Civil rights protests in the 1960s and 2020s

2021 ISD 197 School Board Election: Critical Race Theory & Equity

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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. Be sure to see our ISD 197 voter’s guide for more.

We already asked about COVID-19 precautions, candidates’ top issues, and the levy renewal, so this week we’re asking about critical race theory and equity issues.

Critical race theory has been a recent controversy at school boards—where do you stand on this issue? How do you think the district has done on equity issues (the strategic framework and a four-way equity test are existing tools the board uses), and what specific action should the school board take to improve?

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

Robert Reese

(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.

I do not support CRT, which represents a supposed “theory” where one starts at the desired endpoint and backfills “facts” that the investigator identifies as supportive of their “theory”. This is the worst kind of pseudoscience and is representative of a manipulation, and some even say an indoctrination of political thought that separates instead of unifies. CRT leads to weak minds and encourages “victimhood”, both of which are cancers to children.

I am a Fellowship trained Vascular Surgeon and was a Clinical Assistant Professor of Surgery. I practiced, and taught surgery. There is no “equity” in the operating room, there is only the best interest of the patient. There are no “equal results” in the operating room, there is only pre-procedural preparation and intraoperative excellence that leads to consistently outstanding results. On the other hand, “equity” destroys individual initiative and leads to failure for the students. Many of my students were nervous about coming on to my service. They knew it wasn’t going to be any pleasure cruise. But, with a lot of hard work, they improved. I can’t tell you how rewarding it was for me to get mail from them where they informed me of how I helped them advance as students which led them into tremendous residency opportunities at prestigious medical centers. The students in ISD-197 are capable of achieving so much more than they ever imagined. They just need the proper support, (I have ideas on how to achieve this), and they’ll need a little grit. And when they achieve, it will change their lives to the point that concepts like “equity” will be meaningless to them.  They will have overcome the politics of division.

Mark Grondahl

(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.

Our children should be taught the whole truth of American and World history. The good and the bad. Not in a political way but in a factual way. We can learn a lot from history. We want to repeat the good and not repeat the bad. Our children should be taught the whole truth and then be able to discuss what they have learned with trusted adults and form their own opinions. Our schools should not be editorial and should not lead students down politically based paths.

In reading the four-way equity test, it would be very important to understand how and where these are used. If they are used in a reasonable way for all students, then okay. If they are not used in a reasonable way I would speak up and discuss my concerns.

The Board should ensure that all students are taught equally and provided equal opportunities. That should be a goal of the Board.

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.

As the demographics of our community, Minnesota, and our nation are changing, I would like to see us expand our neighborhood conversations to include the whole community. Community engagement is about everyone, and that narrative doesn’t belong to just one person or one type of person.

One of the things I have enjoyed about living in West St. Paul is that I have had conversations with many of my friends and neighbors about my lived experiences and have found them very receptive and empathetic to them. We have learned through these conversations that we are all united by a common set of goals and values.

These conversations may be difficult and uneasy, but they can change lives and communities for the better.

These difficult conversations can make us a stronger community and a stronger nation. Most importantly, they position our children to become Strong Global Citizens. 

These conversations are about Human stories and the need to connect to our communities. 

With the Strategic Framework in place, I believe the district is off to a great start in matters of equity and inclusion, but we have a great deal of work ahead of us to make sure we accomplish the promise of that Framework. 

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 feel that asking this question feeds into the divisive nature of dialogue in our community, state, and country given that no definition has been provided. This is a “hot button issue” that has spurred strong emotions. I’ll be honest, I did not study Critical Race Theory while obtaining my Master’s of Science in Education, and I think that’s the same for most teachers. This theory has traditionally been more academic and legal and it has only gained attention recently because it has become a rallying point for some politicians. An Education Week article defined critical race theory as emerging from “…a framework for legal analysis in the late 1970s and early 1980s created by legal scholars Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Richard Delgado, among others.”

Here’s what I do think about teaching and learning. I think we must look at our country’s past, present, and future through the lens of others whose stories have all too often been ignored or not told. This is a good example of how a commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusivity can and should inform instruction. Instruction should be responsive to students and families and integrate their lived experiences. History and current events should be taught in a fair, inclusive, compassionate, and accessible way that incorporates multiple perspectives and lenses. Our students are growing up during a time of significant change and upheaval, and now more than ever we need our educators and school leaders to help our students think about these issues and events while also talking about diversity, equity, and inclusivity.

