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Launched in 2014 by journalist Sean Baker, Med City Beat is an independent news source covering government, business and culture in Rochester, Minnesota.

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Get to know the candidates for Rochester School Board

Get to know the candidates for Rochester School Board

Rochester School Board Seat 2

Candidate bios

Melissa Amundsen: I am running for school board because of my deep belief in the importance of high quality public schools. It is vital for our community to ensure that all students have access to the best possible education that we can reasonably provide. For the last 20 years, I have dedicated my time to supporting children and education in our community. I have a long history of involvement with educational nonprofits and school district committees, holding leadership roles on many of them. I have been attending school board meetings regularly for almost 15 years, learning about the the district, its history, and its issues. I am now ready to take the breadth and depth of my knowledge and apply it to the difficult decisions that the school board faces. My leadership skills, my passion, and my experience will be an asset to the school board.

Bruce Kaskubar: Rochester resident for 38 years. Retired from Mayo Clinic. Married. Four grown children who attended Rochester public schools. I've volunteered with the Jaycees, Civitan, Olmsted county's Community Services Advisory Board, Children's Rights Council, and Rochester's Miracle Field. Too many students are out of control. Our test scores are below the state average for the first time, ever. Staff refuse to work in some places. About 1 in 11 students living in our district choose to attend public school in a different district. Continuing on the same course doesn’t make sense to me. It looked to me that there weren’t going to be people on the board thinking differently than what has brought us to where we are. Our district has over 1,400 teachers and dozens of administrators whose experience and counsel can be valued. Improvement will come from having new participation with different backgrounds, different perspectives, and different ideas.

What do you see as the greatest challenge facing Rochester Public Schools at this moment? If elected, what measures would you like to see taken to tackle the issue?

 Melissa Amundsen

Melissa Amundsen

Amundsen: I am concerned about financial projections which indicate the need to cut nearly $10 million from the general fund over the next five years. Funding for Minnesota public schools has continually lagged behind inflation. Over the last 15 years, our district cut around $20 million. Additional cuts will make it difficult to continue offering the quality of education that Rochester citizens expect and our students deserve. We must proactively identify new efficiencies and income-generating opportunities ASAP to offset the shortfall. Collecting data and public input early will help us to wisely prioritize our limited resources when additional cuts become necessary.

Kaskubar: It’s not one thing. Our test scores and discipline situation must improve. They’re related. Keep students in class as long as we maintain a peaceful environment for teaching and learning. Support a single school-based culture consistent with teaching and learning. Take steps to ensure all students, parents, guardians, and staff understand and adhere to it. Improve our curriculum (as test scores show it’s not working). Increase quality individualized learning. Fix the problems that have staff avoiding certain buildings. Increase capacity in funding-efficient ways realizing that new schools are the most expensive way.

How would you rate the performance of the current school administration? What, if anything, could the district do differently to help better meet the needs of its students?

Amundsen: Rochester Public Schools students generally have access to excellent educational opportunities. However, we must work to ensure that ALL students are successful and reach their full potential, not just some students or most students. I would like to see a renewed focus by the school board on goals and measurements related to student achievement and outcomes. Strategic planning and goal-setting involving staff, students, parents, and community members, combined with effective data analysis and reporting, would allow the school board to prioritize and allocate our limited resources to the most effective programs and interventions.

Kaskubar: There’s a difference between school administration and district administration. My take is that the school administrators — principles and staff — are doing a decent job. I have my doubts about district administration. Our finance guy seems on top of his game. Our superintendent, not so much. His preliminary report on discipline was uninspired and provided no big insights (that he considered actionable) nor serious concerns. He seems to be going through the motions. That is troubling. There is more to the discipline issue than satisfying the Department of Education: maintain order for the sake of students and staff.

Would you support a potential referendum in 2019 to build a new elementary and/or middle school? Why or why not?

