School employees, teachers and members of the public gathered Thursday, Oct. 25, at Pequot Lakes High School to hear from the five individuals seeking election to three seats on the Pequot Lakes School Board.

Incumbents Brandon Andersen, Derrek Johnson and Valarie Wallin were joined by Tracy Wallin and Dena Moody on the stage of the high school auditorium to answer questions from moderator Angie Klein on the needs and challenges facing the school district.

Each candidate was allotted two minutes to answer each question, with each having the opportunity to answer a question first.

The candidates began the forum by answering why they were interested in serving on the school board. Andersen and Valarie Wallin cited a sense of responsibility to serve the community. Johnson outlined his desire to serve area children. Tracy Wallin sees serving as a way to be involved in the education process of her own children - saying parental involvement in an individual child's education is "an advantage money cannot buy." Moody cited a "vested interest" in public education, with both experience as an educator and a passion for education that could provide a "fresh, new perspective" to the board.

The most discussion came when candidates were asked what challenges the school district is currently facing. Three candidates - Andersen, Moody and Valarie Wallin - considered fiscal issues within the district as its primary challenge.

"If you listen to everything that has been said so far, it requires money in order to implement," Valarie Wallin said. "We all see the state is not increasing our funding, and it is difficult to turn around and find those dollars locally. ... We consistently receive in the bottom 15 percent of school districts in funding for general education, yet we produce some of the top students."

Moody sees a need to reach out to lawmakers on a regular basis in an effort to gain more funding, and feels staff should be prioritized financially.

"We can't continue to ask our staff to do more for less," Moody said. "We are losing our brightest and best to burn-out, better-paying districts and career changes."

Johnson considered supporting staff as education becomes more personalized to be a challenge for the district, while Tracy Wallin listed class size, staff training on new technology and mental health.

"Untreated mental health issues are a significant barrier to learning," she said. "It affects not only those students, but the students around them as well."

The candidates also took time answering what they felt the roles were of district employees - from board members to administrators, teachers to support staff - in the decision-making process, as well as why they felt families should choose to send their children to Pequot Lakes schools.

On the latter question, candidates cited top-notch employees, quality facilities, access to technology and an overwhelming amount of community support. Andersen and Moody also mentioned the district's College in the Schools program, which allows students to earn transferable college credits in the classrooms of Pequot Lakes High School.

"This is a phenomenal school district," Andersen said. "Personally, I have hired three employees in the last two years who moved from out of state, researched the whole state and found Pequot Lakes as the school district they wanted to be in. ... The College in the Schools is something we got going a few years ago, and it has been a tremendous blessing for a whole bunch of families both academically and financially."

Johnson cited a sense of connection between students, staff and community members as the district's primary draw.

"The Pequot Lakes Schools are like a village," Johnson said. "The moment our children step on the bus, walk into the lunch line or go to after-school activities, somebody knows them. As a parent, I feel like we are looking after each other's children and guiding them through graduation and toward a successful future."

The school board candidate forum was hosted by Education Minnesota Pequot Lakes.