Voters will elect four of seven candidates for the Stillwater School Board.

Mark Burns

Please share a little bit about yourself and your background. 

I am a resident of West Lakeland with my wife and two daughters. I graduated from Stillwater Area High School, and went on to receive a chemical engineering degree and a law degree. I am currently an intellectual property attorney at a law firm in Minneapolis.

What are the two most important issues facing the Stillwater school board and how would you work to address them? 

The most pressing issue facing the district is its budget, and determining how to construct a stable budget moving forward. The school board is currently challenged with making nearly $2.5 million in budget cuts. While making budget cuts are difficult, it is imperative that the budget be structured to live within the district’s means. I would certainly make every effort, when considering budget cuts, to preserve programs that directly impact students. Classroom resources should be the highest priority in the budget.

Another urgent issue is the rapid population growth in the southern portion of the district. To begin to address this growth, Brookview Elementary school should be expanded. If we are to take advantage of the opportunities that a growing population offer, having an open door in high student density regions is a good start. Keeping those students in Stillwater Area Public schools will provide a strong return on the investment into Brookview. Beyond Brookview, plans should be defined soon to find solutions to accommodate growth in other regions of the district, including the attendance area for Lake Elmo Elementary school.

What was your stance on the 2017 district consolidation and what insights have you gained since the closure of Marine, Withrow and Oak Park elementary schools? 

I believe that a school board member’s primary job is to define a forward-looking vision that sets a course for the district to follow. The school consolidation decision defines our current facilities usage, but it should not color the board’s decisions moving forward. Instead, the board should look to define a future that best serves the students of the district, independent of past decisions.

A reality the board must address, however, is the community division that the consolidation decision has created. A top priority for the district must therefore be to re-engage and unify the community. To do so, the school board should provide a forum for input from the community, including teachers and families, to identify key concerns. The board must then work with the administration to implement solutions that are responsive to those concerns.

Why are you interested in serving on the school board?

I am interested in serving on the school board because I am passionate about educating kids, and I am passionate about this district. Growing up in this district gives me a unique perspective among the candidates of the traditions of excellence in our schools, and the importance of community connection with our schools. I am running for a school board seat to provide a voice which speaks for the entirety of the district, and which is based upon a reasoned understanding of the facts underlying each issue.

Matthew Cooper

Please share a little bit about yourself and your background. 

My experiences in healthcare, corporate strategy, and aviation include program development that has been tested and scaled. This experience was fortified by an MBA with emphasis on design innovation applied to process, services, and strategy. I wish to apply this to achieve the best we can for every student.

What are the two most important issues facing the Stillwater school board and how would you work to address them? 

The District faces the challenge of continuing to provide excellence and breadth of offerings in academics, the arts, and athletics. There exist inequities in opportunity and exposure to program selection. We must explore precision in learning and curricula, from Special Needs to the academically gifted, to support individualized achievement based on interest, talent, and rate of growth.  Investment in the development of our educators is vital to deliver these competitive attributes. These strategies will be informed by tapping the best of internal and external resources.

These challenges exist in the context of severe financial constraint and mistrust among relevant stakeholders. We must first be efficient and innovative stewards of the resources granted to us by taxpayers. Fiscal strategy must be operationalized to address immediate financial stability and achieve sustainability. These are to be achieved by employing an aggregate of remedies from short to long term. Further, we must do this in a manner that establishes our District and its programs on competitive status with the best of our comparators.

This combination of vision with pragmatism, must be delivered with unassailable quality and integrity.

What was your stance on the 2017 district consolidation and what insights have you gained since the closure of Marine, Withrow and Oak Park elementary schools? 

The consolidation, including closure of Marine, Withrow and Oak Park elementary schools, was consistent with the recommendations of the 2014 Long-Range Facilities Planning Committee Final Report in addressing building capacity issues across the district. The geographic location of the schools combined with inequitable and incomplete service delivery was inconsistent with the mission and obligation of the district to provide for all.  Evident population growth supported by demographic studies indicates the growth in the Southern and Central parts of the District corresponding to decline in the North. As such, the closure of Marine and Withrow, in particular, is supported. With respect to Oak Park, this facility has actually not been closed. It serves effectively as the site of important alternative educational programs and is planned to house relocation of Central Services. This will allow sale of the current Central Services building, thus contributing to District reserves.

Why are you interested in serving on the school board?

I wish to serve on the School Board to share relevant and transferable expertise from perspectives not necessarily represented on the Board. My daughter’s matriculation in the District affords me a personal perspective, as well, regarding the modern challenges, distractions, and potential impediments facing students, faculty, parents, and administrators, and the value of passion and continued intellectual stimulation in life’s pursuits.  My focus will always be on Students and Education first. I am analytical and practical and consistently able to apply a cross-pollinated approach to solving significant challenges. I bring a fresh perspective without preconceived agendas.

Jon Fila

Please share a little bit about yourself and your background. 

