by NATHANIEL NELSON
The primaries for this fall’s local elections are fast approaching, and the field of candidates for the four open seats on the Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) Board is wide. Three seats will be on the ballot on the August 14 primary, with three candidates — including incumbent Steve Schild — competing for the district one slot, and six going for the two open at-large seats. The primary will narrow down the candidates from three and six to two and four respectively, with the district voting for all four seats in November.
Six, formerly seven, vie for at-large
Seven candidates will be on the August primary ballot for the two at-large seats, as Jay Kohner and Ben Baratto leave the board at the end of this year, but only six are actively campaigning. Baratto, the current board chair, initially filed for reelection before announcing at a July board meeting that he would no longer be pursuing his seat. His name will be on the ballot this month, but he says he is no longer in the running.
Winona resident Nancy Denzer, a former principal in Rochester, Minn., said she is pleased with what the board has done over the past several years. Denzer said as a board member she would focus on academic excellence, staff and student well-being, and moving forward with district facility consolidation. She also explained that she would support security and safety measures going beyond building access, and work toward making the school district more welcoming for students and families.
“Students should be able to come to school knowing they can talk to somebody if they need something. They can get answers, but also solutions from highly skilled teachers in front,” Denzer explained. “We need to address the needs of every student that comes in.”
Challenger Kenneth Kersting is more focused on the facilities aspect of the district, citing a failure of the board to adequately discuss maintenance issues in the buildings. Kersting, the lead groundsperson at Saint Mary’s University, said the district is going backward, and expressed concern over the closure and sale of Rollingstone, which was one of the district’s newest facilities. One of his major goals is getting a building maintenance plan to keep track of what needs to be done and keep the deferred maintenance cost from getting out of hand. “We need to stop the bleeding now before it gets to the point where a tourniquet won’t hold,” he said. Kersting also discussed interest in cutting administrative costs back and creating a committee of community members who stay in contact with the board and help inform decision making.
John (J.R.) Larkie of Rollingstone has been vocal about his opposition to the current School Board, having attended and spoken at several meetings in the past year. The consolidation of the schools is a huge issue, he explained, particularly involving the potential growth of the district. He also said that there has been a lot of division within the community, and he hopes to find common ground between the public and the board. “I think we need to build trust within the community. We need to stop having 10- to 20-person task forces and listen to the people,” he explained. As a banker, Larkie said he has worked with a number of financial institutions and hopes to use his expertise to help improve the district’s financial standing. “I’ve worked with people in a financial hardship, and this district is in a financial hardship,” he said. “We need to identify how we can dig us out of the hole.”
Luke Sims, Winona’s assistant city planner, said he is disenchanted with the current direction of the School Board, but sees this as an opportunity for the board to address the issues that the public would like discussed. “I would like to change the culture of the School Board, and not frame it in the negative,” Sims explained. “Tough decisions have to be made, but can be made in better ways so people will be jazzed about the schools and the community.”
Candidate Jim Schul teaches education at Winona State University, and would like to bring that focus on teachers to the WAPS’ system. “I want to uplift the profession of teachers, and invest in them in some ways that require money and others that don’t need a penny,” Schul said. He explained that he’d like to see teachers get more power in the district, as well as see their wages increase.
Save Our Schools Committee lawyer Karl Sonneman said the district needs to start listening to the community more, citing the recent school closures as a failure in communication. “The district needs to be the listener, and not the talker. Anything that opens up the doors to hearing more from the community would be a good start,” Sonneman explained. He also said he would push for a strong early childhood system, and examine bringing fifth graders back to the elementary schools.
Former and current board members compete with newcomer in district one
Steve Schild, the current district one representative, is competing against former board member Ted Hazelton and newcomer Oscar Mardones for his seat this year. Schild said he would like to continue to be a part of the work that the board has been doing, and despite difficult decisions made in the past term, he sees hope in the future of the district. “In the fall, every student will be in a place with more resources,” he said, adding that he is looking forward to seeing the new strategic plan implemented this coming year. Schild also added that the district is already taking steps to correct the budget, including the recent school sales, but he would like to keep an eye on revenue and see what else it can do.
Mardones agreed with Schild, stating that the board and administration are working hard to improve the district. Mardones, who hold a M.A. in school improvement and school leadership, said cutting programs would be off the table for him, as he would like the district to start focusing on other way to raise money including fundraising and grants. “All public programs are valuable, and I don’t want to cut anything,” he said. He also said he wants to bring the community together, and address misinformation on both sides.
Hazelton, who served on the board from 2007-2010, said he is not at all happy with how the board has been run since his departure. “I would like to bring back public trust, transparency, and accountability,” he said. Hazelton explained he would like to reexamine some decisions made in the past, particularly two-tier busing and the school closures. “Where are we going to put all these kids during renovations? There’s no strategic plan. They shot themselves in the foot,” Hazelton said.
The primary elections will be held on August 14 from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Visit www.sos.state.mn.us to find your polling place.