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Candidates for 4-year Brainerd School Board seats offer views at candidate forum

Candidates for the four-year seats are: Charles Black Lance (incumbent), DJ Dondelinger, Randy “RJ” Heidmann, Elisa Korentayer, Derek Owen, Lowell Smith and Sarah Speer (incumbent).

Man speaking at a podium
Matt Seymour, former owner of Q Squares gas stations and Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce member, moderated the forum Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022, at Forestview Middle School.
Tim Speier / Brainerd Dispatch
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BAXTER — Community members filed into the Forestview Middle School cafetorium Tuesday, Sept. 20, to hear what those running for the Brainerd School Board had to say on important issues.

Seven candidates vying for the three four-year terms on the board took the stage around 7:45 p.m. and spoke on topics relating to their priorities for the board, stabilizing enrollment, addressing concerns about the curriculum, ensuring student safety and promoting equity.

The candidates are: Charles Black Lance (incumbent), DJ Dondelinger, Randy “RJ” Heidmann, Elisa Korentayer, Derek Owen, Lowell Smith and Sarah Speer (incumbent).

Matt Seymour, former owner of Q Squares gas stations and Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce member, moderated the forum.

Board priorities

After giving their opening statements, candidates were asked why they wanted to run for the board and what their top priority would be.

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Dondelinger said kids are the future, but public schools have drifted away from goals and need to teach more subjects like reading, math and civics. Kids should know the difference between right and wrong by the time they graduate, he said.

Man sitting at a table
Running for one of the three four-year terms on the Brainerd School Board, DJ Dondelinger speaks to the crowd during the forum Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022, at Forestview Middle School.
Tim Speier / Brainerd Dispatch

“I think it’s our job to get back to the basics because I think there’s so much going on,” Dondelinger said. “Teachers are the same. Kids are the same. Why aren’t the results the same?”

Heidmann said he would be laser focused on academics and core subjects like reading, writing, math and computer skills. Kids need technology training and to be equipped with trade skills and life skills.

“We have a lot of work to do in our district, and we don’t have time to be messing around with a lot of different things. Let’s focus on education,” Heidmann said, noting he also wants to reinstate valedictorian and salutatorian.

Korentayer said she would work to ensure a world class education and meet students where they’re at. She said she wants to remedy the achievement gap that was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and work to bring the story of the school district to the community.

Woman sitting at a table
Running for one of the three four-year terms on the Brainerd School Board, Elisa Korentayer speaks to the crowd during the forum Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022, at Forestview Middle School.
Tim Speier / Brainerd Dispatch

“I went to public school … before college, and that got me into Yale, and it got me to the London School of Economics. So I was prepared by public education, and I want to help all of our kids be prepared, too,” Korentayer said.

Owen said he has found coaching in the district to be fulfilling and sees the impact his wife has on students as a teacher. He said unification would be his top priority, as the district needs a team approach.

“A lot of things won’t happen unless we all get on the same page — we have better relationships with our business community, with just community members and parents. We all have to try to unify, get behind what we’re doing at ISD 181,” Owen said.

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Smith said he believes public education has become mired in political problems. He wants to remove politics from classrooms and focus on academia first.

Man sitting at a table
Running for one of the three four-year terms on the Brainerd School Board, Lowell Smith speaks to the crowd during the forum Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022, at Forestview Middle School.
Tim Speier / Brainerd Dispatch

“If elected, within the first 90 days of being elected … I will attempt to pass a parents Bill of Rights. This will include clarity and transparency and curriculum, textbook materials used and lesson plans used. I want to focus on raising our academic standards,” Smith said.

Speer said she loves the community and believes the health and vitality of the community is wrapped up in education. How the district educates kids speaks volumes, she said.

“My top priority is making sure each child has the opportunity to reach their full potential, and we have to do that in partnership with our community,” Speer said.

Black Lance said he wants to continue to invest in the community and provide continuity of leadership on the board. He also wants to ensure board meetings are always available for public viewing.

“It’s important that we continue to move forward with accountability and transparency as it relates to fiscal responsibility,” Black Lance said.

Ideas for stabilizing enrollment

Heidmann said he would remove politics from the classroom, as kids are being inundated with a lot of material, which upsets parents. The district needs to be more competitive and laser focused on education, he said.

Korentayer said the district needs to make the school system excellent across the board with high level academics; relationships with businesses and Central Lakes College; science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs; a focus on the arts; and continued excellence in special education. Students need to be well-prepared for the complex global economy, she said.

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Owen said it will be hard to bring people back, but to stabilize enrollment, district leaders have to show they are making strides and changes for a school people want to attend. It’s all about accountability, giving students the best resources, and quality extracurriculars and arts programs.

Smith said the district needs to ensure it has the smallest class sizes available, more individualized experiences for students and the utmost safety measures while meeting parents’ needs. He said the district needs to spend money on education and academics and not culture and climate.

Speer said she doesn’t think there’s one silver bullet that will solve the issue and it will instead take the community working together to share stories of the opportunities kids can’t get anywhere else other than Brainerd. The district’s new communication plan, she said, will help.

