South St. Paul School Board candidates focus on funding equality

There are several challengers in this year’s South St. Paul School Board race for four seats. Incumbents Kristie Hood, Chris Walker and Wendy Woods Felton are trying to hold onto those seats against Bill Arend, Kara Beckman, Katherine Delsing, Linda Diaz, Ann Schultz Counihan, Marjorie Stewart and Monica Weber. 

Sarah Winslow-Brewer is not running for re-election.

The Review asked the candidates via email why they are running, what skills and experiences they will bring to the office, what they believe to be the top challenges the district faces and what issues or projects they would prioritize if elected.

 

Bill Arend, who declined to provide his age, lives in South St. Paul with his wife Liz and is retired. He earned a degree in social work from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. 

Arend said he went through 12 years of schooling in the South St. Paul district, and has “genuine concern for the kids, interest in seeing our programs go forward, and a team work attitude.”

Arend added he is running to give people “a positive choice for a solid school board.” He believes the challenge facing the district is its ability to balance its budget. If elected, he said he would put students’ needs first. 

 

Kara Beckman, 41, is married to Mario Fuentes and works as a senior evaluator for healthy youth development at the Prevention Research Center at the University of Minnesota Medical School. She has a master’s degree in conflict transformation from Eastern Mennonite University. 

“I’ve worked with schools, researchers and community organizations on improving school climate and how best to create classroom environments that support child and adolescent development and learning,” she said, adding she also brings skills in conflict resolution, collaborative decision-making and restorative justice from her master’s degree training. 

Beckman said schools are key building blocks in community building, and that the community and schools can do more to make all students feel they are academically engaged and have positive relationships with their teachers. She added she would like to see more parents of current students on the board as “it brings a heightened sense of urgency to addressing issues.”

The challenges facing the district include addressing systemic issues that don’t address disparities and working to develop systems that balance support and accountability.

Another challenge is funding. 

“The district should continue advocating for a more equitable school funding formula,” Beckman said. “At the same time, we must do more to make equitable decisions based on what we know improves learning outcomes.”

If elected, Beckman said she would prioritize ensuring classroom environments for preschool and kindergarten are focused on play, so students get the social-emotional foundation needed for later development. She added sixth-grade student educators need to have protected time for interdisciplinary teams and professional learning communities, in order to address needs that arise.

“Sadly, our state mandates an almost singular focus on academic metrics — which puts schools and teachers in a tough spot,” said Beckman.

 

Katherine Delsing, 48 and married to Michael, is employed with the Minnesota Supreme Court Board of Continuing Legal Education/Lawyer Registration Office. She has a master’s degree in business administration from Capella University. 

Delsing said she believes her skills include “strength with cultural sensitivity and [an] ability to build relationships with a diverse workforce or community,” a willingness to take on a challenge and learning new ways of working. She also said she’s well-organized and works well in environments that require multitasking for many projects at once, and is an innovative problem-solver.

Delsing said she is running because she feels she would bring a different outlook to the board.

“I have been listening to parents for years and I have heard how the transparency of the board is one thing that parents and students want more of.  I think that by listening and having experience of being a concerned parent makes it important to be willing to step up and help change,” she said.

Delsing said a challenge facing the district is living within its means, “which means having the ability to make improvements without asking for property tax levy after property tax levy.”

Delsing added she wants to see follow through on issues that are examined by the district, such as start times, because “letting it slide” is another waste of money.

If elected to the board, Delsing said she would prioritize the importance of studies of later school start times. 

“I feel that maintaining the open transparency with parents and not sticking with the good old boys club will help us move into the future as a strong community and great place where people want their children to be raised and get a great education,” Delsing said.

 

Linda Diaz, 45, is a behavioral operations supervisor with a master’s degree in counseling psychology from the University of Minnesota-Duluth. She said she was an early childhood teacher for almost 10 years and worked as an elementary school counselor for two years. 

Diaz said besides work in the classroom, she was a behavioral specialist for Head Start in Ramsey County, “offering coaching and strategies to teachers who had children with behavioral issues in their classrooms.” She was the director of an early childhood mental health behavioral program in two districts, as well.

“I understand schools, classrooms, teachers, students and how the communities they live in affect their learning day,” she said.

Diaz is running for school board because she said she grew up in the South St. Paul community and returned to raise her son here because she believes in what the schools offer. She added she believes she has experience with different school settings that would be an asset to the work done by the board.

The most pressing challenge facing the district for Diaz is school start times and funding. 

“The board is tasked with balancing the needs of all of the students, the teachers, the busing schedule and funding. They have committed much time and energy to get to this point and still have the task ahead of them to see it come to fruition,” she said, adding she sees the issue of poverty in the community and how it affects students as “a top priority to raise awareness, understanding and planning.”