Amundsen: If the Facilities Task Force concludes that new buildings and/or expansions are the best options to address overcrowding, I would support a recommendation to put the referendum question to voters. Currently, elementary is at 97.5% capacity and middle school is at 99%. With pre-DMC city population growth averaging 2% per year, we will exceed capacity imminently. Fortunately, the timing is favorable. With the school district portion of property taxes likely decreasing next year, and the Century and Riverside buildings soon paid off, taxpayers could see little change in the the school-district portion of their property tax bill.

 Bruce Kaskubar

Bruce Kaskubar

Kaskubar: I could but am wary. Building new schools is the most expensive way to add capacity. We’ve reduced classroom count by converting some to other uses and we take classrooms out of use several hours per day for various reasons. We should consider increasing classroom space utilization & dealing with other uses in alternative ways. There’s a notion that we can re-spend the soon-to-be-paid-off $31 million (used, I believe, for Riverside and Century enhancements) to help build new schools with less pain. Taking on new debt cloned from old debt and considering it free money is a fool’s game.

The district recently reached an agreement with the state's human rights department over disparities in school discipline. What are your thoughts on the district’s efforts to address racial and social equality?

Amundsen: The district has taken important first steps to address the issue, but many concerns remain. There is no easy solution — the Minnesota Department of Human Rights acknowledges that there is no consensus as to the root cause or how to address the disparities. It is the school district's responsibility to educate all students regardless of what challenges or barriers they may face. The district must continue to study the issue and seek solutions by investigating best practices in other districts, partnering with the community, examining the data, and transparently communicating its progress.

Kaskubar: I’m all in for mutual respect. However, it is completely absurd to meet the Minnesota Department of Education’s insistence that discipline rates by race must be equal across the board. Racism may cause differences but differences cannot prove racism. Is the National Basketball Association racist? Last year, 76% of its players were black and 22% were white. We’re not concerned about the NBA because we understand the teams are interested in winning and player skills. When it comes to discipline, my interest is that all well-behaving students are left alone and all ill-behaving students are disciplined. That’s discipline equality.

There have been talks about using the city's public transit service to transport middle and high school students. Would you support this approach? Why or why not?

Amundsen: Starting school later in the morning has been shown to benefit teenagers' achievement and health. Utilizing public transit may make it possible for later start times. However, there are pros and cons. The potential increased cost may be prohibitive. Later start times may introduce other challenges for students and their families, such as hindrances to participation in team sports. Safety is of paramount importance. Thorough study and ample opportunity for public input still need to occur before a decision can be made about transitioning to a transportation system that would include using the city's public transit for some secondary students.

Kaskubar: It’s certainly worth considering and the district has already begun to do so. Much remains to be uncovered. Will it be cost effective? Will it be safe? Will schedules be met? The answers are already being worked on. If the answers are positive, why not? There’s some concern about riders used to the protection of school bus flashing lights and gates needing to understand that those protections don’t exist with a city bus. It shouldn’t be hard for middle and high school students to understand.

Rochester School Board Seat 4

Candidate bios

John Eischen: I am running for School Board for several reasons. First, my youngest daughter graduated from Century High School this year. This alleviates any concern of negative impacts on my children from having a parent serving on the school board. For my family, the timing is right. Second, as discussions are happening about the potential construction of a new school or schools, I feel my experience in the construction industry will be beneficial in helping the District find the best possible solutions. Finally, CTECH is a wonderful step in raising student and parent awareness of opportunities for viable careers that do not require a 4 year college degree. The support and expansion of this program is extremely important in allowing students opportunities for growth and experiences that they would otherwise not experience.

Julie Workman: I was raised in Arlington, VA and earned a BME degree from Indiana University. My husband and I have three adult sons who graduated from Mayo High School. I was elected to the board in 2010 after 36 years of teaching orchestra in RPS. I value opportunities to grow through school board professional development at the local, state and national levels. I am one of 130 elected members of the statewide Minnesota School Board Association Delegate Assembly that meets annually. Working with MSBA leadership we determine two or three important policy resolutions for advocacy at the State Legislature. I am well versed and proficient in the educational, operational and financial complexities of the district. As a leader for five years in “Coffee with Local Leaders” I have gained a broader understanding of the challenges facing our community and schools. We all do better when we all work together!

