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Brainerd superintendent candidates begin final interviews

The board will interview the final candidate Thursday, April 14, and is expected to make a decision that night.

School Board members sit around a table
Brainerd School Board members interview a superintendent candidate Wednesday, April 13, 2022.
Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

BRAINERD — Two of the three finalists for Brainerd Public Schools superintendent met with various community groups and interviewed in front of the School Board for the last time in hopes of securing the job.

Heidi Hahn and Eric Schneider spent their days Tuesday and Wednesday, April 12 and 13, respectively, meeting with teachers, students, parents and other community members, who asked questions and gave feedback to the board members ahead of the final decision.The final candidate, Karsten Anderson, is set to interview Thursday, April 14, after which the board is expected to make a hiring decision.

Heidi Hahn

About a dozen community members showed up to a session Tuesday night to learn more about Hahn, the current assistant superintendent at Brainerd, and ask her questions.

Finances have been one of the focal points of interviews, with the district’s budget deficit well-known and the possibility of an operating levy growing stronger.

Heidi Hahn speaks in front of a group of people
Brainerd Assistant Superintendent Heidi Hahn speaks in front of a group of community members Tuesday, April 12, 2022, as part of her interview to be the district's next superintendent.
Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

Hahn said the timing for a referendum is awful, coming on the heels of a global pandemic, an overseas war and unprecedented inflation rates, but is ultimately something the district needs. She said she believes the district has been efficient with its resources thus far, as Brainerd remains one of few districts in the state that doesn’t have an operating levy, which consists of extra voter-approved funds dedicated to each student on top of government funding.

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While passing a levy would no doubt be challenging, Hahn said she thinks it could be accomplished through clear, transparent communication and by getting the district’s story out to the public, letting everyone know about the good things that are happening in the district.

“We are doing amazing things,” she said. “But I honestly can tell you most of the people that are doing that work are so busy doing the work, they’re not really sharing our story.”

As far as a timeline for a potential referendum vote, Hahn said first she would like to get a strategic plan in place to lay out the district priorities after officials have focused so long on the building projects from 2018 and then a pandemic.

When asked about finances later on during the board interview, Hahn said the district needs to start being proactive instead of reactive, looking at structural changes that could significantly impact the budget. Staff shouldn’t wait until it’s time for a budget revision to make financial plans but should have several plans ready for various scenarios.

With recent political divides creeping in education — which Hahn said even students are feeling — a communication plan would be key, she said.

While she said the board has been good about listening to the public, three minutes to speak during a public forum doesn’t quite cut it. It’s the responsibility of adults, she said, to listen to each other, be respectful and work together to come to common solutions.

And the more voices represented, the better, she said, but it’s ultimately about students’ feelings and not the adults.

But in order to take care of students, teacher morale is important as well, and when asked how to improve that, Hahn said recognizing staff for the work they do and creating a system that values them is key.

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Getting parents and volunteers back into the schools to help support teachers — especially in the youngest grades — will also help, she said, as the pandemic restricted visitors, taking away some of the additional supports teachers typically have. Part of getting volunteers back, Hahn added, is strengthening relationships with parents and families.

Fostering business relationships is also part of a successful district, Hahn noted when asked about how she would stay connected with the business community and promote local career opportunities. Central Lakes College is a great resource, she said, and the high school’s new career and technical education area is an asset as well, giving students real-work skills and experience and enticing them to stay in the community after graduation.

Another key, she said, is making sure business leaders and school administrators are connected, so those in the business community know where to turn when looking for partnership opportunities.

After an hour of fielding questions from the community and sitting down to dinner with the board, Hahn spent another hour answering follow-up questions from board members relating to finances, strategic planning, leadership, communication, mental health services and a variety of other topics.

Board member Charles Black Lance asked Hahn what she feels successful diversity, equity and inclusion work looks like. While Hahn said that’s work that needs to be continuous, a couple informal measures of success would be when no student or staff member in the district feels less than anyone else or excluded from anything, and when equity is something that doesn’t necessarily need to be talked about but is naturally embedded in everything the district does. And the more partnerships the district has, the easier that work becomes.

