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Finances, buildings and even teacher shortage concern Grand Forks School Board candidates

Teacher recruiting/retention is among the top issues facing the board in the coming years, many of the candidates say, and that interest pleases Superintendent Terry Brenner.

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The Mark Sanford Education Center, headquarters of Grand Forks Public Schools. (Grand Forks Herald photo)
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GRAND FORKS — Finances and school building/infrastructure issues are among the top concerns facing the Grand Forks School Board, according to most of the candidates who seek a spot on the board. Those responses to a Herald questionnaire match oft-reported and well-documented issues that exist within the district.

But teacher recruiting/retention also is among the top issues facing the board in the coming years, many of the candidates say, and that interest pleases Superintendent Terry Brenner.

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Terry Brenner, superintendent of Grand Forks Public Schools

“I am pleasantly surprised that teacher retention is on the minds of prospective School Board members,” Brenner said. “This demonstrates they are paying attention to local, state and national phenomena. This topic has been on our radar for the past five years.”

Overall, there are 23 candidates vying for five seats, all of which are at-large positions. All 23 candidates are running for four-year terms, which begin in July. The election is June 14.

The Herald recently reached out by telephone and emailed questionnaires to the 23 candidates. Those who filled out and returned the forms are Josh Anderson, Ronald Barta, Dave Berger, Dee Decimus, Elizabeth Delgado, Monte Gaukler, Senta Grzadziewlewski, Jacqueline Hassett, Jennifer Kolodka, Joel Larson, Sona Lesmeister, Bonnie McMullin, Cameron Murphy, Bill Palmiscno, Mark Peterson, Kelly Schempp, Marie Stewart, Brad Sturlaugson, David Waterman and Emily Wros. Hassett and Palmiscno are running as incumbents.

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Three candidates — Roland Riemers, Courtney Kniert and Aaron Waterman — did not respond to the initial email with the survey or a follow-up email reminder.  

One of the questionnaire’s six questions specifically asks the candidates what they feel are the most pressing challenges facing the board.

Most of the candidates outlined multiple issues. An aggregation of their answers shows nine mentions of finances, eight mentions of school buildings and infrastructure, five mentions of dealing with the public and transparency and three regarding gender identity issues.

But notably, there also were nine mentions of teacher/staff recruitment and retention. The answers mirror a growing concern among education officials throughout the region.

In March, the Herald reported that some education officials in the state feel the demand for teachers is rising sharply as older teachers retire, more teachers leave the industry and the number of students enrolling in teacher education decreases.

“I think there was a challenge before the pandemic hit, and I think those challenges have been exacerbated,” Kirsten Baesler, the state superintendent of K-12 schools at the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction, told the Herald.

In the report, the Herald noted the number of people enrolled in teacher education programs in North Dakota has dropped from 2,383 in 2016 to 2,243 in 2020, and the number of needed teaching positions across the state that go unfilled or are filled by someone with atypical credentials rose to 3.59% in the 2020-2021 school year.

Brenner said it’s the reality of the industry.

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“It keeps me awake at night,” he said. “We have a large number of special education teaching position openings along with other content area specialists, such as German and English, that do not attract a deep pool of applicants. The pandemic has exacerbated teachers exiting the profession sooner than anticipated and, unfortunately, external politics put public education square in the middle of debates that unfairly puts pressure on classroom teachers.”

Many of the Grand Forks School Board candidates are taking notice.

“We need to have assistance from the Legislature, and they need to act when they convene in January,” said Monte Gaukler. “We need to increase the pipeline of teachers.”

One idea floated by Gaukler: Revitalize the Junior Educators of Tomorrow (JET) program.

“This program allows current high school students (and would-be teachers) to get excited about education. If we have students partner with our current educators to see and feel the rewards of teaching, we might be able to encourage more students to enter the field of education.”

Jackie Hassett said better infrastructure – buildings, specifically – is a start, but “money is also part of what is needed to compensate teachers.”

“We can find other ways to better teach experiences in our district and be an even more attractive place of employment, but long-term teachers, social workers, paraprofessionals and all staff must see a change in salaries as well.”

Joel Larson believes teacher retention and recruitment is the most pressing issue the board faces. He believes “failing infrastructure and pressing building needs” are exacerbating the problem.

