by ALEXANDRA RETTER

 

This November, voters will decide whether to elect Pete Watkins or Ted Hazelton to the District One seat on the Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) Board. 

The seat is open as current School Board member Steve Schild is not running for reelection. 

Watkins works for the Minnesota State College and University System as director of athletic communications at Winona State University. He said that for his entire career of about 25 years, his work has been in education. He is running for the board because he feels the district has a number of positive features, in addition to the opportunity to be a progressive school system that the community takes pride in. He would like WAPS to reach the point of being the most important resource for the community. He said he would bring to the board the perspective he gained while living in communities other than Winona, the ability to collaborate with a wide variety of people, and experience with collective bargaining that would translate to interactions with teachers. 

Hazelton previously served on the School Board from 2007 to 2010. He has also been involved with a district parent-teacher association, district committees and middle and high school wrestling programs. He was inspired to run by some School Board decisions that he feels were not popular, such as school closures. He would like parents to have more involvement in schools, as well. He also has concerns about the district’s use of federal COVID relief funds to cover the costs of some positions, he said. 

Regarding what role School Board members should play in the district’s operations, Watkins said that while he feels the board has operated in a hands-off manner, his hope would be for the board to have a broader perspective and address situations such as turnover in some administration roles and discipline disparities. 

“The School Board should not micromanage, but yet they shouldn’t just sit idly by and let things happen,” Hazelton said. 

An $86 million facilities referendum slated for April 2023 is one of the top issues the district faces, Watkins said. He would also want to stabilize enrollment. 

Hazelton said top issues include declining enrollment and public trust. He would also want the district to have a balanced budget every year, he said. 

To address equity, Watkins would like to learn what work the district has undertaken to date and its plans moving forward. Training for staff would be valuable, he said. He would also want to make sure that facilities projects included in the referendum would result in accessible buildings. 

To address racial equity specifically, Watkins would want to hear from students and families about what district actions they feel are working and which are not. He also wants to hear from staff members about whether they feel they have the training to work with a diverse group of students. Additionally, he would like the district’s hiring practices to embrace diversity, as he said staff members should reflect the students they work with. “I think when kids can see themselves in their teacher and their educators, they’re a lot more likely to have positive outcomes,” he said. 

When asked what an equitable district would look like, Watkins said, “All learners, regardless of their socioeconomic status, perhaps they face a disability … they all deserve the same opportunity for a great education.” 

When asked about addressing equity, Hazelton said, “I know that, what bothers me is that too much politics gets involved in the classroom discussion, and I don’t feel that that’s appropriate. But what I would like to do is work to close the achievement gap between the minority students and their white peers,” he said. 

When asked what politics in the classroom concern him, Hazelton said, “Kids shouldn’t be subjected to stuff like, everything nowadays is racist. You can’t express yourself without being … politically incorrect. Stuff like that that shames people for being a certain race or creed.” He continued that with some people now specifying the pronouns they would like to go by, he feels things are becoming a “little carried away and ridiculous.” He added that each student should be respected, “not being coddled to and given special preference.” 

To address racial equity, Hazelton said, “I guess there’s really no magic bullet for that one. You just got to work with our administration, our teachers, our parents, our community and other board members. We need to listen to people’s concerns and try to do the best we can … to benefit the most people.” He would also like to consider hiring more teachers of color. “If they’re available and have the credentials and expertise to be in our classrooms, that would make some strides toward equity, too, I would believe,” he said. 

An equitable district for Hazelton would look like everyone being treated equally, regardless of race, he said. 

With regard to budgeting, Watkins said he has questions about the planning process and transparency in that process. 

In situations where the School Board may have to make cuts, Watkins said he would prefer to make smaller cuts across the board rather than big cuts to one program. 

Considering where costs could be saved would be valuable, Hazelton said, in areas such as overlap between departments, bussing, travel for sports and outside consultants. He would want to approach budget cuts by first cutting areas that least affect students, he said.

To address declining enrollment, Watkins suggested Informing families of the classes available to students, working to be part of area growth in fields such as manufacturing, and partnering with the city to attract families to the region. 

WAPS could better promote itself with more advertisements, Hazelton said. He added that the district should treat families as customers and be “user-friendly.” 

On the topic of facilities, Watkins said he would like to learn more from the district about what is sustainable while adding that if facilities are costing the district a significant amount of money, leaders would have to consider what would be right for the district’s size. When planning, it would be beneficial to plan in a way that would prevent needing to pursue another referendum in a decade, for example, he said. 

Hazelton, who served on the task force that recommended the facilities projects serving as the foundation of the referendum, said he cannot discredit the task force’s work, though he has questions about the usefulness of additions at W-K and Jefferson, in light of declining enrollment. He said he thinks accessible entrances at ground level could be installed without additions. District leaders have said the additions would support accessibility also by allowing programs in the basement to move up in the schools. He also said he would want the district to be cognizant of using available funding to keep buildings up to avoid large amounts of deferred maintenance. 

Education@winonapost.com