What do you see as the greatest challenge facing Rochester Public Schools at this moment? If elected, what measures would you like to see taken to tackle the issue?

 John Eischen

John Eischen

Eischen: The school district operates as its own ecosystem. A single decision does not have a single effect. For example, how does a change in start times for schools affect food service and lunch times? Or, what happens if we build a new school and growth occurs faster in another area of the city versus current projections. The greatest challenge is striking balance between policy decisions and monitoring and adjusting as nimbly as possible, with the ultimate goal of making decisions based on what is best for the students and the student/teacher relationship.

Workman: If the state of Minnesota were to fully fund Special Education, RPS would have about an additional $18 million in the General Fund. There is also a significant shortage of qualified teachers. The district is a member of the Association of Metro School Districts and we share many of the issues most large districts face. AMSD, the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, and the Minnesota School Board Association work together in testifying before the Legislature especially on issues that have statewide impact. This is one example of underfunded mandates that contribute to financial instability from one biennium to the next.

How would you rate the performance of the current school administration? What, if anything, could the district do differently to help better meet the needs of its students?

John Eischen: As a parent of a recent RPS graduate, my experience with District administration has been a positive one. However, status quo is not a goal, and the District should always be striving to find innovative ways to improve the student experience and the student/teacher relationship.

A four year degree is not the only path to a viable career. With a nationwide shortage of over 250,000 skilled labor positions, it is imperative that our education system understands there are multiple paths to career success. Through CTECH, the District took a tremendous first step to address those students who thrive with a more direct path to employment and we must encourage that path, but more needs to be done. If students know that they do not have the resources, financial or supportive, to attend a 4 year program after graduation and all they hear during their high school experience is “College, college, college!” they will arrive at the conclusion that they do not belong which can lead to behavior issues and, most troublesome, dropping out of school all together. By shifting the conversation to what future career plans are, we will serve all of our students better and to their maximum potential. This needs to happen on a national level and Rochester Public Schools has the opportunity to be on the leading edge of this movement.

Workman: The School Board hires only the superintendent. Each board member individually completes the superintendent evaluation. The full board meets; we share our individual evaluations, and create one document because the board speaks as one voice. The board reviews it with the superintendent and goals are based on the evaluation. Within budget constraints: provide a wide variety of opportunities for students; strengthen communication with legislators; engage community members to assist students transitioning from large, urban centers; expand mental health services; promote Community Schools. Schools reflect the community; we all do better when we all work together for our students!

Would you support a potential referendum in 2019 to build a new elementary and/or middle school? Why or why not?

Eischen: I will support a potential referendum when the district has completed current plans to make sure that all facilities are being used as efficiently as possible and data demonstrates that this has occurred. The district must also be sure that the consultant’s report is shared with stakeholders in the community and provide the opportunity for discussion and input.

 Julie Workman

Julie Workman

Workman: A referendum provides a voice for the community to determine how to accommodate increasing enrollment. Enrollment in RPS continues to grow; ten elementary buildings are at or above capacity now. The facilities task force and consultant have been brainstorming “outside the box” solutions for the board to consider in addressing our growing student population. They will present these to the board on October 16. [Note: this questionnaire was sent out prior to the meeting date]. The board will likely narrow the scope so that the task force can determine clear, specific recommendations to be considered on November 27.

The district recently reached an agreement with the state's human rights department over disparities in school discipline. What are your thoughts on the district’s efforts to address racial and social equality?

Eischen: The board will need to monitor and assess the districts efforts to make improvements. The board will need to make recommendations on policy, make adjustments to implemented policies, and ensure that the Superintendent has the resources necessary to make reductions in line with those agreements. One item that is not being discussed is the fact that a very high population of our students, of all races, are having successful learning experiences within our schools. To those students, I extend my congratulations and wish for continued success!

