WORTHINGTON ― Four candidates for the District 518 Board of Education appeared at Tuesday night's candidates forum hosted by the Governmental Affairs Committee of the Worthington Area Chamber of Commerce and Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Participating in the forum were incumbents Linden Olson, Steve Schnieder and Brad Shaffer, along with challenger Tom Prins. Incumbent Joel Lorenz was unable to attend.
One concern raised was what the candidates would like to do about the need for a new community education space.
All four candidates agreed that renovating West Elementary doesn't seem like a good option, as it would be less expensive to build new, and the West site is unsuitable for construction. None offered a strong opinion about a preference for constructing a new building on existing district land or purchasing and renovating the former Shopko building.
In the coming four years, there are bound to be a number of challenges, debate moderator Ryan McGaughey noted, and the candidates were asked what they anticipate those challenges might be and where they would like to see improvements.
Each of the candidates mentioned that finances might be tight in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
Olson, who has long been the board's liaison with the state government, explained that a contributing factor in district finances is a long list of state mandates, many of which are not unfunded.
He also noted that a consistent challenge is removing barriers to performance. For example, if a student is missing class because they have to take care of a younger sibling, then perhaps the bigger issue is a daycare shortage, he suggested. If other social problems can be solved, then students can be better served, he said.
Shaffer expressed concern about the achievement gap, which he would like to see narrowed during his tenure on the board.
Schnieder brought up a few continual challenges the board faces. More early childhood programming is needed in order to reach more children and prepare them for kindergarten, he said. The district also has to anticipate the growth of the student body as the community of Worthington grows, which affects building space and staffing and budget needs. Staffing, in particular, is a challenge, because the district has to compete for teachers to come work here.
Olson added that industry-wide, it's hard to retain teachers, because they are being asked to do more and more, but not being paid proportionally to their duties.
Prins said that he hopes to tackle the limitations on students having in-person school during the coronavirus pandemic.
"I strongly believe that kids need to be in school," he said. "Hands-on in front of a teacher is still the best education a kid can get."
Shaffer agreed, with the caveat that "I'm not going to claim to know how to educate children."
Later in the forum, Shaffer said, "There's nobody who wants kids to be in school more than I do ... but we still need to be safe, need to do things the right way." He added that the board needs to listen to medical experts.
Schnieder added that the decision to use a hybrid learning model is based on a number of variables, not just the number of local COVID cases. For example, the state is requiring districts to run buses at 50% capacity, which is a significant limitation for District 518. There are only so many bus drivers for hire, and because the Worthington license center is closed, bus drivers have to all the way to Marshall to get their credentials.
Schnieder called for the public to take personal responsibility by wearing masks and social distancing, so schools can welcome more students as soon as possible.
"It's almost like driving in a blizzard," Shaffer said, because the decision-makers can't see very far ahead or anticipate the coming obstacles.
Olson described the pandemic as "a no-win situation. No matter what the school board does, somebody's going to be unhappy."
The best board members and administrators can do, he said, is make the schools as safe as possible. He also added that schools' plans have to be approved by the state, so school boards aren't acting unilaterally when they decide on a limited learning model.
Schnieder pointed out that there is a misconception locally that kids aren't in school full-time because teachers don't want to work. This is false, he said. Teachers are not the ones making the decision, although their input is considered.
With the W.E.L.L. project now off the table, the candidates were asked if they foresee any other opportunities to collaborate with other government entities.
Olson listed several ways the district already collaborates: the Nobles Home Initiative, the Nobles County Integration Collaborative, the tennis courts and others.
"Partnering happens a lot in Worthington," Schnieder added, noting that district staff members are involved in the community and volunteer their time toward collaborative efforts.
"I enjoy working with other people," Prins said, drawing on his farming background to highlight his history of working collaboratively.
Shaffer recalled being on the city/county/school committee when the idea for the W.E.L.L. project first began to take shape.
"I would not even think twice about getting into something else with those two entities (the city and the county)," he said.
In closing, each candidate expressed his desire to serve, and asked for voters' support. There are four seats on the board available, and voters may select up to four out of the five candidates. The four who get the most votes will win the seats.