Handling growth, improving communication and meeting academic goals are some of the top priorities for Bismarck School Board candidates.
Nine challengers and one incumbent are running for three seats on the five-person board. Board members Karl Lembke and Matt Sagsveen are not seeking reelection. School board members serve four-year terms and receive an annual salary of $9,000.
The candidates are Amanda Davis, It Works! Global distributor; Emily Eckroth, general practice physician; Natasha Gourd, executive director of the Indigenous Education Coalition; Josh Hager, senior market service representative at WBI Energy; Travis Jensen, welder at Bobcat Co.; Jon Lee, owner of Bread Poets and current school board president; Amanda Peterson, director of educational improvement and support for the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction; Rebecca Pitkin, executive director of the state Education Standards and Practices Board; Nick Thueson, regional manager for a trucking company and owner of Mo’s Snow Shack; and Greg Wheeler, senior audio video producer at Basin Electric Power Cooperative.
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Candidates who responded to a questionnaire from The Bismarck Tribune also were concerned with school safety, maintaining fiscal responsibility and providing mental health services. Eckroth declined to respond.
“I feel we need to bring the focus back to education to ensure all students are able to succeed and thrive,” Jensen said. “There is a need to improve communication and transparency to encourage stakeholder involvement, as I personally believe discussion leads to solutions. Our students today are the future of our community and will ensure Bismarck continues to thrive, so we should receive and explore input from all.”
Candidates gave suggestions on how the district should handle growth. Jensen said another middle school should be built, and Lee suggested expanding the career and technical education curriculum into middle schools.
“There is a need for additional classroom space in south Bismarck,” Hager said. “The school board will have to determine if additional school expansion is the answer or if a new elementary school needs to be built in south Bismarck. The choice that is made needs to be done in a fiscally responsible way and avoid adding an extra burden on taxpayers.”
Davis, Hager and Jensen said finding and retaining staff will play a role in handling future growth. When asked how they would support teachers, candidates suggested reducing their workload, finding more substitute teachers and creating more communication opportunities. Lee, Peterson and Thueson said it is important that teachers are compensated fairly for all of the work they do.
“We have drastically reduced the number of initiatives that are pushed down to teachers and staff, which is a step in the right direction,” Lee said. “We recognize that our teachers are professionals whose job is to educate our kids. Therefore, we have to make sure the supports are in place so that they can manage their classrooms effectively and that they aren’t compelled out of necessity to do work that is outside of their job description.”
Most candidates said the district handled COVID-19 appropriately and that they would look at past protocols to make future decisions. Hager added that keeping students in the classroom needs to be a priority.
“We have seen what protocols worked and which ones did not work from the last pandemic,” Thueson said. “If we are faced with another pandemic, we will be able to base our decisions on what protocols worked for the district in the past.”
Jensen and Davis said parents should have more of a say in decisions regarding their children’s health.
“The school board shouldn’t have any say over the district about COVID,” Davis said. “It should be left up to each family to choose how to navigate.”
Many candidates said discussions around national political issues such as critical race theory have created division in the district and have been a source of distraction.
A law passed last year by the North Dakota Legislature prohibits schools from including instruction relating to critical race theory, which is defined in the bill as the theory that racism is not merely the product of learned individual bias or prejudice, but that racism is systemically embedded in American society and the American legal system to facilitate racial inequality.
Thueson, Pitkin and Peterson said state standards and benchmarks should be given more focus.
“This theory, as defined, is not currently being taught in Bismarck Public Schools, so we should focus on supporting teachers in the teaching of content standards and not let national politics dictate local issues,” Peterson said. “We need to tackle and prioritize local issues that are having an impact on kids now.”
Gourd and Wheeler said the issue is surrounded by misinformation, and effort should be made to better understand it.
“Critical race theory has to be put in context so it is easily understood by all and can be related to everyone,” Wheeler said. “I will say, in my personal opinion, you would never ever want to discourage someone from having a voice, no matter what that is. Everyone deserves the right to have a voice and to speak their minds.”
Candidates were split on whether cameras should be allowed in classrooms. Wheeler said cameras could help teachers document and solve problems in class if used constructively.
“Video cameras in classrooms can protect students and teachers from bullying, harassment and false accusations,” Pitkin said. “They provide hard evidence that allows the school administration to take appropriate action. In some cases, the presence of security cameras alone is enough to reduce bullying.”
Others said cameras could create privacy issues and security risks. Peterson said the cost of putting cameras in every classroom would be excessive, and teachers should be trusted more.
Almost all of candidates felt that the community should have some role in reviewing curriculum. Lee said community members and parents must have an active role to build trust and ensure transparency. Pitkin said parents should take advantage of advisory groups and curriculum review committees that already exist.
Gourd was the only one who felt that curriculum should be left up to teachers.
“I believe teachers are the best-trained individuals to create curriculum for students,” she said. “I entrust teachers to make the best decisions when it comes to teaching our children.”
Reach Alex Kautzman at 701-250-8255 or [email protected]