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Candidates at Willmar, Minn., school board forum show similarities

WILLMAR -- The six candidates for Willmar School Board agreed on many issues at a candidate forum Tuesday, as they offered opinions on vouchers, school improvement and school lunches.

Don Thorpe, Sahra Gure, Jackie Saulsbury, Liz VanDerBill, Mike Carlson and Mike Reynolds participated in the 90-minute forum sponsored by the Willmar area League of Women Voters. The six candidates are competing for four seats on the School Board.

About 20 people were in the audience at the Willmar Municipal Utilities building for the forum, which was also televised on local cable and on radio station KWLM. Questions came from the audience and via email and telephone during the forum.

All of the candidates have children attending Willmar schools. All but Gure are products of the Willmar school system themselves. Gure was born in Africa and educated in Massachusetts.

Asked why they were running, the candidates spoke of their love for education.

Reynolds, who is the only incumbent in the race, said he enjoys walking in the halls of the schools.

"You watch the kids with their eyes lit up," he said. "It's what keeps us going."

Gure said she hopes to serve as a bridge between Willmar's Somali population and the school district. "We have a large group of Minnesotans who are new and don't speak the language," she said. "I am educated in this country" so can help newcomers understand the schools.

Saulsbury said her young children and her work with seniors helped her decide to run. "I work with seniors every day, and I can see how the whole system affects everyone," she said.

Carlson, a former school board member, said he wants to return to the board and its focus on student achievement. "It's a great motivation when you see children succeed," he said.

VanDerBill said she has been involved with schools as a volunteer and wants to work to work with the board to meet the district's challenges. "I want to make sure the children who have great needs have the same opportunities," she said.

Thorpe, a former teacher, said he never gave up on kids when he was teaching and wouldn't as a board member. He has a variety of jobs and businesses which keep in contact with the public, he said, allowing him to gauge public opinion.

The candidates, particularly those with teenage boys, said they have heard complaints about the new federal lunch regulations. However, they said they do support the guidelines, which emphasize fruits and vegetables and limit protein and carbohydrates.

While most said they support teacher tenure, they also believed that schools need to be diligent in evaluating teachers to make sure the most effective teachers are retained.

Communication would be the key to the board's taking public opinion into account in making decisions, and also in fostering a good relationship between administration and staff in the school district.

The candidates said they would be in favor of finding a way to use Kandiyohi Area Transit buses to transport children after after-school activities.

The candidates all said they felt school vouchers would not be a workable solution for rural Minnesota, because there are so few private schools where the vouchers might be used. All said they saw the Open Enrollment system as a viable alternative to vouchers for rural areas.

The forum will be rebroadcast on local access cable and may be viewed on-demand through the city of Willmar website,

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

(320) 214-4340