ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

Mitchell Board of Education candidates lay out platforms at public forum

Six to be on the ballot for June 7 election

5.17.22CandidateForums-15.jpg
The six Mitchell School Board candidates taking questions during the candidate forum held at the Dakota Wesleyan University Sherman Center on May 17, 2022.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic
We are part of The Trust Project.

MITCHELL — Candidates for the Mitchell Board of Education Tuesday evening laid out their campaign platforms at a public forum where the topics of discussion ranged from the ever-changing student demographics in the district to opinions on the proposed new high school building that is being considered by school officials.

The forum, sponsored by the Government Affairs Committee of the Mitchell Area Chamber of Commerce, took place at the Sherman Center on the campus of Dakota Wesleyan University with about 100 members of the public in attendance.

Candidates, which included incumbent Deb Olson and challengers Tim Moon, Jeff Sand, Terry Aslesen, David Lambert and Chris Foster, took turns answering questions posed by members of a panel made up of representatives of local Mitchell media, as well as questions posed from members of the public in attendance.

There are two seats up for election on the Mitchell Board of Education — the one held by Olson and one held by Kevin Kenkel, who is not seeking another term. The two candidates who receive the most votes out of the six candidates will fill the positions. The election will be held June 7.

Leadership style

Following opening statements from the candidates, they were posed with a question about their leadership style and how they would work together to accomplish goals if elected as a member of the Mitchell Board of Education.

ADVERTISEMENT

Moon said his collaboration efforts would come in the form of listening to the needs of district employees and patrons.

“Monday through Sunday, I am an agent of change. I work with people on chemical dependency, and how you adapt and adjust and overcome. That’s what I’ll bring to the school board,” Moon said. “I will be open and honest, and not coming forward with a plan without hearing from the people who voted me in or the teachers.”

Olson, who is seeking another term on the board, said she had experience in such matters after serving on the board of education as well as a previous career in education, particularly her work with teachers and administrators when working toward accreditation.

The candidates -- Jeff Bathke, Lance Koth and Ben Krohmer -- share similar goals to move the state forward by keeping “big government” limited

“The key is we had to listen to each other and come to a consensus and develop what our goals and objectives were going to be. Not everyone initially agreed about what those goals should be, but we worked together and developed a plan to achieve accreditation, which at the time was very important to the district,” Olson said.

A former teacher, Aslesen said he has served on numerous boards over the years, but noted his work in helping the district adjust to block scheduling serves as an example of what he can help accomplish when put in a position of leadership.

“We took a year-and-a-half to two years to get lots of experience from visiting schools, and we involved the community with input and many sessions — here’s (the direction) we’re thinking of going, and what are the pros and cons of it?” Aslesen said. “We involved every staff member that was going to be affected by it, and pros and cons. And it’s had a huge positive impact on our school system. It was a collaboration.”

Sand said his leadership style is derived at least partially from his nature as a listener and an analyzer and his ability to see both sides of an issue thanks to his time as a speech and debate coach.

“I’ve always been a listener and an analyzer and then formulate my thoughts. If you come to a meeting already predetermined, it creates tension in a room,” Sand said. “I coached speech and debate at Mitchell High School, and in the world of debate, you have to be prepared for both sides of the argument. You have to do your research.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Lambert said he collaborates by first establishing common ground early with his fellow board members and then working on details and goals as they go along.

“You have to start with the basics — the vision and mission that we agree upon. Sometimes that is a bit hard to define. But my style is about respecting board members and their viewpoints to understand where they’re at and where they want to go and see what kind of common ground we have, in addition to our efforts to move the school forward,” Lambert said.

Foster said he strives to be personal in his interaction with fellow board members and is willing to listen to ideas that he had not initially considered.

“I think that everybody that knows me knows that I’m an easy guy to get along with. I’m not rigid and like to listen to what people have to say and then collaborate with them to achieve a goal. I have some opinions, and they’re not always right, and I listen to others to see if they have a better opinion that I do,” Foster said.

Changing demographics

Another question from the media panel asked how the district should approach faculty hiring in a time when student demographics in the Mitchell School District are becoming more diverse. Olson said the best person for the job is the candidate who is most qualified.

“Our demographics have changed as our workforce has changed. The district is looking for ways to meet the needs of those students. Everyone in this room knows that there is a teacher in front of their students every day, and whether or not that teacher is of a different ethnic background (shouldn't matter). As long as they are of the best quality, that’s the person we would need to hire,” Olson said.

Aslesen agreed that qualifications should come first when it comes to hiring.

“For 15 years, we hired people at Mitchell High School and never once were two candidates equal. You can always rank them. I would never want to hire the second-best candidate, our kids deserve the best. You hope to get some good diversity and ethnic variety, but I want to hire the best for the classroom,” Aslesen said.

ADVERTISEMENT

“We want the best of the best for our students and for our staff. At the end of the day it’s putting the best product in front of the students, whoever that might be. We’re all people at the end of the day, we just want what’s best for the students. I’m not going to discriminate based on background,” Sand said.

Lambert agreed with the previous candidates, with an emphasis on improving funding to help attract quality candidates.

“Our demographics are changing here, but with that said, it really comes down to the human capital that we have and want in the future. It’s probably more important to focus on funding that we make available to not only our teachers but also to those paraeducators that we provide to those classrooms,” Lambert said.

Foster was also of the position that ethnicity or matching changing demographics shouldn’t matter if the most qualified candidate is chosen for the job.

“I definitely believe the best person for the job is the right person for the job. It shouldn’t matter what the ethnic background is,” Foster said.

Moon said hiring quality teachers is vital to the educational experience of students in the district, and the district should always be looking for the best to fill those roles, with no preconceived notions.