Hahn has spent her entire career in Brainerd, working as a mental health professional, a special education teacher and a director of special education at the Paul Bunyan Education Cooperative.

Eric Schneider

Many of the same community members showed up Wednesday night, asking Schneider similar questions as the night before.

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The chief academic officer of Chicago-based education company EdIncites, Schneider lives in Chanhassen, and his public school experience includes associate superintendent in Minnetonka; high school principal in Napa Valley, California; and high school English teacher in Minneapolis.

Eric Schneider speaks in front of a group of people
Eric Schneider, one of three finalists for superintendent of Brainerd Public Schools, speaks in front of a group of community members Wednesday, April 13, 2022.
Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

Finances and enrollment took center stage for much of Schneider’s interview with both the community members and board members Wednesday.

When asked if he was intimidated by the possibility of having to pass an operating levy if offered the job, Schneider said he already knows that’s part of the job as a superintendent and would not be applying for the position if he wasn’t prepared to do that.

There’s a science to passing referendums, he said, and it includes understanding the voters’ appetite for passing a measure. District leaders need to understand the community’s comfort level but also work to expand it, he said, by letting them know how a referendum would benefit them and their children.

It’s also important for the district to honor any promises they make during referendums, he added, meaning follow-up is important to make sure residents and business owners feel they’ve gotten what was promised.

Enrollment is also an important factor to consider when looking at finances, Schneider said, as every student the district loses is a loss of funding. While he believes much of Brainerd’s decline can be tied to masking requirements and parents simply finding alternative options that worked better for their families during COVID-19, he said he would like to interview families who left to get a clear understanding of just what the issue is and figure out if it’s something fixable that could bring those kids back. He said the district should operate just like a business in that it takes every loss seriously and figures out a way to remedy the situation if possible.

Everything the district does, he said, needs to tie back to how it affects enrollment.

Schneider also spoke of operational efficiency and figuring out how to trim the budget in ways that won’t affect academic outcomes. Throughout his time working with school finances, he said there has always been a place to trim.

Like Hahn, Schneider also fielded a question about navigating the political divide in the community and taking everyone’s views into perspective. The key, he said, is for the district to have its finger on the pulse of the community at all times. In times of COVID-19, he said he knew of school districts that regularly sent out parent surveys to see how they were feeling. Surveys, Schneider said, can be a powerful tool in hearing more voices than just the ones that are loudest and oftentimes getting input from people who aren’t speaking up in public.During his time in Minnetonka, he said the district sent out a very detailed end-of-the-year survey to parents, asking them what went well over the past year and what concerns they had. District leaders would then use those concerns to create their goals for the next school year. While it’s hard to capture everyone’s input, Schneider said if leaders build the right survey and emphasize how that information will be used to set the district’s goals, people will respond.

A portion of Schneider’s interview with the board Wednesday night focused on the VANTAGE program he worked with during his time in Minnetonka and how that concept could strengthen the district’s relationship with the business community and open up more career pathways for students.

VANTAGE works with a multi-disciplinary curriculum, combining two or more subjects through real-life projects students get to work on. An example he laid out would be a company’s communication’s department running a marketing campaign for a new project and essentially giving that campaign to students. The students would take on various roles and work with a professional mentor to work through the project and eventually present their final results to the company. While the company wouldn’t always necessarily use every part of the student’s project, it’s an opportunity for the kids to get some real work experience and understand project management, which is a key piece of many jobs.

Schneider also fielded Black Lance’s question about how successful diversity, equity and inclusion work looks. He said it needs to be done in partnership with the community, as sometimes the district can move faster than the community is comfortable with. Partnerships also have to drive the work, he said.

He also spoke of equity as being twofold. Equity with a lowercase “e,” he said, is making sure every student gets the support they need to be successful. Equity with a capital “e,” he said, deals with policies and a public process for getting to equity.

“You can do both, and it can look and feel a little bit different. The lowercase ‘e’ is happening today. People are doing lowercase ‘e’ everyday,” he said, noting the policy initiative is a much longer process.

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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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