News Article Details

Mental health, teacher diversity and more topics at school board candidate forum

Bemidji Pioneer - 10/17/2018

Oct. 17--BEMIDJI -- Does Bemidji Area Schools have enough counselors for its students? How can the district attract more American Indian teachers? What's the most important issue facing the school district?

Those were some of a handful of questions candidates for school board here tackled on Tuesday night at the first in a series of forums organized by Citizens for an Informed Electorate, a nonpartisan citizen group that aims to help the public learn more about candidates for local elected offices.

At the school board forum, candidates generally agreed that the district needs more counseling support for its students but several wondered aloud where the funding for it would come from. Incumbent board member Shawn Whiting, a Sanford mental health professional who works in the district, said some counselors' time is gobbled up by work that isn't necessarily counseling-related.

"They're doing student schedules, they're doing stuff for MCA testing, and all of these other things that are taking them away from their skills that they have as counselors," Whiting said. "Certainly, we need more supportive services and counseling and therapeutic services as part of the package, but also allowing our guidance counselors to do some of the counseling that they've been trained to do."

Bonnie Solomon, a corporate travel agent, said students need help with their own work-life balance just like adults.

Candidates also generally agreed that the district needs more American Indian teachers. Jeffrey Lind, Beltrami County's social services division director, said the school district needs to work on "growing" its own.

"I think we really need to concentrate on the individuals that we have in our schools, working with them as students and getting them to graduate, working with them in getting into colleges and graduating, and then bringing them back to our community," Lind said. "I think a lot of the kids that go to school here want to give back."

Jack Aakhus, a substitute teacher and football coach, said he's witnessed firsthand the connection that American Indian students have with American Indian staff. Sarah Young, an associate professor at Bemidji State University and academic adviser at its TRIO student support services center, said the school is working to bring in more American Indian students, which could present a solution in the district's backyard.

"We can encourage people that are of Native American descent to be going into teaching, lining it up with student teaching opportunities within the high school area and then giving them job opportunities within the community as well," Young said.

Incumbent board chair Carol L. Johnson, a sales associate at Ken K. Thomson Jewelers, said fewer people in general are becoming teachers. An opening for a second-grade teacher would draw dozens of applicants even five years ago, she said.

"Now we're lucky if we have 10," Johnson said. "There are just fewer and fewer individuals who are going into teaching, for whatever reason. But with the Native American population that we do have, we would welcome to have more Native American teachers."

And candidates either pointed to graduation rates or racial disparities, especially when it comes to student discipline, as the school district's greatest challenge. (The Minnesota Department of Human Rights pressured Bemidji Area Schools and several others across the state to work on their discipline rates after noting that non-white students are often suspended or expelled at considerably higher rates than whites.)

"Why are they being disciplined more than others?" said Wenona Kingbird, a child abuse prevention coordinator for the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe who began her opening remarks in Ojibwemowin, of American Indian students here. "They're being disciplined by people who don't understand them."

But more than one candidate tied graduation rates to distinct-but-related issues such as attendance rates or mental health services. Beyond those concerns, candidate Gary Rozman, who's the executive director of Beltrami County Historical Society, said he'd work to increase nature-connected learning, unstructured play for students, and civics education, among other ideas.

Candidate field

This is the first time in years where Bemidji voters will be able to choose from a field of candidates that's larger than the number of available seats. In all, eight people are competing for three open board seats this year.

The candidates are, in alphabetical order by last name:

Jack Aakhus, 33, substitute teacher and outside linebackers coach for the varsity Bemidji High School football team.

Carol L. Johnson, 60, sales associate at Ken K. Thompson Jewelry and incumbent board chair.

Wenona Kingbird, 43, child abuse prevention coordinator for Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe.

Jeffrey Lind, 53, social services division director for Beltrami County.

Gary Rozman, 43, executive director of Beltrami County Historical Society.

Bonnie Solomon, corporate travel agent.

Shawn Whiting, 33, a mental health professional and incumbent board member.

Sarah Young, 47, an associate professor and academic adviser at the TRIO student support services center.

Future forums

Tuesday's forum was the first of several hosted by Citizens for an Informed Electorate. Here are the remaining forums:

--Tuesday, Oct. 30, 6 p.m.: Bemidji City Council, Wards 2, 4 and at-large. Candidates are: At-large: Don Heinonen and Jim Thompson; Ward 2: Michael J. Beard and Jaime Thibodeaux; Ward 4: Incumbent Richard Lehmann and Emelie E. Rivera.

--Tuesday, Oct. 30, 7:30 p.m.: Bemidji mayor. Candidates are incumbent Rita Albrecht and Joe Vene.

--Thursday, Nov. 1, 6 p.m.: Beltrami County commissioner, District 1. Candidates are Craig Gaasvig and Natalie Grosfield.

--Thursday, Nov. 1, 7:30 p.m., State House District 2A and 5A. Candidates are: 2A: Incumbent Matt Grossell and Michael Northbird; 5A: Incumbent Matt Bliss and John Persell.

The forums will be televised live on First City cable TV Channel 2. All forums will be recorded and later streamed on Northern Community Radio's website (KAXE/KBXE) and rebroadcast on First City TV, according to a release.

Moderators will be Maggie Montgomery, station manager for Northern Community Radio (KAXE/KBXE) and Michael Naylor, retired Bemidji business owner.

The CIE was formed in 2008 and seeks to provide an outlet for the public to gain more knowledge about candidates in order to make an informed decision at the polls, the release said.

The forums will allow candidates to make opening and closing statements. CIE volunteers will collect written questions on index cards from the audience, screen them for duplication or pertinence and direct them to candidates, rotating who answers first. Questions should cover the gamut of issues, as forums are open to the public.

Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 6.


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