2021 ISD 197 School Board Election: Dealing With Divisiveness

Thanks to West St. Paul Chiropractic for their support.

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. See our ISD 197 voter’s guide for more.

We already asked about COVID-19 precautions, candidates’ top issues, the levy renewal, equity, and the high school name change, so this week we’re asking about divisiveness and working with people who disagree with you.

With the rise of political polarity and divisiveness reaching even to school boards, how will you work with fellow school board members who may disagree with you? What will you do to engage the community, especially when residents may strongly disagree with you?

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

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 will respectfully listen to others’ views and expect them to respectfully listen to mine. 

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.

Conflict is a distinct possibility when discussing policy matters, our children, and what’s most important for our school district. Whereas we may all agree that student achievement is the most important thing, how we get there is where we may differ. 

We must engage in healthy conflict that allows us to avoid or move beyond high conflict and binary thinking in situations of disagreement. 

We must engage in healthy forms of disagreement as a critical precondition to bridging our differences. I think this applies to board and community conversations where emotions are high.

Dialogue is necessary when bridging conflict and attempting to find a resolution. I’m hopeful that we can communicate civilly when we’ve reached a point of disagreement. I plan to engage in healthy dialogue and manage conflict in a healthy way.  

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.

When working with people in my job and in every aspect of my life, I try hard to assume positive intentions at all times. I believe very strongly that if students are at the center of an argument and the argument is revolving around what is best for them, I can get on board with almost anything. As long as all students are the center of our discussions, school board members can come together to make decisions. 

I think hosting listening sessions and gathering information is very important. I also think that transparency is helpful when appropriate. One thing I have learned watching school board meetings over the past year is that there are some issues that cannot be discussed (due to legality in employment or data privacy issues for students/families) but I think that even explaining that and giving the “why” behind situations can help diffuse frustrations. I aim to listen to families, students and teachers as much as possible when issues arise or when making decisions. 

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.

This is my 8th year serving on the local school board. I can’t and don’t speak for others but clearly the last year has been the most difficult for school boards nationwide and locally. I value the opinions of everyone. When someone disagrees with me, this is an opportunity for me to listen and grow. 

Our board has a code of ethics that does not allow disparaging remarks to be said about other board members. When disagreements happen many of us reach out to understand where others are coming from. It is healthy to have different perspectives. My hope is that we can model good behavior by a willingness to allow space for different points of view. 

One of the things I appreciate about school board service in our district is it is non-partisan. It doesn’t matter to me what anyone’s political affiliation is as long as I know you care about what is best for our students.

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.

I place tremendous value on listening and seeking to understand all sides of issues. I’d listen and engage my community, and never enter into decisions or conversations lightly, but with all the facts, community members feedback and a careful examination of all that I have heard and discussed with my community. In my work for the State of MN, I’m often in the position to present unpopular news and difficult information, and I’ve also served on committees and groups where there is disagreement, and I’m able to explain my position to my peers and continue to work together even though we may not agree on all the issues. As an elected official, I would be responsible for representing the views and interests of the broader community, not just those of my own children and family. I take this responsibility seriously. 

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 firmly believe it is the responsibility of adults to work together to support student success, and that is a commitment that I would take very seriously. I would bring the same approach to building relationships as I’ve taken in the past, which includes listening to learn rather than listening to respond. I would prioritize building relationships with my colleagues—regardless of their position(s). One way of building relationships includes seeking commonalties and having conversations and dialogue about our differences.

Serving on the school board is an act of public service that is an opportunity to lead by example and demonstrate to the students (and community) of 197 that civic discourse and debate does not need to be divisive. I have had to navigate many disagreements in many capacities: as a program manager, teacher, policy advisor, and legislative assistant. In fact, in most of my professional roles my work involved working with individuals and organizations who often had differences of opinion. This included difficult conversations around performance, difficult workplace conversations, and policy disagreements. When I taught, I had an open door (and phone) policy for families and made sure that they understood that their perspective was always valued and welcome. I also think about the how students might view the dialogue and debate by the school board and community. In addition to the broader student community, there are two students who serve on the school board (they are non-voting, but participate in meetings). They also deserve to have the adults elected to work on their behalf act as role models and model civil discourse and decision-making.

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.

First, I will remember who the primary stakeholders are. It is the students. Coupled with that is clearly understanding the role, and authority, of the school board. Diverting time debating issues that we have nominal control over at the expense of students is simply wrong. For issues within our purview, I will work to make sure we have received complete input from the community and try my best to understand how a fellow Board member, or member of the community, has come to his or her point of view.

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 will listen to all sides of all ideas. I will be supportive of teachers and their needs. I will be supportive of parents/legal guardians who have been largely excluded from participating in their children’s education. I will only support ideas that lead directly to improvements in student academic achievement, which represents the wide, deep base of the educational pyramid. It is the responsibility of the Board to hire, or fire, the Superintendent. The Superintendent, by his own statement at the August 4th meeting, is aware that significant academic deficiencies exist in the District. The Existing School Board members must provide an explanation to the taxpayer for why they voted the way they did in support of educational policies that have led to such underachievement among the students that they are expected to serve. If existing Board members refuse to explain their vote histories, they should be replaced in subsequent elections. Existing ISD-197 deficiencies must be immediately addressed for the benefit of the children’s educations and give them their best opportunity to achieve the American Dream. The current unstable educational model representing an inverted pyramid must be rotated back into the stable pyramid of education that existed when Minnesota was ranked #1 in the country.

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.

The Board does not need to agree 7-0 on any issue. If every vote is 7-0 why have 7 Board members? Differing opinions are good and should be listened too and discussed. Each Board member will have their time to discuss their point, then the Board votes. A Board vote of 4-3 is okay. Hopefully, the Chairperson and the Board members will listen to all sides and allow resolutions to be modified for greater buy-in. Hopefully, Board members are not so set in their ways that they refuse to listen to new information and consider changing their vote.

The will of the people is decided through their voting. If I get in the top 3 of votes, then I assume there are some people that agree with me. In every community, there will be multiple sides of an issue. It would be the Board’s responsibility to enact what is best for the most. If there are ways to help smaller groups, we would also have the responsibility to enact and help them.


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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