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Crowded field shows for Fargo School Board forum

The 15 candidates vying for five seats tackled topics such as mask mandates, teacher shortages and critical race theory.

League of Women Voters of the Red River Valley candidate forum at Fargo City Hall on Wednesday, April 20, 2022.
League of Women Voters of the Red River Valley candidate forum at Fargo City Hall on Wednesday, April 20, 2022.
By C.S. Hagen/The Forum
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FARGO — All 15 candidates running for five seats on the Fargo Public School Board showed up to discuss the issues at the League of Women Voters of the Red River Valley candidate forum on Wednesday, April 20.

Most of the candidates agreed on a few topics, including free meals for all students, and using public funds only for public schools.

Incumbents Rebecca Knutson, Brian Nelson and David Paulson faced challengers Kristin Sharbono, Alexis Scott, Zac Echola, Greg Clark and Melissa Burkland in the first round of the candidate forum.

In the second round, incumbent Robin Nelson faced six challengers: Lyn Telford, Deven Styczynski, Katie Kelsh, Allie Ollenburger, Katie Christensen and Nyamal Dei.

Questions were submitted by the public online, minutes before the forum began. Each candidate had one minute for opening remarks, for answering questions and for closing remarks, said league board member and moderator Cady Rutter.

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The topics raised to the candidates were poignant to the times, including: teacher shortages, mask mandates, diversity, equity and inclusion issues, critical race theory and funding private schools with public funds.

All candidates agreed that the teacher shortage and parental input issues were of paramount importance.

“There are 141 teachers and staff who have resigned recently, and it breaks my heart to see so many teachers leaving,” Dei said, adding that teachers needed better salaries and better access to grants.

“We need to find creative ways to compensate our teachers,” said Kelsh.

“Give everyone the respect they so rightfully deserve,” Robin said.

“This is a tremendous problem, and it’s going to get worse. Doubling the salary won’t solve the problems because a lot of teachers are working their heads off and nobody seems to care,” Paulson said.

“Money isn’t going to solve this problem and we’re going to have to lean on the community, especially parents to solve it,” Styczynski said.

Christensen advocated for more funding and collaborating with universities to attract more teachers.

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Most candidates said the district needs to do better with getting parents more involved, with Ollenburger saying the district did not have an effective open feedback system to listen to constituents.

One of the topics that solicited the most disagreement between candidates was mask mandates during the coronavirus pandemic. Knutson, who is the current president of the board, said she is proud of what the school board did and relied on health professionals for advice.

Paulson, Sharbono, Ollenurger, Styczynski and Scott said the decision to mandate masks should have been left up to parents.

“I will never ask anyone to do something that I am not willing to do myself,” said Sharbono, adding that board members were out in public without masks while the mandate was in place.

“We did the best we could with the information we had at the time,” Robin said. “I felt we needed to own the decision.”

“When we’re in the midst of a public health crisis, we follow the guidance of the health experts,” Christensen said.

“It is the public health's job to delegate if a school should wear masks or not, and that’s how it should be done,” Dei said.

Echola said parents and students were all frustrated during the mask mandate, but “the answer to that frustration isn’t to get super 'shouty' at school board meetings,” he said.

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Another topic that candidates disagreed on was the issue of diversity, equity and inclusion in public schools.

Paulson, a current board member, said that “Fargo Public Schools has the job of educating students, and there is a period at the end of that sentence.”

Clark took issue with Paulson’s statement, saying not all students are obtaining the same equitable education, and that the district needed more educators from diverse backgrounds to better reflect the student population.

Ollenburger backed a safe learning environment for all students to be themselves. Styczynski countered that the focus should be on education and not on what he called "identity politics."

Dei, who joked her last name is the acronym for diversity, equity and inclusion, said that all communities within public schools should be represented, including on the school board.

“We know our queer youth do better when they’re accepted, I fully support efforts that aim to protect our LGBTQ in school,” Christensen said.

“We need to create love at every level and celebrate differences,” Robin said.

While the state outlawed the teaching of critical race theory across the state last year, most of the candidates agreed that the issue was not relevant because the theory that people of color face a system that is rigged against them does not have a place in K-12 schools, but does in higher education.

Both Clark, Telford, Robin and Echola said that the discussion around critical race theory was no more than a distraction from the real issues.

“CRT is not taught in any schools; it’s a college-level legal theory, and has been used to create a moral panic tied to the defund schools movement. It’s no different than kitty litter in schools, which is an insane topic we somehow talked about,” Echola said.

Christensen opposed banning any theories because of the chilling effect such actions have on teachers.

Dei said the issue was irrelevant, and that the school board needs to help teachers, students and address the achievement gaps.

C.S. Hagen is an award-winning journalist currently covering the education and activist beats mainly in North Dakota and Minnesota.
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