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Grand Forks School Board candidates debate

The tension between the need for quality education and the need for property tax relief was evident at the Grand Forks School Board candidates' debate Thursday in City Hall.

The tension between the need for quality education and the need for property tax relief was evident at the Grand Forks School Board candidates' debate Thursday in City Hall.

Candidates heard questions about how to handle declining enrollment, especially in the north end, where schools are getting emptier. They heard questions that implied the School District is overfunded. There was a question about offering more foreign-language classes and a question about how to help underperforming students.

Though the groaning over property taxes among Grand Forks homeowners has grown louder, the candidates present, none of them incumbents, did not criticize the present School Board.

In only one area, open government, did they have suggestions for the board to improve.

Present at the debate, sponsored by the local League of Women Voters, were Vicki Ericson, Sherryl Houdek, Linda Jenkins, LeAnn McKeever and Roger Pohlman.

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Ronna Schreiner and Eric Lunn were absent, Lunn because of a last minute family emergency.

Here's how they answered:

On demographic changes and declining enrollment:

None favored closing north end schools, where enrollment has dropped below the recommended level.

Ericson said she would bus in students from other parts of the city, if necessary, to shore up enrollment.

Pohlman said it's important that children are able to walk to school.

On helping underperformers:

Jenkins and Houdek said they want to see more data about how students are learning before making changes.

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Houdek said the district has done pretty well so far.

Ericson agreed. It's important to find out each student's individual strengths and weaknesses, she said, something Grand Forks schools have been very good at. Her dyslexic daughter, she said, learned much better here than in the last place she lived.

On overfunding of schools, despite declining enrollment:

Every candidate defended the School District against the charge of overfunding.

The cost of educating each student, Pohlman said, is "adequate." Schools have to deal with higher fuel costs and maintaining livable wages for teachers, he said. The School Board has to be responsible, he said, but he disagrees there is overspending.

Houdek said North Dakota does not fund K-12 education as much as other states, so the burden falls on property taxpayers. She noted that the federal government and the state often give schools new mandates but not new funding.

McKeever agreed, mentioning the government's "No Child Left Behind" program, which requires strong scores on standardized tests and has been unpopular with educators for lack of funding.

Jenkins said state funding has not kept up with costs. Desks, books, wages -- which are not high -- all have gone up, she said. The district just needs to be careful it doesn't do things that it doesn't have to, she said.

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Ericson said enrollment may have dropped, but there's still a minimal level of funding needed for administration and heating buildings, among other things. Those costs can't necessarily drop at the same rate as enrollment, she said.

On underage drinking:

"The schools are doing all they can," Houdek said. Parents and the rest of the community, she said, have to stop tolerating underage drinking.

Pohlman said he would hold students accountable and provide alternatives to drinking.

Ericson agreed that activities such as acting camp and sports can shift students' interest from drinking.

On new foreign language programs:

McKeever indicated conflict between providing needed languages, such as Spanish, and languages that just might seem neat, such as Chinese.

Grand Forks students have to be globally competitive, Ericson said, and foreign languages are critical. She mentioned her daughter's college roommate who arrived with nine years of Spanish, more than her daughter.

Jenkins said new languages sound great but cost has to be a consideration.

Houdek agreed. Society often push schools to do more, she said, but "schools cannot do it all."

On open meetings:

Pohlman said he feels the School Board could be more approachable and have better communication with the public. The public confusion in the past over board policies, he said, are avoidable.

Jenkins agreed. "We need to remember that we have open meetings," she said. "People tend to forget that sometimes."

Ericson said she would like the board to televise its meetings, advertise its agendas and notify families affected.

Houdek said open meetings are important but the board also has to protect people's privacy sometimes, such as minors.

McKeever said the board has to communicate better so the public can be present at meetings.

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