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School Board candidates discuss key issues

Five of the seven Red Wing School Board candidates participated in a League of Women Voters candidate forum last Wednesday. Incumbents Mike Christensen, Janie Farrar, Heidi Jones, Mark Ryan and candidate Pam Roe took part in a one-hour, question-and-answer session. Candidates Brett Olmsted and Tim Hudacek were invited, but did not attend.

The first of 14 questions asked candidates about issues facing the School Board.

Ryan, a retired educator, identified equity and a changing demographic as key issues. Ryan spoke about district efforts to involve all students, noting there is work to be done.

Farrar, a homemaker and community volunteer, emphasized upcoming discussions on an operating referendum are crucial to the district.

She hopes to address class sizes in strategic long-term planning by the district.

Jones, a community volunteer, also cited long-term planning as a high priority. She highlighted Red Wing’s student-to-counselor ratio needing support.

Roe, a social worker/bereavement and volunteer coordinator at Mayo Clinic Health System in Red Wing Hospice, discussed the need of prioritizing where the district’s dollars and resources are being focused.

Roe said that finding the district’s identity will require a look at the commitments to school programing.

Christensen, an e-recycling supervisor, said maintaining quality programming in declining student enrollment numbers is an important matter. The operating referendum will be vital to Red Wing, he said.

Other questions pertained to communication with people who do not have children in schools, programming available for high-achieving elementary students, increased opportunities for student engagement in the community and programs for addressing the increasing number of students who speak English as a second language.

Tackle disparity

Candidates addressed the disparity in achievements between white students and students of color within the district.

“The classroom is a teacher’s place. That place is a reflection of the teacher’s personality, cultural values, beliefs and expectations,” Ryan said.

He said that many teachers do not understand how powerful that sense of place is to their students, especially a student who relocated from a more urban setting like Chicago.

“It’s very difficult for a rural white person who never had any exposure to diversity to be able to relate to that student,” he said.

Farrar stressed the importance to see each student as his or her own giftings and learning abilities.

“Data is showing that the achievement gap is real,” Farrar said. She pointed to work between the schools and Every Hand Joined to prepare a kindergarten readiness initiative ensuring students start school on the right level learning curve.

“Relationships are so important,” Farrar said. “The more times we can have more adults in our community reaching out to kids, especially to kids who might not feel as comfortable in our neighborhoods or community, and help them navigate the system of academics and learn what it takes to be successful in school. Growing those relationships can only help.”

Roe said before the issues of disparity in achievement levels can be addressed, the community and school district need to understand what the disparity is.

“Kids are coming to school hungry and scraping by figuring out what to wear,” Roe said.

She said parents that work opposite shifts might be not be able to send their children off to school in the morning.

She praised the schools for feeding and supporting students, but sees more opportunities for teachers, students and parents working together.

“We need to engage parents,” Roe said. “Strong students come from homes that back up and support their education.”

Attract families

Another question asked candidates how to draw young families to Red Wing, which has an aging population.

Jones said this issue is not just a school problem, but a community problem.

“Our housing stock just isn’t the right mix,” Jones said. “We don’t have that middle level availability of housing available.”

Jones said the cost of insurance in our region limits what they can do to attract employees to relocate.

“We need to tout our schools,” she said. “We are providing great services and opportunities in our district.”

Mike Christensen agreed with Jones.

“The issue is housing,” Christensen said. “We have jobs, but we have people commuting from nearby suburbs which gives them closer access to Minneapolis and St. Paul.”

He said Red Wing is a fantastic place to raise a family, to grow up, and go to school. “We’ve saved so much money living here,” he said.

He highlighted the art scene in the Lake Pepin area. “It’s a great place to be and live,” he said. “For some reason, our housing is not keeping up with population, jobs and entertainment.”

Four open seats

In closing statements, the four incumbents stated their desire to continue serving as School Board members.

Roe, the only newcomer to attend the forum, wanted voters to remember that change is good.

“I think change keeps a board fresh, new and effective,” she said.

Citizens will cast four votes in the School Board election. All candidates run for at-large positions.