School District 197

2021 ISD 197 School Board Election: Top Issues

Thanks to Pace’s Tire and Service Center for their support. You can check their website for the latest oil change and other specials.

There are 10 candidates running for three seats on the ISD 197 school board this year. We’ve asked the candidates a series of questions to see where they stand on the issues. We’ll share one question and the responses at a time leading up to the election on November 2.

We already asked about COVID-19 precautions, so this week we’re asking about candidates’ top priorities.

What are the top two to three issues for ISD 197 to address in the next four years and how should the school board address those issues? 

We posed this question to all 10 candidates and received 10 responses. Here are their answers in random order:

Morgan Steele

(campaign site)

Morgan Steele works as a French teacher and instructional leader at Richfield High School. She has one child at Somerset and another who will be there in a few years.

Continuing equity work and ensuring that programs are accessible and affordable are two of the most important things that we should be targeting, in my opinion. As we look at test scores on the MDE report card as well as proficiency levels for English Language Learners, we can see that there is still work to be done in ensuring that our students are prepared for college and career beyond their k-12 education. I also think that focusing on each individual and on Social Emotional Learning needs to be a priority as we continue to move through a pandemic and unrest due to civil rights violations. The school board should be ensuring that programming is accessible by all families and looking at cost and transportation that can cause participation in early childhood learning to be inequitable.

Sarah Larsen

(campaign site)

Sarah Larsen works for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and served on a team setting up COVID testing and vaccination sites. She has kids at Friendly Hills and Two Rivers, and has volunteered throughout the district with the Strategic Planning Core team, Parent Ambassador Network, PTA, and more.

1 – Social/Emotional Learning and Support. This is the first focus area from the District 197 strategic framework. I was a member of the team that spent 3 days working to develop this framework, and while this area was most important to me then, this area is now urgent. Social/emotional supports are absolutely critical to every action happening in our school district after watching teachers, students and staff navigate a pandemic and distance learning over the last 18 months. Our school board needs to support the district in making space for personal development for staff and administration, as well as a workgroup or advisory council for leadership, and then make a focus on social/emotional supports a priority for all of our students.

2 – Equity. This is the second focus area from the strategic framework, and encompasses so many aspects of active work happening in the district. I want our school board to focus on one question: Do our students experience our schools as an example of an equitable system? If not, we have work to do. 

3 – Budgetary. Our district has made great progress over the past decade to stabilize funding and the current school board has made it a priority to work within a budget and seek funding as needed. This should always be a focus area of the school board, as it is critical to the success of the district. 

Stephanie Auran

(no campaign site)

Stephanie Auran works as a technical recruiter. She has volunteered in the district since her children started pre-school in 2009. She served as a president and vice president of the Home and School Association, chaired the school carnival several times and assisted in fundraisers.

Parental involvement and input in school policy and curriculum. 

Transparency and open and clear communication.

Encourage school groups/clubs that strive to unite children and move away from ones that divide them. Topics that make children or adults feel uncomfortable or uneasy have no place in a school. Everyone should feel safe and respected.

Timothy Aune

(no campaign site)

Tim Aune worked as an executive for a global financial information services firm. He was involved as a parent and engaged in issues around special education.

1. Ensuring there is a safe learning environment for Students and staff. 2. Supporting a curriculum based on facts as proscribed by the State Department of Education. 3. Ensure our District is doing all it can with finite resources to attract and retain talented staff. 

Robert Reese

(no campaign site)

Robert Reese works as a physician and surgeon. He has not been involved in the district but has coached youth football and baseball.

a:  The most important issue that exists in ISD-197 is substandard academic achievement among students. When I attended the School Board Candidate Information Session on August 4, 2021, the Superintendent, Mr. Olson-Skog, stated, “It is well documented that if a student is not reading at grade level by the 3rd grade there is little hope for them to achieve academically at grade level for the remainder of their education”. We were then informed that “60%” of ISD-197 3rd graders achieved grade level reading in 2018. In 2019, only “52%” of ISD-197 3rd graders achieved grade level reading. Attendees were informed that 3rd grade reading proficiency results “were not available” for 2020, but one must assume that the results were even lower due to imposed distance learning. I asked Superintendent Olson-Skog if these results were considered to be “acceptable”, and he responded to the group that they were not. Today I learned that during the 2020 – 2021 academic year at Henry Sibley High School only 50% of students achieved “Meets or Exceeds” proficiency levels in reading, mathematics, and science per standardized testing.

When I was in school Minnesota and Iowa routinely competed to determine who would be ranked #1, or #2 academically in the country. The most recent data I could find ranks Minnesota at #17 in the country. What happened? Parents and students deserve an answer to this question, because academic achievement directly relates to future success for these students.

The most stable structure known is the Pyramid. When I attended school in Minnesota the educational pyramid possessed a wide, deep base consisting or reading, reading comprehension, mathematics, science, American history, civics, and foreign language. Any and all other areas of study consisted of a smaller portion of the educational pyramid that were only accessible to the student once they achieved a wide, deep foundational base. And this concept led Minnesota to perform at the #1, or #2 educational level in the country every year.  