I have been an educator for two decades, I’ve spent the majority of my career working with struggling learners, populations of students who have not traditionally been served by traditional classroom settings. I am an Innovation Coach, have developed platforms for online learning and am dedicated to equity in education.

What are the two most important issues facing the Stillwater school board and how would you work to address them?

One important challenge in the district is financial, which is likely to be a long-term issue. In the current climate, it seems that any new funding is unlikely to pass so it is important to find ways to address student needs without allowing the students to notice the changes. One way to get at this is to collaborate with other districts who face similar issues. I have a history of bringing school district representatives together to solve complex issues, like I helped to do with the MN Partnership for Collaborative Curriculum, which over 200 districts in the state have joined to develop resources that meet MN Academic Standards.

Another challenge that requires much more work is addressing issues of student anxiety. We have populations of students who were not properly sheltered from new boundary lines; students who are stressed by current events; screen addiction; bombardment of media messages that elicit fear and division. Students who are worried about bringing in enough money to their classroom for school fundraising efforts. We need to protect our students and shield them so that they can focus on their friendships and making academic progress.

What was your stance on the 2017 district consolidation and what insights have you gained since the closure of Marine, Withrow and Oak Park elementary schools? 

Children were not protected and shielded enough from the decision and from the fallout of the ensuing legal battle, not shielded from the emotional impact of the adults reacting to that decision. I care about students and the experiences they have. I do not believe that there was focus on how this impacted learners, reducing the issue to personal beliefs and data points. I see the humans behind numbers. I see how children have now been supported and are thriving at their current environments for over the last school year. Unexpected issues come up; unfunded state mandates we’re responsible for; changes in demographics across a wide geographical region and I believe in helping to share the rationale behind the decision making process. I believe that it’s time to move on and that the issue has been sufficiently litigated and am in favor of what to do now and next. 

Why are you interested in serving on the school board?

I care about how board policy affects children, including my own. Education is my career, my life and the future our community. There should be a voice at the table for those who understand what good teaching looks like so we make the best decisions about how to prepare students. I know what teachers need to take care of learners so they’re ready to engage in academics while learning skills required for the future workforce. I want them to look on our schools as a place where they felt like they were supported and encouraged to do their best.

Donald Hovland —

Incumbent

[Editor’s note: The Stillwater Area School Board appointed Donald G. Hovland to the school board at its July 12 meeting. This appointment filled a vacancy left by Tom Lehmann who had been appointed district court judge for Minnesota’s Tenth Judicial District.]

Please share a little bit about yourself and your background. 

I’ve spent my entire career in education. First as a teacher, then as assistant principal and principal in Montana. I spent 27 years as principal of Stillwater Junior High School and one year as assistant superintendent for secondary in Stillwater. I was named Minnesota Principal of the Year the first time the state awarded the honor. I was fortunate enough to have a staff and student body who twice received the honor of National Schools of Excellence. I was on the board of directors of the National Principals Association, representing the Dakotas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Wyoming.

What are the two most important issues facing the Stillwater school board and how are you working to address them? 

We have a budget shortfall of $2.5 million. We have to find a way to address that with a minimum impact on students and teachers. The reason we’re in this business is students and we need to minimize cuts to programs for students, including those who are challenged and those who are gifted.

Second, we need to bring about some healing of the divide caused by the closure of the three schools. I have a good reputation in the school district as former principal. I don’t want to continue to feed this divide. I want to figure out ways to resolve it.

What was your stance on the 2017 district consolidation and what insights have you gained since the closure of Marine, Withrow and Oak Park elementary schools? 

I am moving on from that. I want to heal. I don’t want to continue to create problems. What’s done is done and we need to move on, protecting the students, class sizes and keeping teacher morale high.

Why are you interested in continuing to serve on the school board? 

Because I had 27 wonderful years here working with students and parents. I believe I owe something to repay all the opportunities I was given. I want to heal, not divide, and pay back what I can as much as possible. I have no hidden agenda.

Shelley Pearson — 

Incumbent

Please share a little bit about yourself and your background. 

My family and I have resided in Stillwater for 11 years. Two of our children attend Stillwater Area High School, and two attend Stillwater Middle School. I possess a bachelor’s degree in business administration and am very involved in the community. This is my fourth year on the school board.

What are the two most important issues facing the Stillwater school board and how are you working to address them? 

Budget and Facilities – We are facing a $2.5 million budget deficit for the 2018-2019 school year, and if adjustments are not made, deficit spending will continue. We must look at programming to ensure we make the best decisions for both student learning and district finances. I would like to look deeply at our finances with special consideration given to areas of greatest increase in the past several years. In addition, I would like to see our teachers, families, and community members to come together in a collaborative effort to find ways to make cuts with minimum impact on student learning. Finally, I would love to see a finance advisory made up of community members who are strong in finance to look at the budget through a different lens.

Board Dynamics – While there are so many important items we need to look at, the climate of the board over the past several years has hindered us in making progress in many areas and must be changed. We need to tweak some of our processes so that the community understands how we arrive at decisions, and we must do a better job of including community and teacher voice in our decisions.

You voted “no" on the 2017 district consolidation. What reflections or insights have you gained since the closure of Marine, Withrow and Oak Park elementary schools? 

I voted “no” to the consolidation largely because of two reasons: 1) The superintendent’s job is to convince the board that a recommendation is the beat thing to do, but I was never convinced, and 2) I disagreed with the process of how the decision was made. I believe that I would vote the same today, not because there would never be a time to close a school but because I believe in including our community in decision-making. This does not mean I abdicate my responsibility as a school board member but that I would seek to communicate clearly the decision we are considering and work hard to hear what people are saying in response. At the end of the day, the difficult decisions may need to be made, but the way we treat people in the process makes a tremendous difference in how the community can move forward.

Why are you interested in continuing to serve on the school board? 

I have spent four challenging years on the board, and while it may be easier to let someone else deal with continued challenges, I have put in too much time to give up. I have a deep desire to serve the students, staff, families and taxpayers of District 834, and I desire change in the way we make decisions and how we bring the community along. I would like to do the hard work of becoming a board that values all seven members and works toward consensus so that we make the best decisions for our students and communities.

Tina Riehle

Please share a little bit about yourself and your background. 

I am successfully self-employed, married to my husband Mark and together we have six children and five grandchildren. For the past three years I’ve attended nearly every board meeting work session or retreat including strategic planning and pathways exploration. I'm familiar with the budget and I'm itemizing the 2015 bond. 

What are the two most important issues facing the Stillwater school board and how would you work to address them?

I believe the most important issues facing the district are climate, growth and revenue. Coincidentally, all three of these can positively impact the other. With genuine community involvement and buy in  we can positively affect school climate, increase enrollment and increase revenue.

What was your stance on the 2017 district consolidation and what insights have you gained since the closure of Marine, Withrow and Oak Park elementary schools? 

I believe the district received no benefit from the school closures. The money that was promised to be an annual reinvestment opportunity never materialized. Those students left the district and took their funding with them. The only thing that the district managed to accomplish was creating an illusion of division and a loss of community trust. I also feel that by closing those three schools the district lost educational opportunities for students that don’t fit into a one-size-fits-all system.

Why are you interested in serving on the school board?

I believe in our schools and I believe we can become top leaders in education with a program desired by our own communities and the ones around us. Rather than spending money on an inflated district administration, it is more important for us to focus on our teachers and our students to improve on our academic proficiency.

Liz Weisberg

Please share a little bit about yourself and your background. 

My family has lived in the Stillwater school district for 11 years. I have a Bachelor of Business Administration and a Master of Science in Education. I have taught at Marine, Oak Park and Withrow elementary schools. I am currently the Director/Lead teacher at Red Bridge Preschool in Marine.

What are the two most important issues facing the Stillwater school board and how would you work to address them? 

The first important issue is declining enrollment. Over the last 12 years, our capture rate has declined from 80 percent to 70 percent.  Stillwater school district has reduced school choice while competing schools have responded to the need for alternative learning environments. We can address that need by reopening Oak Park as a choice school. We need genuine community engagement to determine what type of choice school would bring more families back to our district. 

The second important issue is loss of trust in leadership. Our board has prioritized the demands of administration over the needs of the community. Our administration-led board spends tax dollars on projects without voter approval. We now have a $7 million bus garage that was budgeted to cost $3.5 million and a $600,000 reading curriculum purchased against the wishes of a parent committee. Administration is currently trying to push a $5 million expansion of the newly constructed Brookview Elementary with no community input and many unanswered board questions. $146,000 was recently spent to repurpose Oak Park Elementary without ever bringing it to the board. Many district surveys have ignored community wishes. Trust can only be reestablished by truly including the community in crucial district planning.

What was your stance on the 2017 district consolidation and what insights have you gained since the closure of Marine, Withrow and Oak Park elementary schools? 

I was against the closings. I’ve never seen anything more dishonest in local government than what our district leadership perpetrated on this community. Their plan was a bait and switch proposal, hatched in secret. If we had been told that investing tax dollars in all schools, in reality, meant three would be closed, I doubt the bond would have passed. The district’s own survey showed 60 percent of the community did not support the closures.

We were told closing schools would bring financial stability. The projected $1.26 million saved was promised to be an annual reinvestment in the remaining schools. Students were to have greater access to support services. Yet, parents have complained of insufficient services combined with over-crowded classrooms. We now face a $2.5 million budget deficit and our academic proficiency has declined. We should never rush projects without sufficient data and community support.

Why are you interested in serving on the school board? 

The district has established a disturbing pattern of rushed decisions and disdain for community input. The administration-led board is overly focused on bricks and mortar and the needs of our students and teachers are being ignored. Families continue to seek educational alternatives and our academic proficiency has declined. 

We need to get back to our primary mission of educating students, promoting academic excellence and preparing well-rounded students for the future. This can only be achieved by truly partnering with the community. I am proud to be part of this vibrant community and eager to begin this important work.

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