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Roger Pohlman, candidate for GF School Board

Interview with Roger Pohlman, one of seven candidates for four seats on the Grand Forks School Board. Q. Tell us a little about yourself and why you chose to run. A. I am originally from Jackson, Minn., which is near the Iowa-Minnesota border. I ...

Interview with Roger Pohlman, one of seven candidates for four seats on the Grand Forks School Board.

Q. Tell us a little about yourself and why you chose to run.

A. I am originally from Jackson, Minn., which is near the Iowa-Minnesota border. I farmed there for a short time before I ended up in the military.

I did 10 years' duty in the Air Force. We spent seven years over seas. Then my wife and I decided we wanted to get back home to our roots where are values and beliefs were common or shared with the community.

We put in for Grand Forks Air Force Base. I got back here in 1994. During 1995 and 1996, I finished out a term on the Grand Forks Air Force Base School Board that was open and really enjoyed that.

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I was a missile-fuel security police officer, so I applied to the police department here in town because they were moving all the missiles, and I wanted to stay here. I was lucky enough to get on with the Grand Forks Police Department, where I am currently a training sergeant.

Q. Do you have kids in the district?

A. I am married with two children. My daughter is 23 and just graduated from UND last summer. She is currently in the Air Force in North Carolina. My son, Joshua, is just wrapping up his junior at the University of Idaho.

Q. Voters might wonder why you have an interest in the School Board versus, say, the County Commission or City Council, given that your children no longer are in school.

A. My interest in the school board deals with trying to give back to the community. The other positions deal with giving back to the community too, but my interest lies with the school board.

I am a Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran. I got a lot of support from the community, and I want to be sure and give back. The fact that my children are out of school will, in my view, help me to be more objective. I also can bring to the School Board a lot more experience than I had when my children were young.

Also, through my job with law enforcement and my travels in the Air Force in other areas around the world, I've seen how the future of a community is its youth -- and by developing the youth, you can best help preserve our way of life, our culture and our beliefs. Therefore, I definitely believe the school board is the place I need to be.

Q. I take it you stayed in the reserves after you got off active duty.

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A. Yes, I joined the Army National Guard here in Grand Forks and finished out my last 10 ½ years with them to retire in May 2006.

My son had some great teachers in math and science. In fact, he was just awarded the Barry Goldwater award for science. It says a lot for the schools.

Q. So on balance, you were pleased with the school system your kids went through?

A. Very much so. Also, when I was on the School Board at the air base in '95 and '96, I worked with a lot of members of the current administrative staff. It was just a great group to work with -- a lot of vision and understanding about where they wanted the school district to go, I want to make sure that we stay on track. I think that's the best way to sum it up.

Also, some of our residents' worries about open meetings and so on concern me a little bit. So, I am interested and anxious to get back and make sure we're on the right road.

Q. What kind of concerns?

A. Some of it dealt with the hiring process for the new superintendent. I think they did a good job; don't get me wrong. I think we've got a great guy. But through my law enforcement and supervisor training, I've had some classes in public information, and I believe that you work with the press as a team and shouldn't be afraid of them or hide things.

I understand that in the hiring process, you can't release things that would tip your hand to other people who might want to hire that individual also. But I believe you still need to be open to the press. If you can't tell them something, fine; but "No comment" is not an answer, trying to hide things is not the answer and those are some of the things I believe.

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The public has a right to know. When voters elect you, they trust that you'll act in their best interest. You don't want to betray that trust by making it look like you're trying to hide things.

Maybe I misunderstood what I was reading or what I saw, but that's the perception I heard from other people. I think our current School Board has done a good job, but I also believe that it could have been handled a little better.

Q. As I understand it, the school board has a policy in which members create a united front and try, after a vote, not to quarrel with that decision in public. Do you support that idea?

A. Yes, to a point. Again, you are leading an organization with more than 1,000 employees, and you're not all going to agree all the time. But just like our nation, we make the best decisions we can and then we need to move forward. Once the discussion is over and the decision is made, our superintendent and the president of the school board deserve the backing of the members to move forward with that plan.

Now, if a member failed to speak up during the discussion, that's a failure on their part. But I believe that you have your discussion period, you hash things out at your meetings and you move forward. Once the decision is made, you behave as if it's the best decision.

Q. And not try to undercut it later on.

A. Exactly. Otherwise, right there you'd have division in the leadership, and that would start affect morale. When you have 1,000 or more employees, you can't afford to have morale problems start to creep in.

Q. We don't get many complaints about curriculum, but we do hear concerns about property taxes and the school district's budget and the new superintendent's salary, too. Your thoughts?

I know the school district just passed a five mill decrease in their budget. I believe Eric Lunn and others wanted to try to get more -- two mills more.

One thing that concerned me when I was going through the records, minutes and also online data was that at the current rate, spending will pass revenue by about 1 percent. The forecast is that our spending is going to increase faster than our revenues. That concerns me.

