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Menahga School Board candidates discuss issues

Menahga school board candidates include (left to right) incumbents Andrea Haverinen, Katie Howard and Durwin Tomperi and newcomer Bob Smith. They answered questions at the candidate forum sponsored by the League of Minnesota Voters at the school Tuesday night. Lorie Skarpness/ Enterprise.

Menahga candidates for school board answered questions from voters at candidate forum in the Tuesday night, with about a dozen people attending. The event was sponsored by the League of Women Voters Park Rapids Area (LWV).

Topics discussed included open enrollment, state test scores, strengths and challenges in the district and communication between the board and community and attracting and retaining quality staff.

Candidates for the three seats on the board are incumbents Andrea Haverinen, Katie Howard and Durwin Tomperi and challenger Bob Smith.

Meet the candidates

Haverinen is in her fourth year on the school board, the past two years as chair, and has children in the district. "This board has learned how to work together," she said. "We've been able to run calm, efficient, organized board meetings."

She said while her decisions are not always popular, people appreciate the time, thought and research that go into them. "My aim is to speak for students in the district," she said. "They deserve a solid education that will teach them to become successful adults."

She said her board experience will be an asset. "I'd like to continue the open discussions we've had on our board," she said. "I would like to see the addition we passed finished."

Howard has served on the school board for two years. "It has been an honor, a privilege and a big learning curve," she said. She has nine children, one who graduated, five attending Menahga School and three younger ones at home.

"I like to make the decisions that affect our kids," she said. "They are our leaders for tomorrow. I want to see things come to Menahga that are going to influence kids in a positive way."

Tomperi is currently the board vice chair. "I was born and raised here and graduated from Menahga," he said. "To dedicate yourself to a position like this, you have to be all in.

"Through the years we went through some trying times. There have been some big issues, especially the new addition that finally got passed last year. It's going to help our students move forward. I want to be part of the process of the building blocks that create a well-rounded child. With the changing technology we need to be on our toes by providing tools students can take with them as they go into the real world to find a job that will support their families."

Smith moved to the community 12 years ago to pastor the Assembly of God church.

"I want to do what's best for our students and our community," he said. "I love kids, history and education. I've committed my life to it, both in the religious field for 35 years and in education."

He has worked as a bus driver and substitute teacher.

"I'm interested in where our country is headed, and I just want to make a difference," he said. "Education makes a difference in your life and in your earnings. I want to see Menahga students strive, whether at a four-year-college or technical school. I want their education to be balanced."

Views on open enrollment

"I'm not against open enrollment, but I do think that our first priority is to those who live within the school district," Smith said. "We need to make sure that we take care of those who are within the boundaries of the school district first and then if enrollment allows and finances allow to open it up at some time in the future, I would possibly be in favor of that."

Tomperi said open enrollment is currently capped at 88 students per grade level. "That means if the count is below 88 and a student wants to open enroll, we let them in," he said. "With this new addition, if there's room to bump that up a little that might be a possibility. The history of Menahga is there are two or three generations of kids who have open enrolled."

Andrea said, on a statewide level ,many districts compete to see how many open-enrolled students they can get. "We are not in that position here," she said. "We don't recruit open-enrolled students. I'm not opposed to open enrollment; however, we are pretty full in here."

Howard said the board opted not to open enroll in a couple of grades, even though they were not capped. "That being said, I believe all children bring value to our school," she said.

Strengths and challenges

Smith said staff who love kids and teaching are the district's biggest strength, along with the facility, technology, and the kids. He said the biggest challenge is to "maintain what's already here and grow it even better."

Tomperi said strong family values and good kids are the biggest strengths of the district, along with a good core group of teachers and a strong curriculum that will prepare kids for the future. Keeping up with technology is the biggest challenge.

Haverinen said kids coming into the district with a solid foundation for learning is the biggest strength. The biggest challenge is "trying to figure out what the future holds and create an educational system that touches every child as an individual so they can become efficient adults."

Howard said a strong community and family values that produce wonderful kids is the biggest strength. She said the biggest weakness is "so many kids trying to fit in the building — but that should change soon."

Improving test scores

With 56 percent of Menahga students proficient in math on the state standards test, 61 percent proficient in reading and 47 percent proficient in science, candidates were asked how they would improve scores.

Howard said they are trying to move away from test scores this year by giving parents a form to choose whether they want their students to partake in the test or have four additional days of learning. She said lack of space for labs that has some students doing labs in hallways may have contributed to the low score in science, and that this should improve once the new addition is built.

Smith said Menahga students are in the top third of all Minnesota students, so that's a good sign. He suggested providing more opportunities for math and science, as these are important subjects for every student to grasp.

Tomperi said testing is subjective and students can opt out if they want to. "Ultimately the curriculum has to be based on what works best for the kids," he said. "Average isn't good enough. You need to find out what tools can be provided to make it a better learning environment."

Haverinen said looking at the individual growth of a student in a year is more important than looking at test scores as a whole and comparing them to the rest of the state. She said retaining good teachers and doing more teacher evaluations are two areas the administration has been working on.

Attracting and maintaining quality staff

Haverinen and Howard said they recently gave teachers an increase in starting salary, which attracted more applicants. Smith said the district should do what they can to be fiscally responsible.

Tomperi said while Menahga does not have the amenities big cities provide, they have the lakes area, a good school climate and salaries that are comparable to other districts.

Communication with community

Haverinen said, before she was on the board, it was sometimes a challenge getting information about issues in the district. "My phone number is in the book and I'm always willing to listen and receive feedback," she said.

Howard said she would like to continue listening sessions. "We're approachable people and I've always returned calls and emails," she said.

Smith said it boils down to building relationships, listening to concerns and bringing that to the board.

Tomperi said the school website is one tool for communication, along with the newsletter and a column the superintendent writes for the local paper. "The main thing is to have information readily available," he said. He suggested adding a radio segment about the school.

What is the last book you read?

Tomperi said he reads newspapers and magazines, but the last book he read was in college and he can't remember the title.

Haverinen said her most recent reads are a poem book about inviting dragons to dinner to her 6-year old, and for herself "Opportunity," a book about understanding how to seize opportunities in all areas of life.

"Snuggle Puppy of Mine" is the last book Howard had read. "I could tell you it verbatim," she said. "It's been all of my kids' favorite book." She is also reading a book called "Watch Your Mouth."

"Books are my life," Smith said. "As a pastor, they are my tools. I read my Bible every day, and read 1 Peter this morning. The last secular book, which I finished today, was 'The Fourth Turning, An American Prophecy' by two college sociologists.

Wrapping it up

"In closing, I think we have a bright future ahead of us in Menahga," Tomperi said. "There are a lot of positive things happening. The new addition is going to open up a lot of opportunities. This district is solid financially with good leadership at the top. We've got a good working board and it all comes down to staying focused on our kids. That's ultimately why we're on this board. I'm passionate about education and have two kids that graduated from this school and both went on to college. We want to give kids the best opportunities we possibly can."

Smith said he is very impressed by the people on the board. "I'm passionate about education, and pledge that if elected I will work hard with whoever is on the board for what is best for the community and mostly our students," he said.

"It's been an honor to serve our community and an amazing past two years, and I hope to do it again," Howard said. "We have an amazing school, terrific kids and a great community and parents."

Haverinen said because she has spent the last four year on the board she knows the responsibilities and time commitment this position requires. "It's a tough job that I believe in," she said. "I believe in education. I believe in our students and administration and staff. Most of all I believe in the political process that puts community members such as myself on the board. I think it's a really an important position."