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Brainerd School Board: Candidates discuss district issues

The five candidates for three open seats on the Brainerd School Board in a forum Thursday night talked about multiple issues facing the school district.

Candidates for Brainerd School Board prepare for a forum Thursday night at Washington Educational Services Building. Spenser Bickett/Brainerd Dispatch
Candidates for Brainerd School Board prepare for a forum Thursday night at Washington Educational Services Building. Spenser Bickett/Brainerd Dispatch

The five candidates for three open seats on the Brainerd School Board in a forum Thursday night talked about multiple issues facing the school district.

The forum, moderated by Dan Hegstad and hosted by the League of Women Voters Brainerd Lakes, allowed the candidates to weigh in on challenges like balancing the district budget, the district's aging facilities, reproductive health, special education and preparing students to enter the workforce after high school.

Priorities?

Hegstad asked each candidate about their priorities for the school district in the coming year.

Incumbent board member Reed Campbell said his focus was on the district's comprehensive long-term facilities plan, which is still being developed. The board is going to focus heavily on the plan in the coming year, he said, in order to address the district's aging, and in some cases, undersized, facilities.

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"We're anticipating enrollment increases in the next 10 years," Campbell said. "So we have to make sure we've got facilities available for our students."

Campbell is also focused on balancing the district's budget, he said, in order to reduce deficit spending.

Incumbent board member Sue Kern said she was focused on improving the district's transportation program, to hopefully better meet community needs. She's also focused on the district's comprehensive facilities plan and balancing the budget.

"The gist of that would be that we would encourage some students to come back to our district that have gone away to other districts," Kern said.

Jeff Czeczok said his focus would be on making the community aware of what the board is doing. He's not afraid to challenge his fellow board members, he said, and to engage in robust discussion on issues. He'd also focus on ensuring the board follows the open meeting law, he said.

"There's just a misunderstanding of that or a disrespect for it," Czeczok said. "One or the other, it can't be both."

Incumbent board member Bob Nystrom said the district has faced challenges since it began in 1872, and modern challenges are no different. The comprehensive facilities plan and balancing the budget are both key issues, he said, and the district needs to focus on bringing students who have left the district back to it.

"I think that the education we provide here is much better than what people can get elsewhere," Nystrom said.

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Charles Black Lance said he would work closely with Superintendent Laine Larson to meet the needs of students 5-15 years in the future. He'd work to meet those needs by addressing facility needs through the comprehensive plan and providing professional development to teachers and administrators, he said. He'd also focus on a comprehensive communication plan for the district, he said, and providing vocational education for students who choose to enter the workforce after high school.

"We have a strong school district and we need to make sure that we're able to high-step that, so we're competitive with area schools," Black Lance said.

Special education

Reading a question from the audience, Hegstad asked the candidates how they would address the needs of students with special needs while also dealing with the budget crunch associated with those services. The district receives state aid to provide special education, but the aid received does not cover the full costs of providing special education.

Black Lance, who works at Central Lakes College, said he's familiar with special education because many of the students he works with have disabilities. Those students require access and opportunity to education, he said, so instead of shaking up special education, he'd work to build on what the district already provides.

"As long as we're working with parents and communicating with parents what that particular child needs and is sensitive to that," Black Lance. "Then I think the programming will come along."

The district's special needs student population has grown tremendously, Campbell said, as students with special needs now make up 20 percent of the district's population. The shortfall in state aid creates a budget crunch, he said, but the district is required to provide special education.

"It's just amazing to watch our educational assistants and the great job that they do with some very tough kids," Campbell said.

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The district can better serve students with special needs by showing parents how to identify their needs earlier rather than later, Kern said, because early intervention makes a difference.

The district needs to work within the budget to provide the best services it can with what it has, Czeczok said. There's always going to be budget shortfalls, he said, and throwing money at the problem is not the answer. He suggested focusing on the home situations of students with special needs as a way to address the issue.

"When the teens and young adults are having children, they come to the school district," Czeczok said. "These issues arise, primarily because of how the children are essentially created."

Aid for special education is $5 million short of the costs, Nystrom said, which means there's $5 million the district could spend on more programs and teachers. Still, the district has found a way to provide quality education, despite budget issues, he said.

"I'm hopeful that early childhood education can better improve the lives of kids that really need it," Nystrom said.

