Racial equality, COVID-19, workforce skills discussed at Brainerd School Board candidate forum
Eight candidates are running for three open spots on the Brainerd School Board.
Seven of the eight candidates running for Brainerd School Board fielded questions on board transparency, COVID-19 response, racial equality and skilled workforce needs during a forum Tuesday, Oct. 6, at The Woods Event Center.
Candidates present were Kevin Boyles, Amanda Ciesinski Chan, Sue Kern (incumbent), Emily LeClaire, Bob Nystrom (incumbent), Freedom Porter and Jana Shogren. Jacquelyn Calos could not attend.
The candidates are vying for three seats, two occupied by Kern and Nystrom, and the other occupied by Reed Campbell, who is not running for re-election.
Candidates began by giving a snapshot of themselves in their opening statements.
Boyles spoke of his upbringing on a farm in Pillager and his gratitude for being back in the Brainerd lakes area. He outlined the four cornerstones of his campaign: increased transparency and accountability, community engagement, proactivity and building consensus.
“Because building consensus means that everybody that has an opinion or a thought or concern has a place at the table,” he said. “That’s the only way we can make sure that everybody feels invested in what we’re doing. And if everybody feels invested, we win.”
As a working parent with three kids in the district, Ciesinski Chan said she understands what’s at stake. She noted her background in education — including teaching via hybrid and distance learning models — and as a public health official and said she is motivated by concerns about student achievement.
Kern is running for the board again because she cares about kids and the next generation. Kern said she’s grateful to have served on the board for the last eight years and will continue to bring her conservative family values to the table while remaining honest and caring. Kern said she will be mindful of the whole community and not just one group.
LeClaire is a single mother of four kids — one with special needs — who has lived her whole life in Brainerd, and said she would love the opportunity to serve her community. Education is important, she said, and she would make sure each child in the school district is taken care of.
Likewise, Nystrom has lived in Brainerd his whole life, previously operating Nystrom Drug in downtown Brainerd. He described the district as the community’s economic engine and noted the importance of attracting workers to the area. The school system is often a motivator for those looking to move to the area.
Porter has two daughters in the district and used their wonder, imagination and curiosity as examples of what he would bring to the table as a board member. He said he wants to be a voice for parents and educators and encourage imagination and awe.
“To show our students that there is beauty in mathematics; there’s adventure in history, splendor in the arts and the awe of science,” he said, adding the board must remember education is more than just curriculum.
Shogren said she is passionate about children and families in the community. She has lived in the lakes area for 19 years and has two kids in the district. With experience in education and nonprofits, Shogren said she has had a front row seat to families’ needs. She served on the district’s comprehensive planning committee and the Vote Yes committee, promoting the 2018 referendum.
Skilled workforce needs
When asked how the district should address the skilled workforce needs of local businesses, LeClaire said it’s important for the district to inspire students no matter what their goals are. Kids who aspire to be a plumber or an electrician instead of going to a four-year college should know their dreams are important.
Nystrom and Kern pointed to the new construction at BHS, which includes updated career and technical spaces. Nystrom mentioned good relationships with local businesses that can be expanded upon, and Kern noted partnerships with Central Lakes College.
Both Kern and Shogren also mentioned the Bridges Career Academy, which connects high school students with area businesses to promote career readiness. While it’s a beneficial program, Shogren said that education should start at a younger age to give kids more options. Getting parents and grandparents involved is also key, she said.
Porter said it’s important to create a community kids want to come back to after school. There’s a lot of knowledge in the area in various fields and so many potential mentors for kids. He said students should feel like they can go away for college or travel or do whatever they need but should also be inspired to come back home to work.
Boyles said the key is to have jobs in the community that will keep kids here. More businesses will lead to more jobs, more residents, higher property values and less of a tax burden. He said the community needs to work on beefing up activities outside the core curriculum because those are often where kids will find their true passions.
As a data-driven person, Ciesinski Chan said she looked at information from the previous Minnesota Student Survey, which showed many 11th grade students feel ready for college but don’t feel they’ve been exposed to different professional opportunities outside of college. Exposure, she said, is an important piece that may be somewhat lacking right now.
The next topic was the COVID-19 pandemic and how candidates feel the district has handled the issue and what — if anything — could be done differently or better.
Nystrom said the district’s response has been based on guidelines from state health officials. While there’s always something that could be done better, he said the district is following science and handling things the way state officials suggest.
Porter, Shogren, Boyles and LeClaire applauded district officials for how they’ve handled the pandemic thus far, both this school year and last spring.
Porter’s youngest daughter has respiratory issues, he said, so the decision to send her to school this year was tough. But because she is also on the autism spectrum and benefits from being in the classroom, he decided to send her to school and now puts his faith in the district that she will be safe and taken care of.
Shogren said parents and community members need to remember they don’t have power over the pandemic, but they can choose how they respond. And right now, she said, everyone has a responsibility to rally around the district and be role models for the kids.
Boyles said he has a hard time criticizing any public officials or administrators right now but noted communication could be enhanced with, for example, misconceptions about how distance learning would work this year. It’s not a time to point fingers, he said, but just time to fix it.
While there’s only so much district autonomy while working within state mandates, Ciesinski Chan said an area the district can work on better is mental health and making sure students are taken care of. Activities may look different now, she said, but it’s an opportunity for the district to be creative.
