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In Willmar, 6 candidates vie for 4 seats

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WILLMAR -- Six candidates are running for four seats on the Willmar School Board this fall.

The following questions were asked of candidates for use in our online Voter's Guide. Their answers here have been edited for space. For their full answers, go to www.wctrib.com and click on 2012 Local Voters Guide.

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Why are you running for the Willmar School Board?

Mike Carlson: I was approached by several in the community and asked to consider returning to the board. I am excited about being able to focus on student achievement and better position our students to succeed today.

Sahra Gure: I am the mother of three children in Willmar Public Schools. The success of our children depends how good is our school system, so I decided to run for the board to ensure that we have one of the best schools in our region or the whole state of Minnesota.

Mike Reynolds: I have enjoyed serving the citizens and I have a passion for education and kids. I have served on the board for many years and have been a steady decision maker during my tenure on the School Board.

Jackie Saulsbury: I grew up in Willmar and consider myself a successful product of the Willmar Schools. I have two small children. Not only do I care about my own children's education, I care very much about every child in this community and the education they receive.

Don Thorpe: Knowledge is the key to a better future. Property taxes are not the means to pay for education. Two percent income tax increase on incomes over $200,000 is better. Parking fees, sport and other fees need to be reduced. Variety on the board is important.

Liz Van Der Bill: I believe that providing a quality education is one of the most important things we can do for our children. I am thankful for those who made this commitment to me and my generation and want to continue their good work.

What are the top two issues facing this school district?

Carlson: The issues at our two elementary schools have to be one of the top issues that we face. We must take steps to assure that we are getting the results needed and expected. The second issue is school funding and the challenges that are presented when over 80 percent of the funding comes from the state, which has shown it will hold money and defer money in the past.

Gure: In my opinion, the top issue facing our school district, number one and two, is the student achievement gap. Many elements are the root cause of the achievement gap, but the main two are poverty and English Language Learners. Clearly, the gap is widening and we all have to work together to come up with a solution.

Reynolds: The main priority over the next three years is to get Kennedy and Roosevelt to Reward status or at the very least get them out of Priority and Focus status. We need to continue to work within our budget and will continue to keep the budget in mind when we make future staffing decisions. Another priority is boosting reading scores and the reading ability of all students.

Saulsbury: Due to concerning test scores, I would like to focus on making sure we are doing everything possible to help turn around Kennedy and Roosevelt elementary schools so that all children can be successful. Next, I believe that focusing and investing in early childhood education is our best investment for the future of this community.

Thorpe: Dealing with unpaid state funding. Getting state and feds to fund education, not just create mandates.

Van Der Bill: Academic achievement for all students and poverty.

How would you address those issues?

Carlson: In order to see successful student achievement and to assure that tax dollars are spent wisely, we need to maintain and create systems of accountability. The success of these systems will require the input and hard work of all who care about education. I look forward to working to create a local system of accountability that works for us.

We must speak as a united community to let our legislative leaders know that balancing their checkbook on the backs of our kids is not going to be acceptable. Elected leaders are more likely to respond to messages from constituents than the board. The board will need to articulate our needs and show where we are being good stewards of the tax dollars.

Gure: To address the student achievement gap, we need all stakeholders to be at the table; school administrators, teachers, parents and community leaders. I believe it takes a village to raise a child and also it takes the village to educate a child. In our current education system, the teachers and administrators have a defined and clear role to play; on the other hand, the parents and community leaders have no defined role to play. If I am elected, we will work together as a village, and each stakeholder will be part of the solution to eliminate the achievement gap.

Reynolds: We have a great plan in place and have a staff that has rolled up their sleeves to make this happen. We have received our School Improvement Grant for this school year which has allowed us to fund some positions designed to raise test scores and close the achievement gap. We continue to add staff in our English Language Learning program which is another area we addressed. We have flooded the classroom with reading specialists and have trained them in processes that yield the most success by teaching at the level the student is at and work to increase comprehension.

Saulsbury: We are on the right track by implementing new initiatives, and I am hopeful we will see improvement in test scores, attendance and parent involvement. It is important that we evaluate and follow up on recommendations in areas that need improvement. Collaborating with teachers and staff and knowing what is working will be key to being successful.

I believe it is important for all children to start kindergarten prepared. Moreover, we need to continue graduation success so that our youth want to go on to higher education. We have a 92.64 percent graduation rate. This tells me that there are resources in our community and schools that are helping students succeed and we must continue to fund these programs.

Thorpe: Communicate with elected officials and the public.

Van Der Bill: Academic achievement -- oversee and monitor the plan that has been started to change the status of Kennedy Elementary, our Priority school, and our Focus school Roosevelt, ensuring that the plan is providing the results expected and making changes if necessary. Our school district has a large percentage of kids who qualify and receive free and reduced lunches. As a school board we are limited to what we can do to reduce poverty in our community, but we can ensure that we are approving programs that will help at-risk students. We need to continue evaluating and researching programs that will help, such as addressing hunger needs, like providing free breakfast so children can concentrate on learning.

Willmar has launched an initiative for iPads for each junior and senior student in the district. Would you support expansion of the program to more class levels within the district? Why or why not?

Carlson: I believe in making sure that we have a solid teaching of the basics, and this means we must make sure that each student can read, write and process math without the aid of technology. I also know that times change, they are changing much faster than many of us are ready for. I have found that my own child is much more engaged with his learning using this technology. Expansion needs to be well-planned and we must look at some of the downfalls with providing this equipment to younger students.

Gure: I support expansion of the iPads initiative to more classes. My reason is that technology usage will enhance our children's learning opportunities; we need to provide our children the best teachers and today's technology.

Reynolds: This is a great example of the school and business community partnering for the good of students. I am hearing good things from parents, students, and teachers at the high school. At this time I would support expanding this to grade 10 for the next school year. It will depend on funding, however. I also support providing more iPads on carts where they are not assigned to an individual student. We must keep an eye on achievement and hold teachers accountable for results since that is what many in this community are expecting from us.

Saulsbury: I would support the initiative to make iPads accessible to all students in the district. I use and feel very comfortable with technology and value its effectiveness. When I went to school, laptops were the big thing, and it made a big difference to type school papers on a word processor instead of a typewriter. Through the use of iPads, teachers can make learning a much deeper experience, allowing us to keep up with changing curriculum and easier adaptations.

Thorpe: Wait and see what the results with juniors and seniors are.

Van Der Bill: I worked to help bring iPads to our district. I would support the expansion to additional class levels. Providing our children with the opportunity to learn using technology will benefit their education. By providing all students with technology we are able to ensure that students have equal access to technology regardless of income levels. Technology also allows us to quickly change and modify curriculum, reducing our dependency on outdated learning materials.

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