Man sitting at a table
Running for one of the three four-year terms on the Brainerd School Board, Charles Black Lance speaks to the crowd during the forum Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022, at Forestview Middle School.
Tim Speier / Brainerd Dispatch

Black Lance said it’s important to continue moving toward more transparency with purposeful collaboration and effective communication with the community. The district needs to continue demonstrating its commitment to academic excellence, he said, and work on financial soundness while involving the community in the process.

Dondelinger said the district is losing not only students but teachers as well, and he believes it’s because of a lack of discipline. If the district fixes behavioral problems and identity politics and gets back to the basics, it will get better, he said.

Parental concerns

Seymour asked how candidates would respond to parental concerns about what’s being taught in the classroom.

Korentayer said she always wants to make sure her sons get the best education and are taught values she shares, and the way to do that is to trust the teachers, as they’re the experts in teaching the state standards to students. The district must also make it easy for parents to know what’s going on in the classroom, she said, as the online resources are difficult to find right now, though they are there.

Man sitting at a table
Running for one of the three four-year terms on the Brainerd School Board, Derek Owen speaks to the crowd during the forum Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022, at Forestview Middle School.
Tim Speier / Brainerd Dispatch

Owen said if board members are the ones approving curriculum, they need to be ready to meet face-to-face with parents who have concerns. He said it’s important to him that there are sound reasons to back up any curriculum decision.

Smith said parents just want their kids to be happy in school, so he would do his due diligence to listen to complaints and try to understand them. People always want to know why something is happening, and he said more transparency will allow for that.

Speer said she believes the question is referring to those who are worried about critical race theory in the classrooms, but it’s not something that is taught at this level, nor is it something teachers could sneak into the curriculum. Those who do have concerns, though, she said, should talk to their students’ teachers. There is a curriculum process in place, and it’s about the whole learning package and not just a textbook, she said.

Black Lance said he believes it’s important for parents to be active consumers in their children’s education, which means parents should communicate with teachers and administrators, be willing to look through the curriculum and read books they have questions about. He encouraged parents to get involved and ask questions.

Dondelinger said he would validate concerns, as the minds of children are being stolen, and kids should be taught how to think, not what to think. He said kids need to be individual thinkers.

Man sitting at a table
Running for one of the three four-year terms on the Brainerd School Board, Randy “RJ” Heidmann speaks to the crowd during the forum Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022, at Forestview Middle School.
Tim Speier / Brainerd Dispatch

Heidmann said parents need to be involved and look through what their kids bring home. He said he would be an active board member and wouldn’t question teachers’ motives. He also brought up concerns about pornographic illustrations in textbooks.

Increasing safety

Candidates agreed student safety was of the utmost importance but had varying approaches.

Smith said the district needs to complete a hazard vulnerability assessment every year and conduct active shooter drills.

Woman sitting at a table
Running for one of the three four-year terms on the Brainerd School Board, Sarah Speer speaks to the crowd during the forum Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022, at Forestview Middle School.
Tim Speier / Brainerd Dispatch

Speer said mental health is a component, and the district must look at how it is meeting students’ needs and getting them help.

Black Lance said relationships with law enforcement, emergency personnel and mental health professionals are important, as are enhanced emergency plans.

Dondelinger said teachers need to be trained to react to safety concerns, and the district needs to be more proactive about bullying and stopping it before it happens.

Heidmann said he is not opposed to arming teachers as long as they are property trained, as law enforcement response times can be too long.

Korentayer said she would work on an updated emergency preparedness plan, and she believes families need to be trained to assess and address their kids’ mental health needs.

Owen agreed with the need for an emergency plan and added active shooter drills are important and making sure there are only single points of entry in the schools, as he has been able to get past the secure entrances at the high school.

Promoting equity

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.

Dondelinger said the district shouldn’t waste tax dollars on things like that, as they should be taught at home. Public schools don’t have the time or bandwidth for it, he said, and all it is is teaching kids that everyone is the same.

Heidmann said equity lowers the bar, asking the audience if they could imagine a track race where everyone finishes at the same time. It doesn’t happen, he said. The district needs to challenge students and lift up those that might not be as gifted, he said.

Korentayer said she spent time in her son’s classroom last year and saw a wide variety of differences within the students. The district needs to support teachers so they can support students, she said, and not supporting equity would be the same as not supporting special education.

Owen said the district needs to support equity but needs to look at how it is doing so and be sure not to pull some kids down in order to lift others up. Kids need to be taught hard work, and there needs to be collaboration to come up with programs to make it work.

Smith said equity is a buzzword, and he believes the department of education’s definition of it violates the Civil Rights Act and the 14th amendment in that it does not ensure all students have the tools they need to succeed.

Speer shared an explanation of equity she liked, equating it to having kids run a race and giving them all size 8 shoes. They won’t all do well because not everyone wears the same size, she said. The district needs to meet students where they are at and make them feel safe in who they are so they are able to learn, she said.

Black Lance said it is important to prepare graduates to enter the global community and to provide education to make sure students understand diversity and effectively communicate with co-workers.

The election

Voters can vote for up to three candidates for the two year seats. Black Lance is finishing up a four-year term, while Speer was appointed late last year to serve out the remaining two years of Bob Nystrom’s term after he resigned. Neither Ruth Nelson nor Tom Haglin are running for another term.

To watch the full candidate forum from Tuesday, visit the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce Facebook page.

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He could be seen waving out of the sunroof of their car, smiling from ear to ear as he passed by everyone who came out to support him.

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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