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West Fargo School Board candidates answer questions at candidate panel

League of Women Voters Red River Valley sponsored the event ahead of the June 14 vote.

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West Fargo School Board Candidates spoke to voters at a panel sponsored by the League of Women Voters Red River Valley, Tuesday, May 17, at the West Fargo City Commission Chambers. From left, Jon Erickson, Cole Davidson, Jessica Jackson, Mark Staples, Jessica Jones and Jim Jonas.
Wendy Reuer/The Forum
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WEST FARGO — Six of the seven West Fargo School Board candidates who will vie for four open seats in the June 14 election were open to answering questions, Tuesday, May 17.

League of Women Voters Red River Valley sponsored a candidate panel Tuesday evening. Incumbents Jon Erickson, Jessica Jackson and Jim Jonas, as well as appointed member Mark Staples, were joined by newcomers Cole Davidson and Jessica Jones. Candidate Scott Daniel Kasprick did not attend.

Each candidate was given about 1 minute to answer submitted questions from audience members. The questions ranged from specific candidate ideals to those that touched on national issues such as policies addressing transgender students, student behaviors and teacher retention policies.

Davidson was raised on a ranch in western North Dakota and worked in higher education at North Dakota State University. He now works in sales for a large corporation. Davidson said he is running for his family, including his children who are students in the district. He said he sees controversial social ideologies being promoted in schools and he is concerned distance learning is a detriment to learning. Davidson said he doesn't like what he is seeing in schools across the nation.

"I'm a strong believer that parents should be the primary stakeholder in their children's education," Davidson said.

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Jones is a parent and psychologist, who has empathy for other parents who have said they find it difficult to engage with the school board.

She said she is running for a seat to make it more accessible and equitable in the community, urging the board to begin streaming its meetings.

"As a parent, I'm striving for the West Fargo district to continue to be one of excellence and choice," Jones said. "I believe teachers need freedom and strong support from parents."

Staples, a 2013 graduate of West Fargo High School, was appointed to fulfill the term of Kara Gravley-Stack in August. He worked for Gov. Doug Burgum and now works as with The Nature conservatory. Staples said the loss of learning due to the pandemic and providing equitable opportunities for students across the district are his priority and he felt his perspective as a more recent graduate can be valuable to the school board.

"I believe every student deserves a public education that sets them up for success," he said.

Jackson is seeking a second term on the board. She is a West Fargo native with four teenagers and a 2-year-old who will attend school in the district. She first got involved as a PTO member. She has a bachelor's degree and masters in human development sciences. Jackson now works as a retirement adviser. She said she continues to be passionate about the work of the school board and she'd like to continue working on the task forces she's been a part of.

"I serve with passion, dedication, ask questions, challenge when necessary," Jackson said. "I've learned you can move mountains when you put together a passionate group of people who put the kids first."

Erickson, who is seeking his third term, said he is running again to continue his work on the board. He hopes to keep consistency on the board as it continues to grow.

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"We're here for the kids," Erickson said. He said a highlight of serving on the board is helping students learn skills that will help them beyond graduation, and attending the high school graduations and meeting seniors has been inspiring.

"If you want to be inspired, certainly that is the way to do it," Erickson said.

Jonas, who is now serving a term as board president, is former longtime teacher and coach in West Fargo Schools. Jonas is seeking a second term on the school board while simultaneously running for election to the state House of Representatives in District 13. He said he is working to be seated on the state board of education once elected to the House. He was asked directly if he would be able to juggle both positions and he is confident he can after years of working two jobs as a coach and teacher. He added that he does not allow politics to influence his role on the school board.

His fellow candidates said they also believe Jonas can balance the two positions, and feel it could be a benefit to the district.

Candidates were asked what they would do to help aid the teacher shortages.

"Student disciplinary policies are too soft," Davidson said. "I strongly believe student disciplinary policies and teacher retention are strongly related."

Jackson said the district is already using a variety of methods for teacher recruitment, which she supports.

Jones said she grew up in a family of educators and stays involved in her children learning. She pointed towards compensation but said morale and mental health of staff needs to be supported, including mental health support.

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Jonas said the state is flush with money, yet teacher pay is ranked as some of the lowest in the country. "We can do better." He said student behaviors is an issue in the district and teachers need to be empowered to deal with those issues.

Erickson has served on the negotiations team the past eight years and worked with the teachers union to discuss what needs staff needs to stay in West Fargo.

Staples supports the district continuing to invest in a variety of factors that can support teachers including facilities with manageable class sizes, equitable resources across the district and investing in staff positions with comprehensive pay to spread out spread out the workload.

The candidates were asked about a rise in student behaviors, pointing to instances of violence some students have reportedly performed against teachers, making them fearful of teaching in the classroom.

Jones said she works as children and families daily as a psychologist and policies addressing student behavior has been on a rise. She supports giving students access to mental health and consistent training for teachers to feel supported and safe in their environment.

Jonas said there has been a spike in instances and he has spoken to teachers who have been hit or bitten. He said in the district's elementary schools, there are social emotional learning specialists in place to help but teachers need to feel empowered to feel safe.

Staples acknowledged an uptick in behavioral issues in schools, especially since the pandemic. He supports the district's efforts to hire behavioral specialists who can work with students and families to ensure teachers can feel comfortable in the classroom.

Erickson said teacher morale is a "huge" issue and the recent pandemic has made changes to what the new normal is.

He said the biggest thing to help this is to continue recruitment and going back to the regular schedules for teachers.

Davidson said he believes there should be zero tolerance policy for any type of student violence in the classroom and students should be removed from the classroom.

"One student shouldn't be allowed to disrupt and damage the learning of other students," he said.

Jackson said instances of violence were on the rise before the pandemic. She would like to explore family engagement in the district to help lessen behavior problems.

All candidates agreed that keeping property taxes and seeking outside funding such as that from state and federal sources was paramount.

Candidates were also asked about banning certain books in schools.

Davidson said it should be up to a parent if their child should have access to the book and not be left up to the school. Staples said the district has good systems in place that to monitor appropriate books and material into the good schools. Jones said when it comes to banning books, the board needs to consider who is calling for such a ban and that teachers should be consulted to determine what is appropriate for their age group. Erickson agreed working with the teachers on what books should be allowed, is the best practice.

One questioner asked if the district policy is not to notify parents of children who may present as a different sex than what their birth identity was. Jonas said at West Fargo, all students are respected and the district is committed to inclusion.

Staples said the issues seems to have been blown up across the country and is being used as a flash point in politics. He feels the district's position is to keep students feeling safe and included.

"Students and families can work that out for themselves and the school district doesn't have to be involved," Staples said.

Davidson said he is familiar with the policy and it encourages staff to keep the secret of a transgender student from parents. He wants to change the policy if elected.

West Fargo School Board members are elected to four-year at large terms. The top four vote-getters on June 14 will be elected to the four open seats. West Fargo School District includes West Fargo, parts of Fargo, Horace, Harwood and surrounding rural areas.

READ MORE FROM WEST FARGO EDITOR WENDY REUER
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Readers can reach West Fargo editor Wendy Reuer at wreuer@forumcomm.com or 701-241-5530 . Follow her on Twitter @ForumWendy .

As the West Fargo editor, Wendy Reuer covers all things West Fargo for The Forum and oversees the production of the weekly Pioneer.
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