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Meet the candidates: Five of six District 518 board hopefuls convene at forum

Moderator Lyle Ten Haken (from left) speaks as District 518 Board of Education candidates Adam Blume, Don Brink, Robert Carstensen, Lori Dudley and Tom Prins listen during Tuesday evening's candidates forum coordinated by the Worthington Area Chamber of Commerce Government Affairs Committee. (Ryan McGaughey / The Globe)

WORTHINGTON — Independent School District 518 space concerns, solutions to those challenges and bond referendums took the forefront of Tuesday evening’s board of education candidates forum.

Five of the six candidates vying for a seat on the board took turns responding with their positions and ideas pertaining to a variety of questions spanning referendums, teacher recruitment and retention and bridging divisiveness throughout the district’s communities. Incumbent board candidate Mike Harberts did not attend the forum.

All five of the candidates participating in Tuesday’s forum said they believed space was a concern. However, their ideas for solutions differed.

Incumbent Lori Dudley, Tom Prins and Adam Blume all stated that they believed the last $35 million referendum was a reasonable request. The potential to bring that or a similar proposal back exists.

“We really need to pass this for the future of our community,” Dudley said. “To get teachers and retain them and business professions in the town. It’s one piece of a big picture.”

Prins said he guessed the last referendum would pass, and could foresee a similar proposal emerging as a space solution.

“But I would like to go over with the board, if I’m elected, how much reserves we actually have and how much we can spend without getting the school in trouble in overspending reserves,” Prins said.

Prins also mentioned building a second story on to a section of the high school, which Don Brink also showed support for.

“We already have a beautiful school here — let's go up,” said Brink, who also mentioned green space at Prairie Elementary as a site for a possible building addition. “Let’s use our heads here. Be a little more practical.”

Brink said on multiple occasions that the board’s decision to add the second question pertaining to Trojan Field upgrades was the reason why the August referendum was defeated. He added that the administration and school board needed to get “more skin in the game,” challenging the use of its reserve funding as a solution to alleviate the tax burden on district residents. He also advocated for maintaining what he dubbed the district’s “beautiful facilities,” and placed blame on administration and school board for letting certain facilities get to a state of disrepair.

Rob Carstensen did not think building additions onto existing structures was the best solution to fix the overcrowding issue. Solely adding more classrooms, he said, would not solve space issues in places like cafeterias and hallways.

“If my kids were at Prairie (Elementary) right now, I’d be really upset that my kids were being taught in a janitor’s closet,” Carstensen said of the need to find solutions, given what space issues are forcing the district to do in order to educate students.

Blume — who was a member of a think tank group comprised of community members who responded to the district’s call for community input prior to moving forward with its latest failed referendum — said he would like to reach out to comparably sized school districts that have faced similar challenges as a way to gather new ideas.

Piggybacking on the topic of space issues and referendums, candidates were also asked how they planned to bridge division in the community, which has appeared to be an effect of four referendums in the past six years.

Blume and Prins made specific reference to people being viewed as “yes” or “no” people, and hoped to eliminate those attributions in the future.

However, Prins acknowledged his previous affiliation with the Worthington Citizens for Progress Committee — which has been dubbed as the “vote no” group — and said his connection and relationship would be of benefit, so he could reach that population to advocate for the board’s position. The WCPC recently announced publicly that Prins and his father, Wilbur Prins, had resigned from their positions as committee co-treasurers.

Blume, who is the youngest running candidate, said his connection to both the agricultural community and youthful voice would be assets.  

Dudley said it’s been her experience that reaching out and holding smaller group-setting meetings is a more effective way to tap into different sectors of the community, and is something she plans to continue.

On the topic of teacher recruitment and retention, many of the candidates believed the issue runs deeper than what the school district alone can accomplish.

Blume and Dudley said other amenities and activities throughout the community help attract and retain families. Posed as a question, Prins also alluded to the relationship between community activities and employee retention.

Carstensen said the district’s space concerns and lack of resolve don’t help the district’s struggle to retain teachers.

“I’m assuming a lot of teachers come fresh out of college, see some of the issues we have and find other places to teach,” he said. “We have to find a niche to show that we’re better.”

Brink said the “build it and they will come” mentality won’t work and that it’s the superintendent’s job to attract good teachers and retain them. He added that he didn’t know why people thought they needed to spend money to retain individuals.

While many board candidates agree that retaining young teachers requires community offerings beyond what the district can provide, they believed that relationship runs full circle in that school districts play an integral role in retaining young families in a community.

“A school district is one of the first things people look at when deciding where to live,” Carstensen said.

Dudley said strong schools, strong businesses and strong communities all go hand in hand when trying to recruit new talent to the area.

“Schools are a huge economic driver in any small community,” she added.

“Strong schools is a big support system for attracting young business professionals to our community,” Blume said.

The event was the first of as many as five candidates forums coordinated by the Worthington Area Chamber of Commerce’s Government Affairs Committee. Candidates for city offices will take center stage at a forum next Tuesday.

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