The Orono school board has three seats up for election this fall. Current Director Laura Wallander, current Board Clerk Michael Bash are seeking re-election. Ali Howe and David Shuler are also running for an open seat. Current Treasurer Dick Lewis is not seeking re-election.

The League of Women Voters Wayzata-Plymouth hosted a forum on Sept. 12 at Orono Middle School. The four candidates participated in a format where they answered submitted questions and questions from the audience.

Each candidate introduced themselves during their opening statements. Topics included the candidates’ top priorities, the biggest challenges of the role, school safety improvements, the achievement gap and the upcoming referendum.

“It’s hard to narrow it down to just one,” Wallander said when asked what her top priority is. “I think my Number One priority is to keep us focused on the processes that made us so successful in the first place.”

Wallander, who is running for her second term, continued to say she would like the district to stay true to the current processes the district is using over the next four years when implementing new initiatives. She emphasized the amount research and study that goes into a decision before it is approved.

Shuler said the safety of students is his Number One issue and he would like to see it kept a top priority.

“The districts administrators, teachers in partnership with the police force have already done some really great things to make sure the people are trained in the event of emergency, but I think there’s an opportunity to go even further and to consider every path to make sure that we uphold that as the most critical issue,” he said.

Howe’s priorities focused on academic excellence, including the emotional and mental wellbeing of students as well as the achievement gap, vaping issues at the high school and school safety. Howe also touched on continuing the programs that will prepare students with the skills they need after high school.

“For me the priority is academic excellence but also removing the obstacles for children to obtain that academic excellence,” Howe said.

Bash continued to say that district superintendent Dr. Karen Orcutt is “most likely going to retire in the next four years,” and hiring a leader is the most important thing any school board does.

“While I agree with what the other three candidates have said, the most important thing that the Orono school board will do in the next four years is hire a replacement superintendent for Dr. Orcutt,” Bash said. “I believe that I have that expertise, having been on the board for 16 years. I understand the nuances of that so we make sure we execute all these other ideals.”

When asked what is the one biggest challenge facing the Orono school district and what could be done to remedy it, Howe said the obvious answer is funding. She said the district needs to continue to be creative and innovative with their strategies. The second issue Howe briefly discussed is the growing number of students who are vaping and saying new strategies should be tested to combat it because it is a new issue within the district.

Bash agreed with Howe that funding is the most important issue the district is facing. One reason for that, Bash said, is the federal government has special education requirements that cost $1.8 million, adding that the state has not funded “to the tune of $1.8 million.” This is partly the reason why the district is going out for a technology and textbook levy, he said.

While Wallander agreed, she believes the biggest challenge from an academic perspective is that students are literate from a very young age.

“This is not a problem that is unique to Orono. This is a problem that everyone is facing but we have a lot of kids who are not reading proficiently at their level by third grade...Reading is the foundation for everything they will do later in their lives,” she said.

The district performed a study this past year according to Wallander, and will be implementing and searching for more programs to optimize learners.

Shuler took a different approach, saying the biggest challenge is “how do you do so much with the budget you have?”

“This is a community that I think is feeling over-taxed already and the tendency is to try to do more and more for the benefit of the kids, education and district and to try to do so in a budget neutral or cost effective way obviously is a challenge,” he said adding his background in finance would be an asset.

When the topic of school safety arose, candidates discussed changes to be made to protect students’ physical wellbeing as well as their mental and emotional wellbeing.

According to Shuler, staff should be trained in CPR and AED adding the district should continue to perform drills, anticipate situations and how best to respond as well as “strongly consider metal detectors” at an entrance.

Wallander continued to say the district learned a lot from the lockdown in Feb. 2018 and there is still more they can do to improve security. She added the middle school is the only building that does not have an office located at the front of the building; however, they need to be looking at mental health factors as well to find out why it’s happening.

Keeping the topic on the mental and emotional wellbeing of the students, Howe added that there is an effort to get more experienced counselors available for students as well as to continue the partnership with the police department, consultations with safety experts and to constantly improve on district strategies.

According to Bash, the district is “ahead of most school districts” when it comes to safety. Five years ago, the district upgraded the front entrance to most district buildings; however, he added students and staff continue to practice drills in order to be prepared.

“We’re on the right track. We’re doing the right things. It’s a never-ending target and we need to remain vigilant,” he said.

All four candidates continued to share their views on issues within the district including the district’s budget, the achievement gap, their philosophy on unions, special education, enrollment and the upcoming referendum.

The entire school board candidate forum can be viewed at https://orono.k12.mn.us/2019/09/16/watch-school-board-candidate-forum-online/

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