Crookston School Board: 5 seek 3 seats

Mike Christopherson
Crookston Times

    Candidates running for Crookston School Board were asked several questions on the CHS auditorium stage during the Meet the Candidates Forum. What follows is a rundown of some of the highlights. Marcia Meine, who, along with Jason Klinnert, is challenging incumbents Frank Fee and Dave Davidson and recent appointee Mike Theis, was unable to attend the forum.

Opening statements

    Klinnert said he’d like to see more parents on the board who have kids who are still school-age and currently attending Crookston Public Schools, like he is.

    This, a Minnesota State Patrol trooper, said sometimes he has to make unpopular decisions in his job, and it’s sometimes similar as a board member. He said he’s heard kids over the years talk about the school district in a negative way, but that other Superintendent Jeremy Olson’s leadership, that is changing.

    Davidson said as a longtime teacher who retired years ago, he brings a unique perspective to the board. He said his specific interest is tackling the student achievement gap. Some kids face major challenges they have to overcome that other students do not, he said.

    Fee praised Olson’s performance and said he considered not seeking another term. But, after 12 years on the board and with COVID-19 and all of the other challenges facing the district, Fee said “it’s the time to get in, not get out.”

Football field/track future

    Klinnert said he’s never been a fan of the partnership between the school district and UMN Crookston at Ed Widseth Field and track. He said the district should pursue a similar path with new football and track facilities as it did with the bus garage.

    Theis said UMN Crookston, by ending its football program and giving the district five years to find a new place for football and track, left “us high and dry.” He said a referendum is the most likely option, or maybe seeking state bonding.

    Davidson stressed that track and field not get lost in the shuffle. Numbers-wise, it’s the most popular Pirate sport, he said, and it’s “embarrassing” to have to host “home” meets in East Grand Forks because of the condition of the track in Crookston.

    Fee, too, said a referendum, possibly on the ballot in November 2021, is the best and most likely scenario. The district needs to find the most feasible project that also meets the district’s needs and is affordable.

Pandemic and student mental health

    Klinnert said the board and Olson have handled things “quite well” since last summer. Distance learning last spring, from a parent standpoint, did not go well, he said, and he expressed his concerns over the summer. But Olson and the administration put together a “fabulous” plan for the fall, Klinnert added.

    Theis said having a “rock star” staff has helped students and families navigate learning during the pandemic. He said students are better off when they’re together and in the classroom with their teachers, and that even if it’s challenging, the current learning model should remain in place.

    Davidson, too, credited district staff, and said the board needs to support them in the decisions they make because they’re the experts.

    Fee praised the presence of a Native American education leader and a liaison to Hispanic families on staff, and said the board is monitoring to see if a larger counseling presence is needed at CHS and Highland School.

Biggest challenge faced by the board

    All four candidates agreed that the pandemic is the biggest immediate challenge.

    But in addition to that:

    Klinnert said the district needs to find a “sweet spot” with the activities it offers because it possibly offers too many for the current enrollment and may be sacrificing quality for quantity.

    Theis said the multi-billion dollar deficit the state is facing due to the pandemic could result in state funding decreases for public education. He also said student achievement is a big challenge, especially with the pandemic. “I see our students slipping and we can’t have that,” he said.

    Davidson said the achievement gap was a huge challenge even before the pandemic. He noted that around 25% of students in the public schools are Latinx and “they’re pretty under-represented with people they can relate to.”

    Fee, while noting the district’s finances are currently on solid ground, said the board needs to be especially on guard for funding decreases that may come from the state legislature.

Marketing plan to grow enrollment

    Klinnert said people are “fooling themselves” if they think enrollment is going to increase significantly because there simply aren’t enough families and students to provide a big boost. “The best we can do is steal students from other schools, and I don’t like to characterize it that way,” he said. “We need to make our schools a shining beacon so people will say ‘I want to go there.’”

    Theis said the district’s many activities are a marketing gold mine because there is such a variety that can fit with many “passions” that students have. Even if an activity has smaller numbers, Theis said he wants to provide it if some students have a passion for it.

    Davidson said at the heart of what the district is trying to do better is communicate its successes better with the community and region. “We’re facing our challenges, and once we’ve done that, let them come,” he said. “You communicate because that’s what you do in public office; you’re transparent, it’s not just to get more kids.”

    Fee said it mostly comes down to convincing families to not enroll their kids in Fisher or Climax schools. “Do we worry about getting them back, or keeping what we have?” he wondered. “Maybe if we keep doing what we’re doing, they’ll come.” Fee noted the recent hiring of a marketing firm to coordinate the district’s social media presence. “We need to keep banging away at the good things we do,” he added.

Priorities if the district had to make budget cuts

    Klinnert said everything should be on the table, whether it’s “right-sizing” activities, reducing electives or turning the thermostat down a degree or two. “I don’t want anyone losing jobs, but we have some duplication or even triplication of duties and services in the schools,” he added.

    Theis said education needs to be the board’s priority because it’s the “sole reason we exist.” The board would need to be open and transparent and communicate with the community to make the best decisions possible.

    Davidson said any decisions on reductions must include community input, and that actual education is what is most crucial to preserve. “You protect the heart of education, which is a teacher in the classroom with kids, at all costs,” he said.

    Fee said “you have to protect education and our staff.”

Closing statements

    Klinnert noted that at one time, the board incumbents with him on stage were, like him, a challenger. He called them a “fine group of people with a wealth of experience” and added that he’s not going to pretend he has all of the answers and that he’s “still learning this.”

    Theis said everyone on the stage “cares,” otherwise they wouldn’t be up there. He noted that he’s sort of a budget hawk. “I’m a little bit of a tightwad in case the community isn’t aware of that,” Theis said. “I’ll admit that.”

    Davidson said he initially ran for the board because he always felt like he “owed this community and school district a lot.” Even if he’s not re-elected, he said he’d find a way to be involved in the local schools.

    Fee said even after a dozen years on the board he is still learning. Even with the pandemic, he noted the district’s solid financial condition, but said the budget isn’t everything. “Are we in a good place with students and staff (during the pandemic)? Probably not,” Fee added. “The staff is overworked and underpaid.” He added that his wife hopes he gets re-elected to keep him out of the house.

Frank Fee, Dave Davidson, Mike Theis, Jason Klinnert and Marcia Meine are running for Crookston School Board