Candidates for 2-year seats on Brainerd School board stake positions at forum
Candidates for the two-year seat are: Anthony Bonsante, Tris Cluever, Jessica Forsberg, Trevor Mulholland, Mike Stanek, David Stimac, John Ward, Brent Yaunick and Michelle Brekken.
BAXTER — About 130 people turned up to Forestview Middle School Tuesday, Sept. 20, to listen to candidates running for Brainerd School Board.Eight of the nine candidates running for two special two-year seats on the board fielded questions related to stabilizing enrollment, increasing safety, addressing parent concerns and promoting equity.
Candidates present were: Anthony Bonsante, Tris Cluever, Jessica Forsberg, Trevor Mulholland, Mike Stanek, David Stimac, John Ward and Brent Yaunick. Michelle Brekken was not present but submitted an opening statement.
Matt Seymour, former owner of Q Squares gas stations and Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce member, moderated the forum.
Bonsante said he is passionate about kids and about developing them into exceptional adults after school. He wants to bring back students who have been lost in recent years.
“But I think Brainerd School District has the potential to be what it was 20 years ago. We just have to work collaboratively with the teachers, the staff, the parents, the community … to bring kids back,” Bonsante said.
Cluever said she would insist on fiscal responsibility from administrators and work to make school rewarding, challenging and fun for all students and work on bringing students back through honest conversations.
“I will work to make our school district an inclusive, fiscally responsible and student-centered district. Our children need a solid foundation education to take on the world after they graduate,” Cluever said.
Forsberg highlighted her work on other boards throughout her life and said she has learned fiscal responsibility.
“I’m running because I absolutely love kids,” she said. “I’m the longest running Vacation Bible School teacher at my church back in the Cities.”
Mulholland said he has a vested interest in the community and the success of students and is willing to participate in meetings and any special task forces needed to work on the best outcomes for those in the district.
“I’ll bring a unique and fresh perspective to the board,” Mulholland said. “Some of my strengths are my willingness to learn and understand so I can make the best educated decisions for all students.”
Stanek said he would bring a policy-driven, moderate approach to the board and advocate for all voices to be heard.
“I think it’s very important for the young generation of parents to step up and be the new representation for the Brainerd School District,” Stanek said.
Stimac outlined his military and educational background and said he is ready to serve the community after serving his country.
“I appreciate the invitation to be here, and I’m excited for this opportunity to run for the board,” Stimac said.
Ward sait students have been and always will be his top priority, along with staff, families and the community. He said he has skills that have “led to my passion, my enthusiasm, my excitement for public education and for children in general and making sure they have the best quality education that we can provide for them.”
Yaunick said he became extra interested in getting involved in his kids’ education during the COVID-19 pandemic, as distance learning did not work.
“To support those teachers is very, very important and to put the kids on the No. 1 priority of why we are running is why I want to be here,” Yaunick said.
Seymour read a statement submitted by Brekken.
“I also hope to foster a trusting relationship between our schools and the community because I believe our cities and schools are stronger and safer when citizens work together to support our youngest learners,” Brekken wrote.
Ideas for stabilizing enrollment
Forsberg said she didn’t realize enrollment was an issue in the district but asked if kids are resorting to private schools or homeschooling as a result of problems with teachers or too few enrichment programs.
Mulholland said there’s no trust in the school district right now, so it’s about making sure voices are heard and people feel like their input is valuable in order to build the community back up. It takes a village to raise a child, he said, and the School Board and school administrators are a big part of that.
Looking at what the numbers are, Stanek said it’s a bigger issue than just the last few years. The board needs to work with the community and market the district along with local businesses to draw people to the area. The district also needs to dig in and figure out why students are leaving.
Stimac said he has learned a lot about the board and its responsibilities and impact on the community since deciding to run, and while he might not have all the answers, he promised he would be dedicated to working hard and making the best decisions.
Ward said this enrollment problem is statewide and even nationwide and not unique to Brainerd. Students need to feel safe, welcomed, respected, included and accepted as their individual selves, he said, but they also need to have fun at school. He said his goal is to provide rigorous academics along with the opportunity to have fun.
Yaunick said he would reach out to parents to ask them why they left the district. With those answers, the board would then need to try to find balance between the changes needed to regain those who left and the other aspects already keeping those who are enrolled now. Feedback from the community would be important, he said. The district built fancy buildings but now needs kids to fill them.
Bonsante said he would work collaboratively with parents, staff and students to develop focus groups aimed at figuring out why kids left. He said the district should offer more online schooling options, though he wasn’t sure what online options were offered.
