WILLMAR — Eight candidates are running for four four-year seats on the Willmar School Board.
Four of the candidates are incumbent board members.
Candidates with the top four vote totals will be elected to the board in the at-large election.
In candidate forums sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Willmar Area this month, the eight candidates answered questions about their views of the strengths of the school district and things they feel the district still needs.
Videos of these forums and various others that were conducted can be viewed on the League of Women Voters Facebook page and the West Central Tribune website or on WRAC-TV.
Tammy Barnes is an incumbent finishing her first term on the board. She has lived in Willmar for 17 years and is employed by Education Minnesota. She was a teacher for 17 years. She said she hopes to foster relationships and advocate for students.
Justin Bos is an incumbent finishing his first full term on the board. He grew up in Willmar and is a funeral director with the Harvey Anderson and Johnson Funeral Homes. He said he’s running because he believes a strong school system is vital for a community.
David Ditmarson is a native of Willmar and worked for the U.S. Postal Service for more than 36 years in Willmar. He said he is running for office because he loves the Willmar School District and wants to contribute to the community.
Nadia Milani Fifita was a teacher and administrator at international schools for more than 20 years in the Kingdom of Tonga, a Pacific island nation. She was educated in Minnesota, and moved back to Willmar in 2018 to be near family and hopes to use her experience to serve the community.
Randy Frederickson is a retired middle school science teacher. He said he’s running for the school board to offer a teacher’s perspective, which he feels is missing from the board.
Terry Lawler is a native of Colorado who has lived in Minnesota for 36 years. She is a financial crimes specialist for Wells Fargo and volunteers in the Willmar Schools. She said she hopes to ensure student access to an education and believes education is the key to success.
Mike Reynolds is a Willmar native who has served on the board for more than 20 years. He said he feels his experience is important to the board as he can offer a historical perspective.
Scott Thaden is a former teacher and agriculturalist with the Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative. He is finishing his first term on the board. He taught 10 years in Willmar. He said he believes he is in a position to bridge the gap between the board and teachers.
The candidates’ list of strengths had some items in common.
Barnes, Fifita, Frederickson and Ditmarson praised the school staff at all levels.
Fifita and Ditmarson said they’ve seen the dedication of the staff through their children’s experiences in the schools.
“Everyone is here because they want to work with kids,” Barnes said.
Frederickson called the staff “one of our primary strengths ... everyone that works to help our young people.”
Another strength the candidates discussed is the district’s diverse student population.
“It allows students to experience other cultures,” Bos said.
Fifita said she has been impressed to see students from different backgrounds and cultures “who interact with each other as one big family.”
Lawler said she’s seen schools find a way to accommodate each person, and Thaden called the district’s diversity “a unique situation in our part of the country.”
Reynolds, Barnes and Frederickson mentioned the district’s broad curriculum.
Reynolds said the district has offerings to “meet all students’ needs,” including college courses, vocational training and special education instruction.
The broad offerings can make students feel “this is where I belong and where I can shine.”
The district’s standards-based curriculum tells teachers, parents and students what needs to be learned, Frederickson said. “It helps make us successful.”
Bos and Thaden said the district’s financial position and its strong general fund reserve is a strength.
“There are many school districts in our area that are nowhere near where we are financially,” Thaden said.
Though the pandemic has put a strain on budgets, the district’s reserves should help Willmar stay in a good financial position moving forward, Bos said.
Community support for the schools is another strong area for the Willmar School District which candidates mentioned.
Lawler said she’s seen the staff’s positive interaction with parents when she’s volunteered in the schools.
“I think the community is wholeheartedly behind the school system,” Ditmarson said.
Reynolds and Fifita said the district’s extracurricular activities are another strength.
Fifita called the extracurricular offerings extensive.
With drama, music and other extracurriculars, plus a variety of clubs, Willmar has the broadest offering of any schools in the area, Reynolds said.
In addressing the district’s needs, the candidates brought up a variety of issues. The most frequent were technology, meeting the needs of students and finding more space.
Four candidates spoke of the need to continue working to meet the needs of all students.
Barnes, Fifita, Frederickson and Reynolds brought up that subject.
Fifita and Barnes talked about the need to pay attention to children’s social and mental well-being. They also discussed paying attention to changes in the community, as in the pandemic, and addressing those with children.
“Some students are quite needy, and the district needs to constantly strive to meet their needs,” Frederickson said.
“We have to strive to be better” in all areas, Reynolds said. He included gifted and talented, special education and low-income students in his comment.
Technology needs came up in the answers from Reynolds, Lawler and Thaden.
Lawler listed internet for rural families as the most current need for the district.
Thaden and Reynolds echoed it, with Reynolds saying the district needs to continue to reach all kids.
“We are not behind in technology,” Thaden said, but “we need broadband in our county.”
Thaden and Ditmarson talked about the need for more space for classrooms and extracurricular activities.
The district is completing a multi-year building and remodeling program, but Thaden said there’s still a need for more space in the future.
“Sports is always looking for more space, and teachers would like to have more classroom space,” Ditmarson said.
School nutrition was another concern for Ditmarson. He said he wonders if funding is adequate to provide for the nutrition needs of low-income children.
Bos said a persistent achievement gap has improved in recent years, but the district needs to keep working on it.
Good communication with families is another need during the pandemic, Bos said. “We need to get information out so they have time to adjust when they need to adjust,” he added.
Lawler said busing during the pandemic, when occupancy is limited, is something the district needs to address, too. Some families are no longer able to have their children bused to school.