I think the district has recently become more serious about addressing equity, and I think that’s a good thing. I would like to see ISD 197 broaden its focus and also commit to diversity and inclusivity, which has the potential to bring other important stakeholders to the table.

In regards to the four-way equity test, I think it too is too narrow and should be broadened. I also haven’t heard school board members explicitly ask—and answer—the questions from the equity-test. If they are a central component of the district’s work, I would like to hear those questions raised and addressed for every policy being reviewed and decision being made.

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.

I believe that all people should be treated with respect. Ethnicity doesn’t determine intelligence, nor does it define a person. Focusing on a person’s appearance and treating them differently is unacceptable and seems like the opposite of equality. I don’t believe that to support and educate one child you have to minimize the value and importance of another. We can’t move forward and grow if we are stuck in a pit and continually pull each other back down. Nobody wins. 

Regarding “strategic framework Goals: All racial and economic achievement gaps are closed”. I must learn more about the issues, gaps, steps in place to achieve the goals, and how success is measured before I can answer this question.

Four-way Equity Test. My answers above address this.

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.

This issue remains undefined and confusing for many, and sadly raises people’s defenses. It’s a polarizing topic, and it is difficult to discuss because there is not a full understanding of all of the issues. We are all coming from our own experiences and need to listen to each other. I believe in learning about our past, honoring the people and experiences of our community, and want to move forward together in a representative and positive way. Our school board has done training in the past, and their four-way equity test is a great framing around all the decisions they make, however I believe they need to be more explicit with the public about the intention, process and use of this test to show our district community the intent behind the equity test. I’d like to see our board seek out additional training opportunities regularly in the areas of equity, cultural diversity and cultural competency and be transparent with the community about that training. 

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.

Full disclosure on this one; I spent a lot of time in conversation with other educator friends trying to figure out if I missed a day in my undergrad (or even graduate) courses around CRT and was relieved to learn that CRT is a theory taught in law school to be applied to laws and policies (and not that I, as an educator, was missing something that I was supposed to understand). While CRT is something that I wasn’t familiar with until I started hearing it on news channels or seeing people posting about it on various social media platforms, equity practices and ensuring that all students and families feel seen, heard and validated in their identities is not and should not ever be a trend or up for debate. I think the real question that needs to be re-centered in these conversations is how we teach racism and critically look at practices/policies that have perpetuated racism and inequality in our society. Part of our responsibility as educators (and, hopefully, as school board members) is to acknowledge the white-washed versions of history and ensure that our curricula are accurate so we can focus on doing better for all of our students. 

As far as how the district is currently doing, I think listening to students, families, and teachers is extremely important. I am interested in seeing not just the strategic framework but also a rubric and an action plan that will give us metrics to measure how we are doing as we move forward. Having a strong equity policy is great but it’s even more important that the equity policy shows up in curriculum, policies and practices. I think the school board really needs to be using the equity test on programming opportunities as well. Also, as Covid relief funds are becoming available to school districts, I am hopeful that the school board will identify transportation and early childhood opportunities as areas for growth and areas of need. 

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.

I feel the research over the past 40 years makes clear that systemic racism did not end with Civil Rights movement in the 60’s. And within the guidance of well laid out curriculum it is something that should be taught. The strategic framework and four-way equity test appear to be good guidelines. The questions of how well they are working and how can they work better, requires constant engagement with the members of historically underserved communities.

John Chandler

(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.

Critical Race Theory is a legal academic framework taught in law schools, not high schools. With that said, classes that stimulate thought and discussion about race and equity are a welcome part of our curriculum. We live in a world with past and present racial injustice, and school should be a safe place to talk about that from a variety of perspectives. Those discussions make us all stronger. I support our teachers who are willing to have these hard conversations with our students. 

I helped our district and TriDistrict Community Education create 4-way equity tests to guide our decisions but these only scratch the surface. Our new strategic framework has yet to be fully implemented as it was just approved in summer 2020. For our district to improve, and for all students, families and staff to feel safer, we have to confront tough issues and allow uncomfortable conversations to breathe without fear of retaliation.


Elena Villarreal suspended her campaign in September. Her name will still appear on the ballot, so in the interest of focusing on candidates who are still in the race, we are no longer running her responses.

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 as we get closer to the 2021 election. You can also see our ISD 197 voter’s guide for more.

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.

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