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School officials pick minds of west central Minnesota candidates on bevy of issues

Rep. Andrew Falk, DFL-Murdock, from left, DFLer Mary Sawatzky of Willmar, Sen. Joe Gimse, R-Willmar, Republican Tim Miller of Prinsburg, Sen. Lyle Koenen, D-Clara City, and Rep. Bruce Vogel, R-Willmar, field questions Thursday from area superintendents and school board members at The Oaks in Willmar. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR -- The possibility of starting schools before Labor Day highlighted some of the few differences between legislative candidates Thursday in a forum with area superintendents and school officials.

The superintendents met candidates for three legislative seats Thursday afternoon at The Oaks in Willmar.

The candidates are running in the new Minnesota Senate District 17 and its two House districts, which were created earlier this year based on the 2010 Census.

Sen. Joe Gimse, R-Willmar, and Sen. Lyle Koenen, DFL-Clara City, are candidates for the Senate District 17 seat. In House District 17A, Rep. Andrew Falk, DFL-Murdock, and Republican Tim Miller of Prinsburg are running. In House District 17B, the candidates are DFLer Mary Sawatzky of Willmar, Rep. Bruce Vogel, R-Willmar, and Independence Party candidates Zachary Liebl of Willmar.

All of the candidates attended the forum except Liebl, who was participating in military training at Camp Ripley. His mother, Lisa Liebl, read a statement on his behalf.

The audience of about 35 people asked questions during the forum.

The candidates discussed how important education is to Minnesota and offered their views on their ideas for returning more local control to school boards and other education issues.

Asked about allowing local school boards to determine the beginning of the school year, they offered a variety of ideas. State law now prohibits starting school before Labor Day. School districts that want to do it must seek a waiver.

Miller said he might support innovative school calendars if a school district can make a case for it.

Falk said he was against the idea. "When you talk to students, predominantly they do not want the pre-Labor Day start," he said. Starting school on different dates could interfere with online courses and other joint efforts between school districts.

Vogel said he thought it was important to look at both sides, because businesses in resort areas don't want to lose their young workers early. However, he said he would be open to the change, so boards can decide what's best for their districts.

"Why not allow it to happen," Sawatzky said. School boards should be allowed to make the decisions that are right for their areas, she added.

"This is one of the areas where the state needs to step back," Gimse said. He added he's looking forward to seeing the results of an early start pilot project in 13 southwestern Minnesota districts.

Koenen said he had been opposed to starting school before Labor Day, but he has changed his mind over time. Sports and other activities start in August, anyway, he said.

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

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