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Nine vying for Barnesville school posts

All nine applicants for the Barnesville School Board agree the district needs to move beyond the events of the past year. But for many candidates the past -- which includes a lawsuit that resulted in two board members stepping down -- was the mot...

All nine applicants for the Barnesville School Board agree the district needs to move beyond the events of the past year.

But for many candidates the past -- which includes a lawsuit that resulted in two board members stepping down -- was the motivation behind running.

"I decided to run next time there was an opening, when the turmoil was going on," said Steve Brink, director of Moorhead's Transitional Supported Employment of Minnesota office.

"I didn't feel there should be a husband and wife on the board or think there was a right to terminate (former superintendent Todd) Cameron's contract. We lost a good person, and I didn't want to see that happen again."

Former school board member Loretta Szweduik, 38; and incumbent Tom Ishaug, 40; were joined by Brink, 48; Roland Holm, 65; Mike Wheeler, 47; Jeff Stangeland, 41; Jon Braton, 38; Mary Nosal, 33; and Robert Praska, 42; in filing for the three four-year board positions.

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Many of the candidates, including Brink, believe the district has made progress since April when Szweduik and Randy McEvers stepped down to settle a lawsuit.

The suit, filed by a group of Barnesville citizens, claimed the state's open meeting law was violated 37 times and some board members met in secret to plan the firing of Cameron, now a superintendent at New York Mills, Minn.

McEvers wasn't named in the suit but was asked to resign to change the makeup of the board.

Ishaug and Ken Bauer were appointed to fill the spots May 5. Bauer and Kevin Smith did not seek re-election.

"Things have gone smoothly," Ishaug, a loan review officer, said of the new board makeup.

That's a main reason Ishaug decided to run again. He feels now he has an opportunity to tackle tough questions like how to do more with less money.

"We've focused on school board business," he said. "That's the way it is supposed to be."

Szweduik, a technical office specialist for the city of Moorhead, said through e-mail she is running again for office "to give the members of this district a clear choice between the changes they voted into office in 2001 or returning to the 'good old boy -- business as usual' policies of the past."

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Szweduik said she has received "tremendous" encouragement and support from members of the district.

"I believe in the democratic process, which I feel was subverted by the hostile and abusive actions of a minority group," she said in the e-mail.

Szweduik said she is running again, in part, to prove intimidation tactics don't succeed.

Wheeler, who owns Wheeler Lawn Care and Landscape, said he would strive to bring continuity back to the district.

That's done by being a "good listener" and by being candid with district residents.

"If there is something I don't know about, I will research it and find an answer," Wheeler said.

Stangeland wants to be a part of the district's search for a new superintendent.

Currently, the district has an interim superintendent -- Keith Klein, who headed the Pelican Rapids, Minn., school for 25 years.

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"Our school district, our town needs to move on and to focus on the students," Stangeland said. "We need to get together so we can search for a new superintendent."

Braton, who works for Red River Telephone, said he was born and raised in Barnesville and attended school in the district.

He said he did not ally himself with either of the board factions and will provide fresh perspective.

"I am very neutral as to what has been going on," he said.

Declining enrollment and reduced state funding necessitate the district make itself as attractive as possible to students, he said.

"The negativity that surrounded the school has to stop," Braton said. "We need to quit emphasizing the troubles of what happened. Our school has many great things to offer."

Praska, an audit supervisor at Noridian Administrative Services, also believes the district needs to move past the controversy by electing new board members.

"The election is going to be a major factor in what happens to the district in the next few years," he said. "It will definitely help to have new blood on the board."

A board's focus should be the students, Praska said. He's running to ensure that happens.

"We have to get board members who are interested in the kids as opposed to what happened," Praska said.

Nosal, who responded to questions via e-mail, has lived in the Barnesville School District 33 years.

The MeritCare Hospital employee said her focus will be trying to stop enrollment from declining and watching spending. She didn't specify how the district should deal with the issues.

Holm was a teacher for 38 years -- 32 of those were spent in Barnesville -- and a wrestling coach for 31. He has three family members also in education and believes his experience in the field makes him a qualified candidate.

"I know about academics and extra curricular activities," he said.

Holm said it's important to create an atmosphere of respect in the district, which starts with the school board. That's done by communicating with civility. "People are going to have to think long and hard before they start saying some of the things they have been saying," he said.

The three candidates elected on Nov. 4. will work with Ellen Smith (Kevin Smith's wife), Heather Jerald, and Tim Thompson and Jeff Brown. Each have two years left on their terms.

Candidates earn $65 a meeting or about $780 a year.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Jeff Baird at (701) 241-5535

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