“We can’t have a standard piece of paper application saying this is what you are and you should get hired,” Moon said.

Priorities if elected

The candidates were also pressed on their priorities for the district should they be one of the two elected to fill the two open spots on the board of education.

Aslesen said his priorities are simple — to move the district forward while giving students what they need to succeed in a future workforce.

“My priorities are to move the district forward. Times are changing, we can’t stay the same, and are there other things that are changing that we need to be doing or be prepared for? There are tons and tons of jobs in the future that haven’t been invented yet, so what are the skills we need to teach them so they can adjust?” Aslesen said.

Sand said he hoped to focus on finding and retaining top-flight instructors to lead at the head of the classroom. He said if elected he would pass along his board salary to help teachers in the district pay for classroom supplies.

“Without dedicated teachers and staff that are happy and healthy, we don’t have a great education system in Mitchell. Number one, let’s keep those teachers and staff happy and healthy, and let’s hire and retain the best,” Sand said. “If we burn out our teachers and they’re leaving, how do we fill those positions? We need to figure out creative ways to keep teachers.”

Lambert stressed communication, coordination and capital as his priorities.

“We have a multitude of tools at our disposal. The problem is there is a disconnect because people are still gurgling to find basic info like where or what’s going on,” Lambert said. “And obviously we have a business community that would love to take an opportunity to be more engaged with students and provide them with a better understanding of future jobs. There are opportunities to grow that."

For Foster, teacher support will be critical if he is elected to the board.

“I want to support our teachers and staff, and we need to talk and listen to them and understand their needs and then work hard to address them,” Foster said. “The job market is changing, and we need to make sure our students understand where the opportunities are going to be. To that end, I would say we need to prioritize technology and growth in that area and prioritize entrepreneurship and how to run a business.”

Moon said he would like to strengthen bridges to find great teachers to help support the Mitchell School District, along with bringing back students who may have recently left the district.

“New ideas, bringing kids back and working with local colleges to recruit teachers and ideas and projects and systems. Positive change is (a big part) of my priorities,” Moon said.

Olson said continued support for teachers will be a priority for her if she is returned to the board. She noted a recent 6% increase in faculty salaries, but said she knows that more is needed.

“Salaries for teachers and paraeducators,” Olson said. “Is that enough? I talked to a staffer who was renting a house, and with the rent cost and her loans she did not have enough to make a living and rent that home.”

5.17.22CandidateForums-12.jpg
Chris Foster answers a question asked during the candidate forums at the Dakota Wesleyan University Sherman Center on May 17, 2022.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

New high school

The final question from the panel concerned the proposed construction of a new high school, which would replace the one currently in use on Capital Street. Sand said he would like to know more details about the project, and is prepared to ask those questions if he is elected.

“I’ve been wondering about this. There is no budget, there are no plans, it is in the design process, is what I’ve been told,” Sand said. “There are a lot of questions that need to be answered before we go with a new high school. I’m going to ask questions, and those need to be answered before we move forward with this. People need to know. Do we need a new high school, sure, but there are a lot of questions that need to be answered before we dive in.”

Lambert said a new high school is a question worth asking about and discussing.

“There seems to be a sentiment that our high school has done a great job over the last 60 years. Getting the community involved is critically important. There is ample opportunity for us to have this conversation. Do we need to be talking about it? Absolutely," Lambert said.

Foster said discussing the need for a new high school is prudent, given the current building’s age.

“I spent a lot of time there recently walking the halls, and it looks a lot different than when I was there. I really think it’s probably time to discuss having a new high school, and along with that it should be a high school that is technologically savvy and can focus on having resources and environments that they can grow into the future,” Foster said. “But I also believe we need to have an idea and vision of what we want.”

Moon said he wanted to see more teacher input when it comes to issues involving the proposed new high school. He’d also like to see more transparency when it comes to subjects like the budget for the project, something he would pursue if elected.

“One thing I do know, there has been minimal teacher involvement. (If) I get voted in, I’ll answer those questions. I won’t hide and I hope to have answers for that because I’m excited for the opportunity of new school,” Moon said.

Olson recounted some of the details of the proposed new high school building, and said that her time on the board has been marked by careful planning and a flexibility that allows the board to adjust to changing economic factors.

“We obviously sold bonds, there will be no tax increase, no capital outlay increases for constituents. We’ve been saving over a period of years for that capital outlay fund to grow so we wouldn't have to ask for increased taxes,” Olson said. “We (also) did not realize that there would be record inflation, and because of that, we have had to look at our budget and what we can afford, and then we have to live within that budget.”

Aslesen said choices like building a new high school building are important and must be weighed carefully. He said he also supported using federal dollars that would otherwise need to be returned to their source for the project.

“Once upon a time, we did an addition on the high school and brought the ninth grade over. Once it was in development, we didn’t have enough and we started cutting and we cut and cut until it was really not the facility we wanted,” Aslesen said. “We only do this once every 70 to 80 years normally, and if we do one, we need to do it right.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Luke Hagen, editor of the Mitchell Republic, served as one of the media panelists for the forum. Hagen was not involved in the editing of this story.

Erik Kaufman joined the Mitchell Republic in July of 2019 as an education and features reporter. He grew up in Freeman, S.D., graduating from Freeman High School. He graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1999 with a major in English and a minor in computer science. He can be reached at ekaufman@mitchellrepublic.com.
What To Read Next
Work will begin Thursday
According to the RFP requirements for interested developers’ plans to qualify for the land, the land must begin development within 180 days after the RFP is awarded by the MADC.
St. John Paul II Elementary observing Catholic Schools Week Jan. 29 to Feb. 4
“Let’s put this in the rearview mirror,” Sen. Michael Diedrich, a Rapid City Republican said.