Monticello School Board forum tests candidates

The Monticello Chamber of Commerce & Industry sponsored a candidate forum Oct. 21, just over two weeks before the Nov. 5 school board election that will fill three open seats on the six-member board.
Forum moderators and chamber board members Tara Thurber and Janine Kopff told the audience that serving on the school board is much more than a once-a-month meeting commitment; there are committee meetings to attend and homework that needs to be done to make informed decisions. School board members also undergo training through the Minnesota School Board Association, visit schools and attend various district functions.
There are six candidates running for the three seats. They are Carol McNaughton, Kerry Schmitz, Robbie Smith (incumbent), Nicole Soucy, Bill Spartz and Karen Vetsch.
Candidate Spartz was not able to attend Monday’s meeting due to a previously scheduled business trip but he provided his answers in advance, which superintendent Jim Johnson read in his absence.
Here are some of the highlights from the evening’s forum, which included eight questions from the moderators and four from the audience. The moderators asked what candidates thought were one or two areas where the school district could improve.
Vetsch started this round of answering, saying she felt the district could improve upon their technology offerings and should give staff the training to help them use the tools in classrooms. She also said the district could step up their marketing efforts to retain and attract students who could go elsewhere if they didn’t feel actively engaged with the school community.
Soucy said she feels that reading and math, while important, have taken precedence in classrooms because of standardized testing, and thought the focus of the classroom should shift from teaching to the test to critical thinking, problem solving and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) preparation.
For her response, Schmitz said she thought the district could improve upon communicating with the public about different programs that are available and how the district’s resources are being used; for instance, she said there are some community members who think Eastview sits empty, which is not the case.
Spartz felt the district could improve by helping students get out what they put into school, helping them learn to finish what they start and help peers support one another and solve problems through groups.
Smith felt the district could work to become more visible in the community. “Great things happen in our schools every day,” he said. “I think a lot more families would choose this district if they knew what was going on here.” He also thought the district could improve on their efforts to make sure all kids are ready for post-secondary education of some kind after high school.
McNaughton was the last to respond, and she said she would like to see the district reduce class sizes, most importantly in the youngest grades. “If we can get that class size down to a manageable amount … I think those teachers would do even better than where we are at right now,” she said. McNaughton also felt the district could work to get the community more engaged with the schools.
Moderators also asked candidates what skills they had that they felt would benefit the school board, and they got a range of different responses. Schmitz, a financial analyst by profession, said she would bring her skills of management, budgeting, working on teams and analyzing decisions in a fair and open-minded way. She also said she would be a listening ear for the community to learn what people wanted from their school system.
Spartz listed several skills and experiences that he said would lend well to serving on the school board, such as his work on the planning and zoning commission, his job experience of handling contract resolutions, negotiating contracts and health care plan management. He has also served as a coach for three different youth sports.
Smith said his six years on the planning and zoning commission, two years on the city council, four years on the school board and numerous hours of school board training through the Minnesota School Board Association have helped him hone the skills of keeping an open mind on issues and listening to all sides of a problem.
McNaughton said that she would bring her philosophy of ‘kids come first’ onto the board if elected, along with having an open mind, ears and a desire to be fair.
Vetsch said the skills she would bring to the school board include experience in policy-making and managing an educational facility and a staff of 30. She said she has experience marketing and budgeting for a family business, Russell’s on the Lake in Big Lake, at which she and her husband are managing operators. “My passion is in educating children, I’m a team player and I’ll bring new ideas to the table,” Vetsch said.

For her response, Soucy said she has budgeting and management experience and works in a highly regulated industry where regulations guide her everyday work. She said she is experienced at making good decisions with the best information available. “Problem solving and teamwork are critical to my success in my career, and I think those are skills that would benefit the school board as well,” Soucy said.
The talk turned to referendums in one of the questions, when the moderators asked candidates what they feel needs to be considered before asking the community to support a referendum. Before asking for a referendum, Smith said the board should determine what they would need to use the money to do so the public would know exactly how money would be spent. He said he feels the board should be willing to ask for the things the district needs and allowing the community to vote.
McNaughton said transparency is extraordinarily important when dealing with a referendum, and she feels the board needs to tell the community what their money will be used for and then follow through with that plan.
Vetsch said a referendum should be sought after all administrative options had been exhausted and if citizens can afford it, taking into consideration to what degree citizens could afford to pitch in. She said residents would need to be informed as to why the money is needed.
Soucy said the entire community has a stake in how well the local schools perform, and the district should listen to community members’ concerns, be transparent and communicate where the money would go.
Schmitz agreed with others’ opinions that transparency and communication with the public would be of utmost importance if the board decided to ask the community for a referendum. “I think most of the community wants all of our kids to have a successful education here in Monticello … and I think they would be willing to approve a referendum if all of the details are out there on how funds are being used and [the district] makes sure the follow-through is there.”
Lastly, Spartz said he thinks school board members should be honest about what are needs versus wants and practice reasonable spending habits. “School board members have many ideas and visions about what they want for the district; the reality is that the community will support the needs of the district. That’s not to say we can’t want anything; we just need to practice reasonable spending practices,” he said.
Other questions for the evening included asking candidates what they feel the Monticello district does well and why, how they have been involved in the school district, asking how they feel the schools communicate with the community and how communication could be improved, what they feel the schools should be doing to educate students for the future and what they consider to be qualities of an effective board member.
Community members asked what is on their reading list for the news, how the schools can make students aware of the real job opportunities they can pursue and the skills they need for those jobs, what they think would be the most difficult thing about being a school board member and what they consider to be manageable class sizes and how they could objectively measure that return on investment.
Voting for the school board election runs from 7 a.m.-8 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 5. All voting will take place in the middle school’s arena entrance area, located on the east side of the building.

Freelancer Meghan Gutzwiller covers education and the Monticello School District.