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“We are lucky to have a school system of very high-quality educators, but with retirements, the aftermath of the pandemic and the now changing workforce, we will need to work hard to attract and retain talent,” he said.

Kelly Schempp noted that it’s a national issue, but within Grand Forks, there was “a loss of almost 10% this year.”

“We need to come together to assess demands that are being made of our teachers and subsequently value their skills, monetary worth, mental health and time,” Schempp said.

Schempp’s response to the Herald question resulted in more than 1,000 words outlining what she believes are the top concerns about teacher retention/recruitment. In her multi-point response, she discussed expectations of teachers – including credit requirements, workload and lack of materials.

Brenner said the district is working on the issue, both in a district strategic plan and in ongoing conversations. He said options going forward could include:

● Encouraging general education teachers with experience to pick up special education certification.

● Allowing external applicants to bring in more than 10 years of experience on the salary schedule.

● Paying student teachers, recruiting international teacher candidates.

● Interviewing students in teacher prep programs during their junior year, with a prospective job offer waiting one year in advance.

“Finally, we won't be the only district seeking creative ways to employ forthcoming colleagues,” he said. “We will be competing with other school districts to address human capital needs for the foreseeable future.”

Dave Berger said the district must “do away with the idea that teachers and staff should be able to continually do more with less” and suggests “creative ways to adjust the school calendar in order to allow time for staff members to plan, design, and prepare.” He also believes the Grand Forks Public Schools should “bolster our comprehensive district-wide mental health system for both students and staff.”

Following are all of the candidates’ answers to the Herald’s question about district challenges. Most of the answers are edited for brevity. To see each candidate’s full answers to this and other questions from the questionnaire, visit the Herald’s website.

Josh Anderson: I believe the biggest challenge in the coming years revolves around the financial health of the district and how to continue offering exceptional education and a rewarding environment for all who are employed in the GFPS. Using data driven decision making and taking into account the feedback of all stakeholders will be the best path to move forward successfully.

Ronald Barta: Academic improvement and fiscal responsibility.

Dave Berger: A. Instituting a long-term plan for our buildings and our budgets.

It is disconcerting to hear that a complete accounting of the district’s maintenance needs, building update requirements, and programmatic plans totaled over $260 million. Equally bothersome to me is that $2.5 million is spent annually – from the building fund – on debt repayments, with only half of that money paying down the principal on those debts. B. Recruiting and retaining our excellent teachers.

Dee Decimus: The Grand Forks School Board, elected by the people, who are entrusted with the educational lives of our children and their future, in our society, needs some fresh ideas. The board needs to focus on student achievement, lean budgets, and well-maintained buildings.

Elizabeth Delgado: Board members who forget that they are the employees of the public and who do not want to be fully transparent with the employer (the public).

Monte Gaukler: I believe that teacher recruitment and retention are going to be critical for the next several years. Currently, there are about 9,000 teachers in North Dakota, and a significant percentage of those teachers are leaving the profession. … We need to have assistance from the ND Legislature, and they need to act when they convene in January.

Senta Grzadzielewski: I think the biggest challenge in the coming years will be school funding and the residual impacts of inequitable distribution.

Jacqueline Hassett: Money and teacher retention. Both are national trends, unfortunately, and influenced by factors outside the board control in some ways. They are challenges nonetheless. It's crucial we remain creative, advocate for increased funding, and listen to teachers and staff to ease the difficulties. It is true that deferred maintenance is a heavy burden left from past boards.

Jennifer Kolodka: Finances. There is a lot of work to do on maintaining and repairing buildings. Just like we all do with our personal budgets, GFPS needs to prioritize needs vs. wants. The budget is tight right now and every dollar needs to be maximized and utilized in a way that best fulfills the most urgent needs of the district, which in my opinion should be preserving buildings and retaining teachers and staff.

Joel Larson: While there are a few challenges that come to mind, perhaps the most pressing is recruiting and retaining the highest quality teachers to lead our kids into the future. … Securing greater and consistent funds from as many possible sources and developing a strategy for rebuilding and/or upkeep of school buildings will both help improve the recruitment and retention of teachers, will promote better equity in learning environments for students throughout the district, and will ensure important elective and extracurricular programs in our district are reinstated.