Workman: The district has streamlined and standardized expectations for student behavior across the district. Data will continue to be collected and evaluated to determine progress. Every school works with individual students who face multiple challenges outside of school which can include: homelessness, food insecurity, chemical abuse, physical and emotional abuse, absent parents, lack of medical care, cyber bullying, mental illness, etc. Racial bias at school and in the community exacerbate difficult circumstances. Creating environments for student success requires community commitment to actively address affordable housing, a living wage, transportation, health care, etc. We all do better when we all work together!

There have been talks about using the city's public transit service to transport middle and high school students. Would you support this approach? Why or why not?

Eischen: The organization that employs me has a saying “If you’re doing business the same way you were five years ago, you’re out of business and you don’t know it.” I applaud the District for looking at ways to operate more efficiently and I will be supportive of sharing transit services when I am confident of the following: One, that transit services will provide our students with safe and reliable transit services. Two, there are policies in place that address proper behavior from both student riders and general public riders and how conflicts will be addressed. And finally, that the financial assumptions are accurate and a clear plan for how the reduction in expenses will be driven to further enhance student learning.

Workman: I have been a strong proponent for later secondary start times for decades, but transportation was always an obstacle. Medical research is clear about the many benefits of a later start, and transporting our older students on public transit would remove those barriers. Two feasibility studies support the inclusion of secondary students with the expansion of the city transit system. The board has received regular updates and we expect a final proposal soon. We will address student behavior, safety, and concerns and questions from parents and the community as part of the decision making process.

Rochester School Board Seat 5

Candidate bio

Jean Marvin: After decades of teaching in secondary schools and at the college level, I continue to be convinced that providing a quality education for every child is perhaps a community’s greatest responsibility. I’ve had the opportunity to engage with thousands of students and their families through the years, and I’ve learned something from all of them. I’ve also learned how government and governance can make or break a school district. I’d like to put my experience to work to ensure our school district manages our resources responsibly; engages the community in partnerships; offers diverse, meaningful educational choices; values science and technology as well as the arts, and provides all our students with the tools they need to be productive, successful individuals.What do you see as the greatest challenge facing Rochester Public Schools at this moment? If elected, what measures would you like to see taken to tackle the issue?

[Note: Dwight Ferguson has dropped out of the race, citing health reasons.]

What do you see as the greatest challenge facing Rochester Public Schools at this moment? If elected, what measures would you like to see taken to tackle the issue?

 Jean Marvin

Jean Marvin

Marvin: The district’s greatest challenge —as well as our greatest gift — is our wonderful diversity of students. As we strive to empower each child, we must remain creative and flexible in our programs and approaches. We need to ensure that all students have at least one meaningful relationship with an adult who will champion their educational journey. We need to support staff as they continue to create curricula that are relevant and relatable. Finally, we must involve and engage our community in the common goal of giving every one of our kids the best chance of becoming a successful, independent adult.

How would you rate the performance of the current school administration? What, if anything, could the district do differently to help better meet the needs of its students?

Marvin: In order to better meet the needs of our students, all administrators must be, first and foremost, educational leaders who build and sustain strong relationships with district staff, students and families. Cabinet members are currently visiting all schools on a regular basis in order to listen to and interact with staff and students and take seriously the feedback they receive. We have some wonderful administrators; however, conducting regular evaluations of our building and district leaders — including eliciting feedback from the community — is critically important in order to ensure we have the right people in the right places doing the right things.

Would you support a potential referendum in 2019 to build a new elementary and/or middle school? Why or why not?

Marvin: The need to provide appropriate educational space for a growing student population is obvious and imperative. District staff currently are working in tandem with a task force of community members and other experts to explore possibilities that would create more space — possibilities including the use of flexible schedules, finding spaces outside the schools, remodeling existing buildings and constructing new ones. If, ultimately, it’s determined a referendum is necessary, I would support that decision.