“We have an opportunity to build a connection for students, and that’s an opportunity that we can’t squander,” she said. “... We can get creative as a district and provide some connection for our students that really do need it right now.”
Though closing down last spring was best, Kern said her heart sank when school didn’t open back up at the end of the year.
“As a nurse, I don’t feel that COVID is as bad as the mainstream media makes it out to be. I think it causes a lot of fear,” she said.
While there are laws the district must follow, she echoed other sentiments that mental health services and communication can be focal points.
“We need to do something to get kids to dream again,” she said.
LeClaire said it’s important for adults to remember that how they react to the pandemic will affect how their kids see it and relate it to future generations. She wouldn’t necessarily do anything differently, but she pointed to mental health and the importance of supporting both students and their families.
“We’re there to let them know that there is a community — even if we can’t shake hands and hug — that we’re still a community together,” she said. “We’re all Warriors.”
When asked what they would do to promote racial equality for all students, Porter mentioned his concern with President Donald Trump’s 1776 Coalition and its focus on “pro-American” school curricula, which implies current curricula aren't pro-American. He emphasized the importance of celebrating the freedom that makes the country great — even if it means rioting and protesting. That can still be celebrated because it signifies free expression.
Shogren said adults need to be role models for kids on how to learn about people who are different from them. And while that education starts at home, it goes beyond there.
“We only know what we know within the walls of our home and with who we are exposed to,” Shogren said. “... So I think it's just incredibly important that we as a public education system help children learn how to have conversations.”
Boyles emphasized the difference between equality and equity. Equality is giving everyone the same thing, whereas equity is giving resources to those in need. The community needs to come together to address the challenge head on, he said.
Ciesinski Chan said everyone deserves to see themselves reflected in the curriculum. Students and families of color need to be incorporated into discussion, she said, adding she is committed to improving the community’s cultural competency, which was the subject of her graduate thesis.
Kern said she feels the community has more issues with socioeconomic disparities among students because most people in the area are of one race. But to answer the question, she said everyone needs to treat one another well and love each other without putting anyone ahead of anyone else. Kern said the district has good policies in place to protect all children and noted she has two children of color who had good experiences in the district.
LeClaire and Nystrom said this is an issue that shouldn’t even have to be discussed and should be automatic. All kids should feel safe at school, LeClaire said, but there are kids who use offensive language they learned somewhere. In those cases, she said the district should get involved with counseling or talking to those kids’ families to educate them.
Growing up in a predominantly white community, Nystrom said he didn’t know how to relate to people of color as a kid, and that needs to be addressed with today’s kids. The district has a cultural competency committee to look at these issues, he noted.
“I just say to anyone — any white person — stand in the shoes of a Black person or a Native American person in a predominantly white community, and I think you will find out how hard it is,” he said.
Transparency and availability
One of the final questions asked candidates how they plan to increase board transparency and availability to the public, and if that’s an important issue.
Shogren doesn’t think there’s an intentional lack of transparency on the board but rather information people don’t realize they can obtain. She would focus on communication with the community, she said, and make sure the board isn’t just taking in information but also providing feedback and pointing people to relevant information.
Boyles reiterated his first cornerstone of transparency. Without wanting to criticize the current board, he said five of the six members have worked together for so long that they have a streamlined version of communication, which creates the illusion of not being transparent. He said he has learned a lot over the last two years when a new board member joined and continuously asked questions about matters.
Ciesinski Chan said communication is the key to building community trust. Board members and constituents may not always agree with the overall decision made, but with effective communication it will be easier to respect decisions that are made, she said.
Of course transparency is important, Kern said. When she was first elected, she said the board had committee meetings before board meetings where members discussed topics more thoroughly but were eventually told they could not do that. Now, Kern said she researches and asks questions before meetings and usually already knows what she’ll say or do.
LeClaire said board members need to remember they are the voices of the people who elected them, which means open communication is part of the job. She agreed with Shogren about making sure the board has back and forth conversation with the community.
Nystrom said he is all for more transparency and working on better communication. The board needs to change with the times, he said, as when he was first elected newspapers and radio stations disseminated much of the information, but younger generations don’t use those modes of communication as much anymore.
Transparency begins with community engagement, Porter said. If the board wants people to be more involved in education, it needs to engage them and make sure they can be part of the decision making process. The board needs to hear from the community and make sure the information they need is easy to find.
Lastly, candidates were asked how their personal beliefs — religious or political — would affect their board decisions.
Boyles, Ciesinski Chan, LeClaire, Nystrom and Porter all said — while they have personal and political beliefs that shape who they are — it’s best to keep those out of a public office setting.
Boyles said he will do his best to hold onto traditional core values while also working to be progressive.
Ciesinksi Chan said boards work best when personal beliefs are put aside, especially because their decisions affect thousands of kids.
LeClaire has no intention of sharing personal political or religious views with anyone as a public servant and said she’ll work to make sure everyone in the community feels heard.
Nystrom said the board’s chief goal is taking care of the well-being and education of kids.
Porter said at the end of the day his personal beliefs don’t matter when it comes to public matters because the board is entrusted with representing the community’s needs.
Kern said everyone is who they are because of their beliefs. She said she was brought up to care about other people and said she always comes to meetings with an open mind.
Everyone has personal biases, and Shogren said board members need to own that, be transparent and be open to being called out by others when those biases show up and affect decision-making.
THERESA BOURKE may be reached at email@example.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa.