MOORHEAD — The eight candidates for the Moorhead School Board agreed for the most part that improving the achievement gap with students of color and urging more funding from the state were among the most important issues in a forum Tuesday night, Oct. 6.

The safety of students and staff during the pandemic was noted as a major concern, too.

The candidates are seeking four seats on the seven-member board, with all four incumbents seeking another four-year term.

The incumbents are Cassidy Bjorklund, Melissa Burgard, Scott Steffes and Matt Valan, with challengers being Ezzat Haider, Thaddeus Laugisch, David Marquardt and Shawn Stumphf.

The candidates in the forum held via a Zoom meeting sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Red River Valley were each asked what set them apart from the other candidates.

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Haider said he could connect the schools to the Moorhead community of color.

Laugisch, who talked about the importance of learning a trade as an alternative for some students, said he could bring fresh thoughts and an open mind. He suggested, as an example, that the district should offer Arabic or Somalian as a language instead of Spanish.

Steffes said in his eight years on the board he has always stressed his ability to listen and be approachable He noted he has learned a lot about the complex budgeting process.

Burgard said her background in social work and education is what would set her apart, as she can offer her research studies to also help students.

Bjorklund, who is chair of the board this year, said she luckily has the time to devote to the job, she'll always take concerns or calls from residents and she isn't afraid to go to the administration for answers. She said she always puts students first.

Stumphf, a certified public accountant, said there might be a gap on the board of someone who has accounting and finance as a background. Being a college educator, he said he felt he could bring those backgrounds to the board.

Marquardt, a former elementary teacher for 20 years who works with North Dakota United, an organization that represents teachers and other public employees, said his background in understanding issues from a teaching perspective would be important. He said he has negotiated contracts in his time as president of the Fargo Education Association and reads a lot about trends in education.

Valan, seeking a second term, didn't participate in the forum.

When asked about the achievement gap and bias against students of color that was identified by the Minnesota Department of Human rights, the candidates mostly agreed that recruiting and hiring more diverse staff would be a good move to correct those issues.

Bjorklund said there is a program for teachers to learn about sensitivity while educating and encouraging students that has been helpful at Moorhead schools thus far.

Marquardt said it should be a community effort to eliminate bias, while Laugisch said admitting bias exists can be the first step.

Stumphf said only about 3% of the staff is part of minority groups, while 30% of the student body is part of minority groups. He suggested volunteers of color could help recruit more teachers of color.

Haider said he believes alternatives to student suspensions could also be helpful to minority students and assist in shrinking the achievement gap.

The candidates were all in agreement that more state aid, which they said has fallen behind for a decade, was needed for the district to achieve more of its goals. Steffes said Minnesota state aid per pupil is thousands of dollars below what North Dakota provides per student.

The school board vote will be in conjunction with the general election on Nov. 3.

View the voters' forum below.