The district recently reached an agreement with the state's human rights department over disparities in school discipline. What are your thoughts on the district’s efforts to address racial and social equality?

Marvin: I believe our school district is taking very seriously its responsibility to close the achievement and discipline gaps that continue to persist. The ongoing focus of professional development for staff is on ensuring that equity becomes a reality in all our schools; staff are being trained to be more culturally responsible in their teaching and to manage classroom behaviors so fewer students need office referrals. Equity and behavior specialists and bilingual paraprofessionals are working with staff, students and families to improve relationships and communication. The district still has much work to do, and its commitment to equity is crucial.

There have been talks about using the city's public transit service to transport middle and high school students. Would you support this approach? Why or why not?

Marvin: For at least twenty years this RPS has explored ways that would make a later start time for secondary students possible, and the road block for every proposed solution has been transportation. Using school busses for elementary students and public transit for middle and high school kids could absolutely eliminate that road block. Districts across the country are using this model successfully to transport their students, and with careful planning and a bit of training for all our bus riders, I’m convinced it would work in Rochester.

Rochester School Board Seat 6

Candidate bios

Greg Gallas: I’m running to give the voters a choice. My opponent has served on almost every committee over the last 10+ years and we have seen no improvement in closing the achievement gap, raising test scores or slowing the overspending. In fact, we have now fallen below the state average, squandered a voter approved levy not to mention the additional $2M we receive yearly from the state.  I don’t think our community, staff or students can take another 4 years of this kind of leadership. My opponent constantly states she can hit the ground running, but by all measures it’s a downhill run. I want to restore accountability to the school board, hold the superintendent responsible for the decline of our education system and regain the trust of the staff and students. We keep doing the same things over and over expecting a different result. Do you have the courage for change?

Cathy Nathan: Through volunteer roles in the community, I made positive changes that improved the school experience for students, families and staff:

  • With our schools’ PTAs, I improved school-family communication.

  • I represented parents on RPS advisory/planning committees.

  • As the Minnesota PTA Advocacy Commissioner, I work for state and federal education policies that support our schools.

  • On non-profit boards like InSciEd Out and Cradle to Career, we bring community-wide resources to our schools’ issues.

With a vote on the school board, I will drive more positive changes for our students. Rochester’s students, staff, families and taxpayers deserve a school board member ready to make an impact on day one. I’ll bring fresh ideas and strategies fueled by my background in public policy, research of best practices, and relationships throughout our diverse community. I am committed to providing students with every opportunity to build the skills and knowledge to realize their bright futures.

What do you see as the greatest challenge facing Rochester Public Schools at this moment? If elected, what measures would you like to see taken to tackle the issue?

 Greg Gallas

Greg Gallas

Gallas: Declining test scores and out of control spending. We have seen the state provide an additional $2 million not including the voter approved referendum. Where did all that money go? To claim it’s Special Ed funding is a distraction as to the real issues we need to look at further. We need to direct the superintendent and his administration to overhaul our educational offering. What we have today clearly is not working. After all that is his job. A good place to start, looking at the number of successful charter schools across the country and what they have implemented.

Nathan: The ongoing challenge is to fulfill the RPS mission statement for all students by ensuring that staff have the resources they need to address the individual characteristics students bring to school every day and engaging families and the community to be full partners in education.

Implementing a personalized learning plan would help students take the lead toward their success. Starting in kindergarten, students investigate their own skills/interests, education/career opportunities, and how academic learning relates to future success. By 8th grade, every student would plan their high school courses and other learning opportunities around career or post-secondary college or training interests.

How would you rate the performance of the current school administration? What, if anything, could the district do differently to help better meet the needs of its students?