The five mill decrease, I believe is appropriate -- but I'm also a very conservative person. If you gave me back five mills this year, then I don't want to see you take seven mills back from me two years from now. I'd rather we stay current than try to make it up all of the suddenly later on.

So, there is a lot of forecasting involved. I think the school board made a good choice with the five mills. I believe in a "pyramid of learning," and one of the sides is fiscal responsibility. With the money we're given, we have to be responsible to the public.

I pay 45 percent of my property tax to the school district, and that's more than the amount the county and city get combined.

As far as how much the superintendent will make, I think the citizens of Grand Forks would like us to look at what they expect from their educational system. I believe a salary is based on what a future executive is going to do for the education system. I know you can't lower their salary if they don't perform to the expectation, but it is definitely the school board's responsibility to communicate those expectations to the superintendent and hold him and his staff accountable.

Q. You've had experience in supervising others?

A. Yes. I was a street supervisor in the police department and am a supervisor in the training office. I oversee our training and firearms instructors.

I'm also on the board of directors in my church. I am on the housing committee with the Veterans of Foreign Wars that oversees the operation of the VFW.

I'm big on accountability. I believe people should be held accountable. I am expect to be held accountable, and I expect citizens to ask me the hard questions and hold me accountable. In turn, I owe it to the people I work with to make sure we are holding them accountable, too.

Q. How would you deal with union negotiations over salaries?

A. I have a master's degree in human resources administration, so I have knowledge of the process.

Again, it's mainly accountability and being fair. We have to represent the citizens' best interests; and I believe that the teachers union in North Dakota also wants the best for its communities.

At the same time, the union is looking out for the teachers' interests, too. So, I believe that as management, you have to find that common ground -- the plateau or the happy medium -- and achieve what's best for the citizens and the students.

One area that I believe we operate in as a school board is the social and political environment: the social environment being the students, the staff, the support staff and the teachers; and the administration side of it, along with the citizens. On the political side, you have the legal requirements: the federal laws, No Child Left Behind, Title I guidelines and also how we interact with other local agencies.

There is lot of different areas we must look at before we can obligate ourselves to increases in contracts. My ability to look at all the possibilities, all the parties and come to a common ground is one skill I can bring to the table.

Q. What parts of the school system did you like or not like over the years?

A. I think the district has definitely done a good job with the Summer Performing Arts program. The arts programs in general have come a long way since my kids first started in the district back in 1994.

I also think we do a good job with the basics which is one of my concerns.

Another side of the pyramid with fiscal responsibility is quality education. Quality education, for me, is dealing with the basics. Are we doing a good job with our reading, writing, math and sciences? As I said, I feel that my son had a great education, especially in the math and sciences, and he's done well.

As for some concerns: My son played hockey for Central all four years of high school. It was a great program and a great opportunity, but one concern now is the user fees.

Sixty percent of the households in the school district earn $50,000 a year or less. So with 60 percent making under $50,000 a year, you have to keep your fees down so that everybody has an equal chance to participate in activities such as sports.

Q. Do you remember what the current fee is?

A. I don't, but I know it was approaching close to $75 to $100.

Overall, the district's finances seem to be in very good shape. For example, I believe the district is carrying a zero debt balance, and that's something the citizens of Grand Forks can be proud of. Statewide, the average debt balance is about $171 per student or something like that; we were the only North Dakota school district I could find that is carrying a zero debt balance.

Down the road, if we want to maintain community schools, we might have to build a small elementary school on the south end somewhere. Our current financial situation will help us immensely in meeting the expectation of our citizens.

The five mill property-tax cut is great, but as I mentioned, don't give me a five mill cut and then increase user fees and school fees so that the parents of current students are paying more out-of-pocket expenses. With gas prices and the cost of living going up and some of our households getting less than $50,000, we can't keep putting it on their backs alone.

I feel property taxes are a fair balance to maintain a quality school. Whether or not you have kids in school, you're affected by the quality of the schools.

Q. What about schooling in the north side?

A. I live in the central area near the Purpur Arena. Working in law enforcement, you patrol different areas. I feel I have a good understanding of the different areas of town. There is a lot of concern and a lot of opinions. You have to do what's best for the community.

Q. What about closing schools?

A. I would be sympathetic to the neighbors. You hate to loose a neighborhood school. When you look at safe routes to school, you have the underpass under U.S. Highway 2 to get to Wilder School. You hate to see a neighborhood school close. On the other hand, it's going to be a tough decision, and that's where leadership comes into play. You have to do what's best for the city.

I've heard people say, "Well, the kids in those neighborhoods can walk over to Winship." But they'd be crossing North Washington Street, and there's no underpass or overpass. The children would have to count on the traffic signal to get across. We'd be exposing them to significant risk.

So, I know what it would be like close a school, and I'm very sympathetic to the neighborhood's concerns. At the same time, we have to make the best decision we can. You can't hold the whole city hostage for one school.

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