Reproductive education

While teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infection rates in Crow Wing County are on the decline, mirroring state and national trends, they're still higher than state and national rates, Hegstad said, reading a question from Brainerd High School students. He asked how the board members would address this issue through the district's reproductive health curriculum.

There are programs in the district that address these issues, Nystrom said, and help students struggling with them.

"My hope is that they will utilize these services," Nystrom said. "I think the important thing to note is that teen pregnancies are down in our district and statewide."

One of the main reasons the school district exists is to prepare students, Black Lance said, and the district needs to play an active role in that preparation. The district also needs to work with parents to ensure parents are playing an active role in raising their children, he said.

"We need to include parents as we move forward as an institution," Black Lance said.

Teen pregnancy is a personal issue for Campbell, he said, because one of his daughters became pregnant as a teenager. It's a difficult thing to go through, he said, but the district did a good job of providing resources for her to continue her education. He also cited the success of a program called Education Now And Babies Later, or ENABL, an abstinence program that's been in the schools for more 20 years.

"The main thing is to educate," Campbell said. "And let them know what's going on out there and what the consequences are."

Kern taught her children their education comes first, she said, and sex comes later. The district, in combination with parents, should teach relationships are about more than sex, she said.

"Sex should be saved for the marriage, in my opinion," Kern said. "But obviously, that doesn't always happen that way."

The Lake Area Pregnancy Support Center brings in a counselor to speak to students about relationships, Kern said, which is "excellent, that's exactly what they need to hear." She suggested classes for parents through community education, because "not everybody knows how to parent."

Teen pregnancy has been an issue for a long time, Czeczok said, and it's not something the district can hide. Parents have more control over their children at home, he said, so education needs to start there.

"If the school district is willing to make a lot of accommodations for teen pregnancy, it then almost enables it," Czeczok said. "It makes it more prominent."

Reproductive education begins at home, Czeczok said, with a focus on "family values, Christianity in our homes."

"The values have to be instilled at home," Czeczok said. "Because I don't believe that's any teacher's job to instill family values."

Classroom to career

The No. 1 challenge facing local businesses is finding qualified workers, Hegstad said, reading a question from the audience. He asked the candidates how they would strengthen the links between classrooms and careers.

Kern's youngest child, who just graduated, was right in the middle of his class, she said, so he needed to learn a trade or a skill. The district does a good job at that, she said, but it's still important to talk with local business owners about what they need workers to be able to do.

Addressing workforce needs starts in the classroom, Czeczok said, and by structuring the learning environment to meet area needs. The district has to do what it takes to find out what businesses need in workers, he said.

"We do whatever it takes to find out what's going to keep our students here, locally, for good-paying jobs," Czeczok said.

When a levy referendum failed in 2007, the district had to cut some vocational programs, Nystrom said. Vocational programs are important, he said, but the district is still driven by state mandates to teach core programming.

The community can't move forward if the school district and the business community aren't working together, Black Lance said. Funding for vocational programs can be addressed through collaborations and partnerships with businesses, he said, which could result in some cost sharing.

"We really need to make sure that we're retaining our talent in the community," Black Lance said.

The district is already collaborating with partners on providing programs to prepare students for the workforce after high school, Campbell said. What could improve the situation is bringing back vocational programs that were cut, he said, as long as it works within the budget.

Why me?

During opening and closing statements, as well as a question asking them about their qualifications, candidates mentioned their bona fides and made their case to the voters. All the candidates mentioned a passion for the district and for public education, as well as a desire for the district to continue to excel. The incumbent board members highlighted their previous experience on the board, as well as other qualifying professional experience.

Black Lance touted his professional experience in education, notably his 18 years managing educational programs and budgets. He highlighted the perspective he brings as the parent of children ages 9, 7 and 5 in the district, as well as his experience on various committees.

Czeczok entered the school board race because of what he said is the slow creep of Sharia into schools and society. Sharia is the term for Islamic law. It's a concerning issue in the district, Czeczok said, which the district hasn't been honest about.

"I'm concerned when you see terms like 'we're following state standards and we're following state guidelines,'" Czeczok said. "These are essentially buzzwords to fool people. These are not mandates, these are not requirements, these are not laws."

When Czeczok entered the race, he said he leveled some "pretty serious allegations" against the school district and the board. If he was on the board and didn't know what a candidate was talking about, he said he would call that candidate to find out what they're talking about.

"Nobody has ever picked up a phone or emailed me and asked me 'What are you talking about?'" Czeczok said. "That is a clear indication they know what I'm talking about."

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