Brainerd High School began offering online learning options last school year, and administrators are working to expand the number of classes offered online.
Cluever said Brainerd is a vast educational system with all different kinds of students. Students, she said, have left the district because they don’t feel safe and don’t have fun at school anymore.
Seymour asked how candidates would respond to parental concerns about what’s being taught in the classroom.
Mulholland said he would have to know what the concerns are first before knowing how to respond, whether it’s about something that’s recommended or something that could have an alternative.
Stanek said concerns need to be addressed with facts and not opinions. He said he dove into the second grade curriculum with one of his children and found things he didn’t think were age appropriate. Parent concerns need to be taken seriously, he said, and answers need to be found through collaborative work.
Stimac said he would be a good listener and would dig into any concerns he heard. He would talk to teachers, principals and other board members to get an understanding of the issue and find the best resolution possible. Parent concerns about curriculum, he said, are important.
Ward said he would listen to others with an open mind, do research, and invite people into classrooms to talk with teachers and with board members. He said he has always been a collaborative person and would listen to all sides of an issue to make the best decision possible.
Yaunick said he would see what the facts are and whether it is one student or family with an issue or several students. If it’s just one student, he said he would have to figure out why that person isn’t OK with something if everyone else is. It would be about listening to parents and kids to get the facts, he said.
Bonsante said teachers should not be talking to kids about political agendas, sexual orientation or critical race theory. Whether that is all going on, he said he wasn’t sure, but those are concerns community members have brought to him. Students should not know their teachers’ political leanings, and sexual orientation should be taught at home by parents, he said. Bonsante’s response received applause, which Seymour reminded the audience was not allowed until after the forum.
Cluever said she’s a person who does a lot of digging and calls teachers, administrators and other stakeholders. Regarding the district’s Equity Advisory Task Force, she said parents want to understand what’s happening but that work seems to be hidden.
Forsberg said she doesn’t know what the issues are, but she would tell parents what the benefits are of the things they’re concerned about. Kids are way smarter than people realize, she said, and know more than people think.
Candidates all agreed students safety is of the utmost importance, though Bonsante and Mulholland advocated for armed officers in every school building, while Forsberg said metal detectors and armed cops would be scary for kids, who instead need adults that are not mandatory reporters they can talk to about life issues.
Yaunick and Stanek mentioned active shooter drills, and Cluever said legislation needs to change, and mental health issues need to be addressed.
Stimac said policies and education for staff and teachers are important, as are relationships with local law enforcement.
Ward said it’s something that needs to be continually looked at and talked about.
There was time for one question from the audience, so Seymour asked candidates what their thoughts are about school district activities to promote equity in the schools.
Bonsante said he doesn’t know what’s being taught as far as equity in the schools, but a lot of it should be taught at home by parents. He said it’s not a teacher’s job to teach kids how to act, think or perceive someone else.
Cluever said a lot of the language around equity is scary to people, especially older people who don’t understand it. She also said there’s a lack of transparency because the district’s equity task force meetings are closed to the public.When asked about the meetings after the forum, Superintendent Heidi Hahn said it is a working committee, just like many others in the district, and is closed to the public for various reasons, as it needs to be a safe place to examine sensitive data and for members to speak freely. Community members were invited to apply to join the task force, all of the meeting documents and minutes are posted online, and regular updates are given at School Board meetings.
Forsberg said she’d have to evaluate things and look at what other schools offer to plan some activities for the whole district to come together.
Mulholland said people confuse equity and equality, and he believes in equality but not in equity, as he said equity is about using immutable characteristics such as race or gender to determine which students should have more opportunities than others.
Stanek said we need educational equity, as all students — regardless of background — need to have resources available to them. The district’s buildings have those resources, he said, and kids should be able to use them.
Stimac said it’s about being fair and impartial, treating others with respect and dignity and holding those who don’t accountable.
Ward said he spent a lot of time in special education during his career and saw a lot of bullying and non-inclusion, which broke his heart. He said he was bullied himself as a child and it’s all about treating others as one wants to be treated. In a world where people can be anything, be kind, he said.
Yaunick said equity and equality get confused, but equity is about respect and being able to look at others and not think less of them. But he said it would be up to the kids as far as what kinds of equity initiatives they would like to see.
Voters can vote for up to two candidates for the special two-year seats, which are a result of the resignations of Bob Nystrom last year and Jana Shogren earlier this year.
To watch the full candidate forum from Tuesday, visit brainerdlakeschamber.com/forums .