Gallas: A better question how does the state think we are doing? Based on the test results over the last two years, I would give the current administration a D. His talk of using best practices is what we have been doing for the last 8 years and that isn’t working. As stated previously start looking at charter school success and start implementing their educational models. This is something we have not ever done before, and it is working for them. We can no longer afford to keep doing the same things we have always done and expect better results.    

Nathan: The school board must be more intentional and transparent in the performance review of the superintendent; in monitoring of school board and district policies and programs; and relating outcome measures to budgeting decisions.

Regular monitoring reports for every school board policy should be implemented. These reports provide accountability measures throughout every fiscal and school year and provide another way to communicate to the Rochester community progress made, successes, and opportunities to rethink strategies. Reports include district-level compliance with strategic plan or student achievement goals; superintendent monitoring reports (with input from surveys of students, families and staff); and school board self-evaluations.

Would you support a potential referendum in 2019 to build a new elementary and/or middle school? Why or why not?

Gallas: I am skeptical about the need for a new school, much less the two the district is talking about. Based on the current numbers by RPS, there are roughly 500 empty desks in the elementary schools alone. That number is derived from an equation from the Minnesota Department of Education, not what an actual can safely and effectively accommodate. Current boundary changes will help will provide a short-term solution. I am open to the idea for the need based on further review and questions to the facilities committee.

 Cathy Nathan

Cathy Nathan

Nathan: The latest options add more dimensions to consider and more reasons to get community feedback before a referendum can be approved: 1. New construction creates larger elementary school sizes. 2. Some current schools/programs are moved or closed. 3. Building another large middle school without evaluating current middle school programming. 4. Ending successful smaller middle school programs at Friedell/Lincoln.

Financially, it’s positive news for taxpayers that the funding for new construction would occur after Riverside and Century have been paid off. As a result, the portion of school property taxes that go to fund capital construction costs could remain the same.

The district recently reached an agreement with the state's human rights department over disparities in school discipline. What are your thoughts on the district’s efforts to address racial and social equality?

Gallas: I do not accept the premise there are discipline disparities in RPS. The OCR report data wasn’t complete and did not breakdown the total number of violations by student. This could have been done while maintaining confidential student identity, the same way we did with the U of M study. In a recent presentation to the board, roughly 140 students committed 50% of all office referrals. Shouldn’t we focus our attention on the students with the greatest behavioral needs and help them get the services needed to address the issues instead of promoting the false narrative of racism?

Nathan: There is work to do. Families deserve details through multiple communication methods about strategies being used to create positive learning environments that support equity for all students. Discipline data reports provided to MDHR every six months must be made public. Survey students, staff and families to monitor school climate. Engage with communities of color to hear their experiences and partner with community organizations who work with students on learning and behavior strategies. Be transparent about the cost of the plan and evaluate programs to determine if dollars and people allocated are resulting in better outcomes for our students.

There have been talks about using the city's public transit service to transport middle and high school students. Would you support this approach? Why or why not?

Gallas: I’d consider looking at high school students as a trial to see how things work out. Several districts across the country have shown it can safely move students to and from school. What they do not show has it saved the money it claims. I question what the real issue the district is trying to solve. They claim to save money due rising transportation cost. Won’t public transportation see the same rising costs? Of course, they will, RPS would still have to pay any additional overruns with the proposed agreement with the city.

Nathan: I support considering using city buses to support later start times because more sleep is good for adolescents. However, there are financial and safety challenges to address. An updated estimate of transportation costs will be available October 30. District’s goal is not to spend more on transportation; those estimates will identify if the current proposal or alternatives are financially feasible. Address safety: get feedback from students/adults who currently ride Rochester buses together. In other cities, students sign a student code of conduct before getting a bus pass; students make videos for students on how to ride the bus responsibly.

Election Day is November 6. Early voting is already under way in Minnesota. You can view a sample ballot here.

Taylor Hawkins shows support for Riverside Central at St. Paul concert

Taylor Hawkins shows support for Riverside Central at St. Paul concert

Election preview: Rochester Ward 3

Election preview: Rochester Ward 3