But, based upon the results of current educational statistics, the stable educational pyramid has been inverted, and now represents the most unstable of structures. Our children will be paying the price for being let down by the politics that exist in the current educational system utilized in Minnesota. And I find this to be not only unethical, but even immoral.

b:  The second most important issue that exists in ISD-197 is the absence of a Mission Statement. An organization that does not possess a Mission Statement is the equivalent of a rudderless ship that drifts aimlessly and holds little chance of reaching its destination. A Mission Statement should be a one or two sentence statement that describes why an organization exists, and is worthy of supporting. A Mission Statement is specifically created to hold an organization accountable. A Mission Statement places a rudder on the ISD-197 ship such that it can sail efficiently to its intended destination.

c:  The third most important issue that exists in ISD-197 is there must full and total inclusion and transparency of parents/legal guardians in the development of the academic curriculum. By way of example; If I am renovating my home, I hire an architect, who hires construction professionals to complete the job that the architect and I agree upon. The homeowner, (parents/Legal guardians), represent the “employer” because he/she is paying the bills. The architect, (acts as the school board), develops the master plan. The construction professionals, (the teachers), represent the “employees” who carry out the task at hand to renovate my home. 

Currently the educational system in Minnesota represents one where the employees, (the teachers and the teachers union), are dictating to the employer, (the parents/legal guardians), how the home will be renovated irrespective of the architectural plan. This current structure represents the unstable inverted pyramid for education, and the multi-year long substandard student proficiency scores clearly confirms this. The exclusion of the parents/legal guardians from participating in their children’s education must end.

It’s not an issue of school funding.  Currently ISD-197 spends $100 million annually to educate 4,000 students, or, $20,000.00 per student, to produce a product where only 50% of students are achieving at grade level. By any standard, this result represents a very poor return on investment. 

Parents/Legal Guardians must be included in the development of their children’s curriculum and education to act as an aid the teachers in holding the students accountable to achieve to their highest possible levels.

d:  All personal politics from teachers, students, administrators, and/or Board Members must be completely, (100%), eliminated from public education schools and classrooms including gender and sexual preference themes which have no basis in reading, reading comprehension, writing, mathematics, and science. If religious rights/customs are supported for one group, they must be supported for all 

Elena Villarreal

(campaign site)

Elena Villarreal works as a barista. She has one child who left the district last year and two more entering kindergarten and preschool in the district. She recently started getting involved in the district and volunteers with the Residents of Color Collective.

Our focus should be making sure that every student feels whole and included by addressing issues that our families face within their community. Someone that I love very much is part of the LGBTQ community and I have seen them struggle within their schools to find their place. Especially when those around them disregard their pronouns or preferred name. We have to make its a priority to ensure that every single child is seen and heard. In my experience with my oldest child who does have ADHD, I have been told that it’s the child’s responsibility to advocate for themselves. It’s the community around our students that needs to advocate for them; we can do this in District ISD197 by providing more help and resources for families. We should increase our communication and community engagement when it comes to making big decisions for our students.

Jon Vaupel

(campaign site)

Jon Vaupel works for the Minnesota Department of Education in Early Learning Services and is a former kindergarten teacher. He served on the Mendota Elementary PTA Board, including the Parent Ambassador Network and working on diversity, equity, and inclusivity.

I think that addressing the impact of COVID-19 is THE topic right now for ISD 197. Teachers, students, families, and the community have all been impacted. Our students are living through a pandemic that has disrupted not only their learning, but their lives. Our educators deserve the resources and supports that they need to adapt, learn, and grow from this experience to come out stronger than ever. One part of the response must be engaging students and families in meaningful dialogue to solicit their input, especially families and students that may be more difficult to reach.

I believe that equity, diversity, and inclusivity must be central to any and all future conversations—including how 197 responds to the impact of COVID-19. As a state, Minnesota has some of the greatest disparities in the country in terms of outcomes for our students and families of color. Unfortunately, these disparities exist in our district too. COVID-19 has likely only deepened these disparities. At the same time, equity, diversity, and inclusivity appear to be gaining more attention and traction following the tragic murder of George Floyd. As a kindergarten teacher in Baltimore—which struggles with similar disparities—some of the ways I brought equity, diversity, and inclusivity into my classroom was to talk about community, kindness, empathy, and respect for others. We explored how we are more similar than different. I incorporated books that had characters like my students and exposed them to different kinds of people and cultures. Whether it’s teaching kindness and understanding or wrestling with difficult current events, our students—all of our students—deserve to learn and grow in safe, respectful, and supportive environments. This is not easy work, but it is critical work.

I am a strong believer in the importance of and need for transparency in decision-making. I think this is an area of growth for the school board based on my personal experience participating in the ISD 197 Parent Ambassador Network, attending school board meetings, and engaging in conversations with a variety of community members. Transparency can help promote meaningful dialogue and engagement with the community.

