Willmar School Board candidates talk budget, achievement gaps in League of Women Voters forum
Five people, including three incumbents, are running for Willmar School Board this fall. Three of them will be elected to four-year terms in the Nov. 8 general election.
WILLMAR — A looming budget deficit and achievement gaps highlighted the discussion in a recent forum for candidates to the Willmar School Board.
The forum was part of a series of forums sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Willmar Area. Videos of the forums may be viewed on the group’s Facebook page and at the WRAC TV website www.willmarmn.gov/wrac/
Five candidates are running for three four-year board positions in Willmar Public Schools. They include Mary Amon, Steve Biesterfeld, Randy Frederickson, Jay Lawton and Laura Weatherby. Amon, Frederickson and Lawton are incumbents.
The general election is Nov. 8, but early absentee voting has been open since September. Voters are allowed to register at the polls.
Amon, 57, of Willmar, is a physician at CentraCare — Willmar Lakeland Clinic. She has served on the board since a special election in 2017 and is seeking her second full term.
Biesterfeld, 48, of Willmar, is a shift supervisor in the secure detention facility at Prairie Lakes Youth Programs.
Frederickson, who chooses not to give his age, of Willmar, is retired from a 28-year-career teaching science at Willmar Middle School. He was elected to the board in a 2021 special election and is running for his first full term.
Lawton, 64, of Willmar, works in inventory control and logistics at Jennie-O Turkey Store. He is seeking his second full term on the board after being elected in 2018.
Weatherby, 52, of Willmar, is a psychologist at Life Seasons in Willmar. She is the only candidate with children in the school system.
The candidates answered questions from moderator Marie Doran for about an hour.
Candidates returned often to issues of the district’s fiscal health and student achievement in their answers. The need to retain school staff members came up throughout.
Willmar’s enrollment is about 200 students lower than it was before the pandemic. Since state funding is based on enrollment numbers, the district will be receiving less state aid, its primary source of income. Federal aid has helped maintain programs during the pandemic, but that money will run out over the next year.
Asked about their priorities for Willmar Public Schools in the coming year, the candidates covered a range of topics.
“I think we need to remain solvent, so our budget needs to be balanced, and we need to figure out how we’re going to do that,” Amon said. Part of that plan needs to address student retention, she added.
Some changes will be needed in the budget, she said, but “we have to really focus on how we are going to help students succeed.”
“There is a teacher and staff shortage, as there is in almost every job in this community, as well as the country,” Weatherby said. She praised the district’s “interesting” efforts to bring new teachers to the community.
She wants to “allow children to experience their full identity and come to know who they truly are,” she said. “As a psychologist, that’s what is incredibly important to me.”
Biesterfeld listed the budget deficit and curriculum concerns. He talked about a school board meeting where school officials told a group of concerned citizens that critical race theory was not taught in local schools.
“I’ve found out the principles of that are being taught,” he said, but he didn’t elaborate.
CRT is a theory developed a half century ago that claims racism is ingrained in public institutions. It may be taught at the university postgraduate level but not in K-12 schools, according to Reuters.
Having qualified staff in classrooms is a concern for him, Frederickson said. “Learning takes place in a classroom, and we need to have qualified people to do that job,” he said, and it’s important to retain them, too.
Frederickson brought up a proposed but stalled addition at Willmar Middle School. “The middle school needs new space; we need to find out how we can fund that,” he said.
Lawton talked about “finding the best way to use the money that we have in our budget.” That included retaining quality staff, he said.
Lawton said the pandemic had been difficult for everyone, particularly for immigrant students who may have struggled more with distance learning.
Several candidates brought up the need to prepare to hire a successor to Superintendent Jeff Holm, who has said he plans to retire in 2024.
“We need to be diligent with finding a superintendent who is on board with the way we’re taking the school district right now with our learning and our staff development and staff evaluation,” Lawton said.
A question about student achievement and ideas for improvement brought a variety of answers.
“I’m very concerned about our student achievement,” Lawton said. “We have a diverse student population, and we have 60% that are on programs for free and reduced lunch ... we have a lot of students who are challenged just in their everyday lives.”
He offered ideas that could help, like student mentors for younger students and adult volunteers tutoring in the schools. “We need to get the entire community involved, because these students are our future,” he said.
Biesterfeld said he is concerned about the students he sees in his job at Prairie Lakes, and he wants to help them. Most are not from Willmar or Kandiyohi County, but they attend a WPS program while they are incarcerated.
“The kids I’m seeing where I work, they’re dismal,” he said. “They are completely ignorant about a lot of things.”
“I think a lot of children suffered during the pandemic, not just immigrant children,” Weatherby said. “I think a lot of work needs to be done to help bring them back up to where they are supposed to be.”
She said she would look forward to discussions about how to remedy the problems if she is elected to the board.
Amon said the gap could be due to language barriers, poverty or moving from school to school. “How do we help each student get caught up or get to where they should be,” she asked.
The district is getting teachers the help they need to try to help students, she said, and it’s important to get parents involved, as well.
“We should always have concerns, because we’re not graduating 100% of our students,” Frederickson said. He said he sees the achievement gap as being about lack of opportunity, too. The district has many employees and programs to try to help students, he said.
The district is moving toward a new mode of teaching, where students are told what they are expected to learn, because research has shown that they will learn better when they know what’s expected of them, he said.
Candidates were also asked about how they would handle a request to ban a book. All said they were not in favor of book-banning, but the issue that would not come before the School Board. It would be handled by the education professionals in the district.
Asked how they would respond to a parent who was concerned about what was taught in a classroom, they again said that would not be a board function. While they would listen to a parent’s concerns, candidates said, they would suggest the parent begin by talking to the classroom teacher and follow the chain of command from there if the issue was still not resolved.