challenge, she said, is figuring out how to keep providing a good education while working on the buildings. Transparency and wise use of the budget are also important, she said, noting the community needs to feel it can trust the district if other referendum issues come up in the future.

School's responsibility for social issues

Candidates were asked what responsibility-if any-the district should assume for social issues like poverty, hunger, mental health and drug use.

Avery said responsibility starts with the parents, who need to instill values in their children and teach them right from wrong. Too often, he said, parents try to befriend their kids instead of being parents. He said his kids have mentioned seeing drug use in the schools, which makes it everyone's problem, though the solution still needs to start with parents.

Black Lance said no one with these social issues chooses them, but they are thrust upon individuals. He said the district needs to make sure it's funding professional development for staff to be able to deal with these issues, which often start at a young age. He said the district should provide students a safe place to go to school, noting involvement in mental health programs as important while remaining fiscally responsible.

Czeczok agreed with Avery, saying many of these issues start at home. The district should be able to help kids dealing with these issues, he said, though it can be hard to identify students struggling at home, and it's difficult to take care of every student who might have these issues.

Haglin said it's the district's obligation to be actively involved with students, regardless of what issues they may be dealing with. The district needs to provide a safe environment and help students deal with these issues, he said, because that may not be happening in their home lives. It might be expensive, he said, but it will only get worse if not addressed now. He said the district should continue working with other organizations on mental health awareness, as the district owes it to all students to lend a hand.

Knapp echoed Avery, saying it is the parents' responsibility to teach their kids well, but there will still be kids that struggle. No matter why kids might be hungry or exposed to drugs or not provided with proper clothing, the district needs to help where it can. She suggested partnering with other organizations in the community and bringing education to families to help break harmful cycles. She admitted to not having the answers but said the district needs to do something.

Nelson agreed with Haglin, saying it is the district's responsibility to help kids with these struggles. Kids won't learn well if they come to school hungry or fighting mental illnesses, she said, and parents can't always help their children. She said the district can continue working with Northern Pines Mental Health Center and other organizations. The district also needs more counselors, she said, but funding is an issue.

Educational needs vs. tax burden

Hegstad asked candidates to describe their philosophy on balancing educational needs of students with tax burdens on residents.

Black Lance said student needs to come first, but the board also represents the taxpayers, so board members need to make sure they meet student needs in a fiscally responsible and transparent manner. He said the district needs to keep working on providing information to the community on fiscal matters and educate teachers to make sure they can meet student needs.

Students are more than just dollar signs, Czeczok emphasized, also noting he would make sure taxpayers are fully represented if he were elected to the board. He also said the district needs to make sure community members know about vacancies on committees instead of just appointing people.

Haglin noted his fiscally conservative nature and said the district needs to be prudent with its spending of tax dollars. The referendum money can go far, he said, and the district needs to carefully watch where every penny goes to maximize the value of taxpayers' money.

Knapp said kids deserve the best education the district can give them. These students, she noted, could be their future lawyers, doctors and builders, so the district needs to support them the best it can. She said the district needs to be fiscally responsible while also educating students well so they come back and start businesses and become taxpayers themselves.

Nelson said as long as the state keeps providing local funding, the district should be fine without having to ask for more money, citing stable state funding as the key. She also described herself as fiscally conservative.

Avery deemed himself the same, saying the district needs to be transparent and responsible for taxpayers' money. The district should encourage the public to attend meetings and be involved, he said, and he agreed with Czeczok that students need to be looked at as more than dollar signs.

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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