John Chandler

(no campaign site)

John Chandler works as a nonprofit executive. He was first elected to the school board in 2013 and reelected in 2017. He has volunteered extensively in the district, and he has children at Heritage, Two Rivers, and one recent graduate.

Culture – One of the biggest challenges we face as a school district is the culture within our schools. We have made progress over the last several years by defining our equity test and implementing practices that promote equity, and I’ve personally witnessed many examples of students, teachers and staff promoting a welcoming and inclusive school environment. But there is still a lot of work to do. 

We have to be willing to address this directly and ask tough questions. Some ways we can address that include

  1. Explore implementation of anonymous reporting tools for students and employees to identify issues they may be experiencing at school. This would give our district greater visibility to issues that may otherwise be unreported and would allow our school communities to report concerns without fear of retaliation.
  2. Hire a Culture Consultant to study the culture at our schools and make suggestions for improvements
  3. Define cultural improvements as a specific goal for our leaders
  4. Expressly define ourselves as allies for under-represented groups.

It doesn’t matter how glorious our renovated and new structures are if our culture, and perception of our culture, are subpar. We all have the right to work and attend school in a positive environment and with that right comes the responsibility of acting in an ethical manner and letting the appropriate people know if someone is not acting appropriately. By working together, we can maintain a healthy and productive environment. 

Community Engagement – We need to find better ways to communicate with the community as many are frustrated with our current processes. For example, we should resume offering hybrid school board meetings so more can stay connected and we can demonstrate transparency. 

I have demonstrated that I am always willing to have conversations with people even if those conversations are uncomfortable, and I always respond to messages from those in the community and am willing to engage with them. 

Academic Achievement – Our new strategic framework has five lofty goals. It’s been a year since the framework was adopted. We have to ask ourselves have we shown improvement in any of these goals. If not, why? If so, how can we show more improvement this year. 

The pandemic can be a convenient excuse for lack of academic achievement if we let it. If these goals are truly important to us, we need to be intentional about stating these goals, measuring them, and holding ourselves and our leaders accountable for their achievement.

Marcus Hill

(campaign site)

Marcus Hill works as the senior manager of research and analytics at Best Buy. He has two children in the district and one recent graduate. Hill was first appointed to the school board in January.

The past year has seen no shortage of issues. A few that come to mind include, the quick pivot to distance learning, renaming our high school, masks or no masks for in-person learning.

Due to COVID-19, keeping our children safe and healthy in schools and public spaces requires continued vigilance this year and going forward. And, our community has learned a lot. We have implemented new health and safety protocols to keep our kids in school—learning, which is vital to good mental health. And we will need to continue this work to ensure our kids stay in school.

Having the kids back in school also provides the school board with an opportunity to turn its focus back to our children’s education. We must be steadfast in cultivating critical thinkers, ensuring resilience and adaptability, building community, global citizenry and maximizing individual potential, regardless of background or learning ability.

How do we get there? Utilize and implement programs that directly address the three tenets of the District’s strategic framework:  

  • Establishing a district wide system of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). I will add, in the most culturally relevant ways possible.
  • Building equitable systems and support throughout the district. This isn’t just school district and school board work; this is community work. This is the essence of who we are in West St. Paul, and we can be the example for other districts in Minnesota and across the country
  • Focusing on student achievement. I believe all children are gifted, we just need to figure out how to unlock their greatest potential and provide them with the tools they need to continually grow.  

Additionally, we must hire and retain more teachers and staff of color to better reflect our diverse student body.

Mark Grondahl

(no campaign site)

Mark Grondahl has worked as an entrepreneur, banker, and accountant. He has not previously been involved in the district but did coach youth sports and serve as a Cub Scouts den leader.

Budget, test scores

Budget – It is important that the teachers and students have the resources and technology that they need to thrive and learn. It is also important that the schools are efficient in their use of that budget. Teachers tend to be very efficient and giving with their time and personal money. The Board should ensure that they have all that they need to teach our children. The Board should ensure that monies asked for and received are spent on the expected items, are spent efficiently, are needed, have benefits, are approved by the voters.

Test Scores – One way to measure whether the students are learning what they need to learn is through test scores. This is not the only way but is a good way. One way to measure if the schools are efficient in their use of the budget, is through increasing test scores or generally high tests scores over long periods. Again, there are other ways, and those ways would need to be investigated out also.

Vote on November 2

Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021. The ISD 197 website has details on where and how to vote. Be aware that elections will happen at combined polling places, which are likely not your usual polling location. Voting options also include absentee voting, either by mail or in person, which starts September 17.

We’ll share more candidate responses and a full election guide as we get closer to the 2021 election.

Thank you to the candidates for taking the time to respond.

This kind of local election coverage only happens thanks to our generous supporters. Consider joining them with monthly or annual support through Patreon and help keep your community informed.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s