This year’s Westonka school board election has drawn more candidates than has any other district board election in the past decade.
Seven candidates—incumbents Brian Carlson, Loren Davis, and Gary Wollner; and Katie Holt, Rachael Myers, Kathleen Olesinski and Gregory Snyder—are vying for three seats that that will be on the ballot this November.
The district’s cultural competency plan, its COVID-19 response and student safety and mental health dominated the 90-minute candidate forum that the League of Women Voters Wayzata-Plymouth Area chapter hosted Sept. 21 at Westonka Performing Arts Center.
When asked about Westonka’s cultural competency plan, Holt, Myers and Olesinski said it was lacking in detail and both Holt and Olesinski said there should have been more community input on it.
Snyder said that the plan was “well thought out” but that it had a weakness in referring back to state curriculum guidelines and that the district should be aware of the curriculum coming into the schools, making sure that it fits with the district’s aims and with ensuring that every student achieves.
Carlson, Davis and Wollner, as current school board members, were part of the board’s approval of the plan in June. Carlson and Wollner both echoed remarks made my superintendent Kevin Borg last month that the plan could better be called a “framework” for future action items.
Responses to questions about Westonka’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic were focused on decisions made in recent weeks, namely the decisions made regarding masking in school buildings.
Wollner said that he and others now on the board were in a “no-win situation” when it came to creating a face mask policy but that if a masking requirement diminished the possibility of returning to distance learning—a situation he said would make no one happy—then that was what he’d favor. Carlson and Davis, in their responses, also linked the continuance of in-person learning to having a face mask requirement if that was what community and school transmission rates were recommending.
Holt, Myers and Snyder were clear in their support for parent choice when it comes to masking, while Olesinski said the district should do its best to ensure that all students felt “comfortable” while in school.
Olesinski also said it would be a “huge undertaking” to recoup the academic losses of the past year and, with Myers, said it might require a more individualized approach to address the learning loss; they each stated that hey saw some students excel in distance learning while others could not even focus.
Each of the candidates also recognized last Tuesday the role that mental health plays in a student’s academic success.
“Mental health is a huge issue,” said Wollner, who applauded the district for bringing in a professional from the University of Minnesota to conduct a review of current support systems.
Olesinski said that the pandemic “put everybody in a tailspin” and that existing issues became magnified, resulting in a “mental health deficiency” that had to be addressed.
Carlson said there was no one solution to addressing mental health needs, and Myers said the district should ensure teachers had the resources they needed to identify potential problems.
Davis pointed back to his experience as a church pastor and as a volunteer chaplain for the Orono and Minnetrista police departments and said the topic of mental health was especially important to him.
Snyder acknowledged not being fully up to speed on what existing resources are within the district but said he believed continuing with in-person learning would go a long way in helping.
Holt said that the schools’ first priority is the education of students and that mental health goes hand in hand with that.
Candidates also talked about why they’re running for school board this year.
Wollner talked about the work he’s helped carry through while on the board and said “we have really matured over the last 12 years,” particulary with an emphasis on Advanced Placement opportunities.
Olesinski and Myers both mentioned a desire to increase access to information about how and why decisions are made.
“I think that’s one of the huge pieces that anybody who has a child in this system is missing—we’re missing the ‘why,’ we’re missing the voice and we’re missing some kind of a forum to bring that up in,” said Olesinski, while Myers commented that “As a parent, I don’t want to be asleep at the wheel.”
Snyder and Holt both reiterated their preference for parent choice in masking, while current board members Davis and Carlson tried to distance the board from politics.
Said Carlson, “Being on the school board is about so much more than anything to do with masks or pandemic. There’s a lot of other issues and, frankly, a lot of issues that are way more important than whether or not we have masks right now.”
You can find the full Q&A on the League of Women Voters Wayzata-Plymouth Area website at https://www.lwvwpa.org.