Seven people are running for three seats, including two incumbents, for three four-year positions on the Stillwater Area Public Schools board. Candidates are current board chair Sarah Stivland, board member Mike Ptacek, Dawn Beavers, Annie Porbeni, Matt Onken, Katie Hockert and Philip St. Ores.
The Gazette hosted a candidate forum for all seven candidates on Monday evening, Oct. 12. Porbeni had a family emergency out of state, and she was unable to attend the in-person and socially distanced event.
In June, Stillwater Area School District black students and alumni authored a letter to the school board addressing past racism in the district and advocated for new policies and programs that support diverse students currently attending school.
Following on the heels of the discussion sparked from the letter, forum moderator Marguerite (Margot) Rheinberger asked each candidate to give an A to F letter grade on how the district is doing for racial inclusion, and what can be improved
Ptacek responded first, and stated at best the district received a C and it could still be in the D range.
“I’m not sure what the term racial inclusion includes,” he said. “If you’re talking about if we’re doing enough in terms of equity or helping students who come for a diverse background, I think we could do a lot better.”
Part of the issue relates to death of George Floyd in Minneapolis as the incident has sparked a national conversation and made the district look at the issue closer than it has ever before.
“Now the extreme is George Floyd. The everyday problem is kids not learning, and what can we do to personalize education,” Ptacek said.
St. Ores agreed he wasn’t sure what racial inclusion means either. He referred to his political science background.
“If you stratify it by economics those racial lines go away,” St. Ores said. “So I’m uncomfortable with the way we classify those groups because it’s not an accurate interpretation of what’s going on here. It’s an economic issue.
So I think that ought to be changed immediately because it gets in the way of the decision making.”
St. Ores declined to give a letter grade.
Stivland gave a grade of C at the highest for the district.
The district is now responding to the plight outlined by Black students and alumni addressed in the letter.
“The silver lining is some of our students, and former students have had the courage to step forward, and raise awareness about some serious concerns about disrespectful behavior and unkind
behavior in our district,” she said.
Stivland pointed out the district recently hired a racial and inclusion coordinator and is starting to take other steps toward addressing these issues.
Beavers rated the district as a C.
“You know probably at the beginning of the summer I might have given that a D or an F,” Beavers said. “As Sarah was just alluding to our racial inclusion hire … and that has been an amazing hire for us.”
Hockert had a different perspective and gave the district an F.
“Even though, yes, there have been a few small things moving in the right direction, but ultimately we heard from our black student population that we are failing them, and they listed, in detail experiences that they have endured at the hands of their own peers as well as staff within our district,” Hockert said. “To me that is unacceptable. We must hold our staff at a bare minimum accountable.”
The district should also see that as a learning opportunity.
Onken declined to provide a letter grade, but noted the district could do better. He added the steps the district took over the summer are not enough, yet.
“Yes, it’s great we’re hiring some minority people in administration as well as teachers, but that’s not an end all,” Onken said. “They’re not here to make it for us. We need to make it happen for ourselves.”
The minority population has increased
significantly in the past few years, and lot of that is in the southern portion of the district.
“That’s also the area we have some huge equity issues in our buildings,” Onken said.
The discussion between the board candidates at the forum also included what the role of a board member is, a discussion of hiring a new superintendent and what else the district is doing well (or poorly at).
The entire 75-minute forum is available online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C5JmdXOyibU.The forum for 4-year-board candidates is available at the same page.
The Gazette also emailed each candidate the same set of questions, all responses, including Porbeni’s, are available on the Stillwater Gazette’s website under the 2020 election tab.