Six candidates seeking election to the South Washington County school board weren’t in attendance Tuesday night at a candidates forum being filmed in St. Paul Park.
That still left 11 candidates on hand, however, enough to require the League of Women Voters to roll out one group of five and then a second shift of six to take questions about subjects ranging from all-day kindergarten to the racial achievement gap.
Voters in the state’s sixth-largest school district have a lot to sort out before the polls open on Nov. 5.
In addition to deciding who among the 17 school board candidates will fill five seats — a majority of the seven-member board — voters will determine, too, whether to renew existing levies, whether to approve an additional $6.9 million in annual operating funds and whether to dedicate $8 million toward the purchase of land for future building needs.
Four incumbents are seeking re-election, and each of them — Tracy Brunnette, Laurie Johnson, David Kemper and Katy McElwee-Stevens — advocated last week for voter approval of each of the three spending measures that they’d earlier agreed to put on the November ballot.
Brunnette, Kemper and McElwee-Stevens are among 14 candidates who filed for the four four-year terms up for election on Nov. 5.
Johnson is seeking a two-year term, and was the lone candidate among the three competitors for that seat — David Firkus and Susan Richardson being the other two — to appear at Tuesday’s forum. Of the district’s funding needs and a recent string of budget cuts, Johnson said: “Our belts are as tight as they can be right now.”
Brunnette has said that while her children have graduated from the district, she remains passionate about education. Asked on Tuesday about the “emerging issues” facing the district — a question that each candidate had a minute to answer — she chose to remind people that the district should not lose its focus on student achievement.
McElwee-Stevens said last week’s fatal school shooting in Nevada proved “we need to keep our security up,” a nod to the second of the three spending measures on the Nov. 5 ballot.
Kemper found himself countering two points raised by one challenger, Michael Edman, an attorney from Cottage Grove. Edman took issue with the land-purchase strategy and suggested in response to a question about teacher contract talks that administrative costs should be cut before concessions are sought from teachers.
Kemper said that administrators were easy targets, but that South Washington County had kept its costs low in that area.
Edman, speaking to the qualities he could bring to the board, noted his ability to ask “tough questions” as a lawyer.
John Griffin, a longtime youth football coach in Woodbury, joined Edman in giving pause to the land-purchase ballot question, saying he was undecided on the matter. The two men were the only candidates who did not endorse all three spending questions.
Raj Gandhi, an electrical engineer who also serves on the district’s curriculum advisory committee, said his skill in solving problems dispassionately could be of value in settling emotional issues such as the setting of new school boundaries.
Katie Schwartz, a full-time student and stay-at-home mom, emphasized the need to close the racial achievement gap as part of her opening statement. The board needs new faces and new ideas, she said.
Frederick E. Hess, who is in a same-sex marriage and has a 12-year-old son who attends Woodbury Middle School, spoke of the value of diversity and listening to a multiplicity of voices. Last year, he has said, he worked to help elect state legislators, and now wants to serve the community himself.
Molly Lutz, a middle-school PTO president, said that winning the community’s trust was an “emerging issue.” She cited the district’s decision to lengthen bus service boundaries as being one example of not listening to residents.
Also finding fault with bus service changes was Sharon Van Leer, a multicultural affairs specialist who with her husband has raised six children and 30 foster children.
“Our babies do not need to walk two miles,” she said.
In South Washington County, high school students living within two miles of school must find their own way there. For middle school students, bus service begins within 1.5 miles of school. Van Leer also took issue with the district’s new assigned seating policy for bus riders.
Other candidates seeking four-year seats who did not attend Tuesday’s forum are Safiyyah Cummings, Leilani Holmstadt, Wayne Johnson and Mike Thissen.
The South Washington County Telecommunications Commission aired the two-part forum live and plans to replay it twice daily on cable channel 18, the League of Women Voters said.