Sona Lesmeister: Repairing their relationship with the public by focusing on mastering the basics – solid curriculum, academic excellence and transparency. Parents and community members need to be considered partners and an accountable party, not the enemy.

Bonnie McMullin: The most pressing challenges facing the Grand Forks Public School Board have to do with finances, buildings and pushing gender identity instruction. Our school administrators and board have spent money that we simply do not have. There has been so much deferred maintenance on our buildings that we are in a crisis. With so much being said nationally about gender identity and who decides which gender is right for a child, it is imperative that Grand Forks stand to protect our children from this trend. Grand Forks Public Schools must have a clear policy that rids our schools of any such covert teaching.

Cameron Murphy: The first is restoring standards and culture. Right now, Grand Forks Public Schools has lost its way in both instances. It is not a matter of more resources as we spend more per pupil today than before, even when adjusting for inflation (in 2020).

The second is regaining the trust of the community. The taxpayers in Grand Forks have proven repeatedly that spending money on a quality education for our children is of utmost importance, but this also comes with high expectations for student achievement and well-being. … Without this trust and a vision for the future the willingness of the community to spend substantial resources on the infrastructure needs of the district will be limited.

Bill Palmiscno: Retention of staff, as well as finding common ground and compromising on issues with so many opinions.

Mark Peterson: The big divisive issue that has recently been brought into the district by “woke” forces that needs to be addressed is the focus on running statistics on certain things by skin tone with an underlying assumption that some things must be racist because the statistics are a certain way.

(Assistant Superintendent) Brenda Lewis promoting “LGBTQ+ inclusive schools” in her Jan., 24 presentation, as if we’re under the obligation to check a box with radical sexualization-of-kids agenda that we’ve been seeing around the country, is reprehensible. (Editor’s note: Peterson mentioned his most pressing challenges in the first question of the survey, as well as the second. He also noted challenges with the district’s buildings and infrastructure.)

Kelly Schempp: Dwindling staff and facilities. We need to come together to assess the demands that are being made of our teachers and subsequently value their skills, monetary worth, mental health, and time. Teachers are a vital part of a functioning society, and it’s time we begin treating them duly.

Marie Stewart: Managing a fiscal budget and deciding how to move forward with a facilities plan and current building needs. I feel we need to rethink our current instruction and operation method. I am concerned that with the amount of new online and distance education, the opportunities for a more personalized and innovative learning style our schools will struggle to maintain enrollment numbers adequate to fund schools.

Brad Sturlaugson: I think the board has a problem with managing money, I don’t think the taxpayers need to give them more money if they are unable to manage what they already have.

David Waterman: I believe the most pressing challenge facing the board today is a complete lack of true leadership. As I listened to one speaker after another give testimony about why they should be implementing different policies in school to protect and not harm the children, the consistent response was, “We’re just following CDC guidelines.” Guidelines are not rules, or laws. They are guidelines. … The board needs to be comprised of leaders who know how to think, evaluate, and act according to the facts available to them, not to act as rubber stamps for bureaucrats.

The lack of leadership is also very evident in the board’s adherence to, and concurrent denial of major issues like “Critical Race Theory,” and the LGBTQ agenda. They ignore the pleadings of parents and teachers seeing the devastating consequences of forcing such nonsense on our children.

Emily Wros: The most pressing challenge facing the board is a looming shortage of qualified teachers and staff. A close second is the weak financial position of the school district.

To read each of the candidate’s complete answers to this and other questions from the questionnaire, go to the Herald’s website and search for this headline:
" Grand Forks School Board candidates: A look at their answers to six questions from the Herald "

Related Topics: GRAND FORKS SCHOOL BOARD
Korrie Wenzel has been publisher of the Grand Forks Herald and Prairie Business Magazine since 2014.

He is a member of the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp. board of directors and, in the past, has served on boards for Junior Achievement, the South Dakota Historical Society Foundation, United Way, Empire Arts Center, Cornerstones Career Learning Center and Crimestoppers.


As publisher, Wenzel oversees news, advertising and business operations at the Herald, as well as the newspaper's opinion content.



Wenzel can be reached at 701-780-1103, or via Twitter via @korriewenzel.
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