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Some school board candidates skip Fargo event, citing partisan host

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The Cass County United Republican Committee hosted a panel discussion for local school board candidates on Wednesday, April 6, 2022, at Fargo's Holiday Inn.
Alyssa Goelzer/The Forum
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FARGO — The room was packed with people and questions for school board candidates at the “Politics and a Plate” luncheon hosted by the Cass County United Republican Committee on Wednesday, April 6.

All candidates running for Fargo and West Fargo school boards were invited to participate in a discussion panel, but only four Fargo candidates agreed to take part.

Two West Fargo School Board members told The Forum they did not attend because of the political nature of the event organized by a partisan group.

“Due to the nonpartisan nature of school board elections, I do not intend to participate in any debates or events sponsored by a political party,” said West Fargo School Board member Mark Staples.

Candidate forums hosted by the nonpartisan League of Women Voters of the Red River Valley are coming up in Fargo at the end of April, and for West Fargo in mid-May, but political luncheons involving school board elections are not appropriate, West Fargo School Board member Jim Jonas said in an email.

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“I will not take part in any debate sponsored by a political party. Decisions affecting our students should be politically free,” Jonas wrote.

As lawmakers and businesspeople bumped elbows over plates of chicken and rice at the Wednesday event attended by more than 70 people, Fargo School Board member David Paulson told The Forum he was at first hesitant to sit on the panel.

Paulson believes candidates need to discuss pressing issues, and he said school board meetings in Fargo lately have “turned into a circus."

“I really was originally reluctant to come forward because it should be totally apolitical, and I haven’t told anybody, but if they make an endorsement or offer financial support, I am not accepting it. I don’t want to be viewed as a Republican candidate or a Democratic candidate,” Paulson said before the panel discussion began at Fargo's Holiday Inn on 13th Avenue South.

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Fargo School Board candidates David Paulson, left, Alexis Scott, Kristin Sharbono and Deven Styczynski took part in a panel discussion on Wednesday, April 6, 2022, at Fargo's Holiday Inn.
Alyssa Goelzer/The Forum

“The school board shouldn’t be tied to the Republican party or that, that other party,” Paulson said during the panel, which solicited laughter from around the room.

Daryl Ritchison, moderator of the event and director of the North Dakota Agricultural Weather Network, said that although a political party sponsored the event, questions and even the audience were nonpartisan.

“The school board is nonpartisan. We happen to be the URC and we’re citizens here but in no way, shape or form should you take this as an endorsement of these candidates. We’re just a group of citizens that happen to meet every month. I don’t know if there is anyone in this room that would want the school board to be partisan,” Ritchison said.

Along with incumbent Paulson, three challengers seeking Fargo School Board seats took part in the panel discussion: Alexis Scott, a workforce development consultant with four kids and treasurer elect for the Centennial Elementary Parent-Teacher Organization; Deven Styczynski, a “working dad from north Fargo”; and Kristin Sharbono, a licensed clinical counselor with five kids.

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The panelists were asked questions about school boundary changes, critical race theory, furries, transparency issues and concerns about student achievement.

In Fargo, the seats of five incumbents are up for grabs in the June election: Paulson, Rebecca Knutson, Jennifer Benson, Robin Nelson and Brian Nelson. So far, Paulson is the only incumbent to publicly announce his intention to seek reelection.

The deadline to file paperwork to run for the school boards in Fargo and West Fargo is Monday, April 11.

In West Fargo, the school board incumbents whose seats are up for election are Jonas, Staples, Jessica Jackson and Jon Erickson. As of Wednesday, Erickson, Jackson and Staples had registered to run again, according to West Fargo Schools Business Manager Levi Bachmeier. One challenger, Scott Kasprick, has filed to run.

Jonas, president of the board, has not officially registered yet, but told The Forum he plans to run for a second term. Jonas has also received the GOP endorsement in the race for a North Dakota House seat in West Fargo's District 13.

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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