If elected, Diaz said she would continue to work on the school start times issue. She would also make “sure to voice the issue of poverty/homelessness as that relates to all issues the board discuses these next years.”

 

Kristie Hood, 48, has been on the board for four years. Married to Dennis, she is the office manager at Meister Orthodontics. Hood has a technical college certificate from the International Air Academy Technical College along with several college-level courses and professional development certifications. 

During her time on the board, she served as vice chair for two years. She said she has proven leadership, commitment to and support of many and “varied civic organizations with a focus on children and education.”

Hood says her 25 years of small business management experience have afforded her experience in human resources, technology, contract negotiations, sales and marketing. 

“With more work to be done, I feel compelled to continue to lend my support for the betterment of our community, support of our educators and success of our students,” she said. 

Hood added the board must continue to engage families, educators and community members to identify needs and strengths that have an impact on student success. Factors that help or hinder learning must be identified and policy needs to be created that lends to building change. 

She added the partnership between community stakeholders and legislative leaders needs to be strengthened to address inequity in school funding.

“We must provide the tools and environment that all students need to be successful in the classroom and to prepare them for continued success beyond, in both career and college readiness,” Hood said.

If re-elected, Hood said she would continue to publically engage in work for the betterment of those in the district and the community at large. She added she would continue to work toward equity in funding so children in the district have the same advantages as other districts and that taxpayers are not unfairly burdened.

 

Ann Schultz Counihan, 53, is married to Brian and works as the director of client services for Gopher Sports Properties. She has a bachelor’s degree in business administration-marketing from St. Mary’s University. 

Schultz Counihan said she previously served on the school board for eight years, five of which as chair or vice chair, and led the most recent “Vote Yes” operating and technology levy campaign. She added that along with her family, she founded The Stride for Packer Pride, an annual 5K run that raises money for students at the high school to pay their extracurricular activity and athletic fees. She said she is a “selfless and proven leader with a focus on results that benefit all kids in South St. Paul and an unwavering commitment to the community.”

“Having served in this same capacity in the past, I am a proven and substantive candidate with no agenda other than a desire to do what is best for all kids in South St. Paul,” Schultz Counihan said.

She said the top challenges facing the district are enrollment and what can be done to maintain or increase enrollment as funding is calculated on a per-pupil basis. 

Other challenges include providing quality programming to a diverse student population with the goal of all students being career or college ready. She said a final challenge is maintaining a safe place for kids to learn and grow.  

If elected, Schultz Counihan said she would want to do whatever is necessary to keep “South St. Paul kids in South St. Paul schools.” She would continue to work with legislators to get rid of funding mechanism discrepancies.

“This formula currently discriminates against school districts like South St. Paul whose tax base is heavy residential and low business,” Schultz Counihan said.

 

Marjorie Stewart, 62, has a bachelor of fine arts degree in graphic design from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. She is an associate pastor and married to John. 

Stewart said she has analytical skills and the ability to keep and maintain a budget.

“I can provide leadership skills that will bring about a better future for students,” she said.

Stewart said she is running to offer her skills and vision to the community. 

She said the top challenge facing the district is “how to be a good steward of monies that have been taken from other people.”

If elected, Stewart said she would prioritize “how to get free of the PC foolishness that has infected our schools so that we can provide an education to students that will actually give them skills for their future.”

 

Chris Walker, 57, is an account manager at Wells Fargo and is married to Connie. He has a bachelor’s degree in finance from the University of St. Thomas. He is currently serving out his first term on the board. 

If re-elected, he said he would bring this experience of being a board member along with “the financial skills gained through decades in the business.”

Walker said he originally ran to give back to the district that served his family well. 

“That reason still exists, but to that I add that I would like to continue to apply the knowledge and relationships built up during my four years on the board,” he said.

Walker added the district’s efforts to teach each student at their individual level has been building, and whatever the subject may be, it needs to continue.  

If re-elected, Walker said he would prioritize teaching each student at their own level, career readiness and the safety of students. 

Monica Weber, 37, is married to Jesse and works in grants administration for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. She has a bachelor’s degree in social student education from the College of St. Benedict, and a master’s degree in advocacy and political leadership from the University of Minnesota.

Weber said she would bring her skills in government budgeting and accounting, advocacy and lobbying, a strong willingness to listen to others and energy to the board.

“I care about this community and the bright future it has as well as the rich history from its past,” she said, adding she chose to live in South St. Paul because its values of community and education reminded her of home — something she didn’t expect find in the Twin Cities. She’s originally from central Minnesota.

“I want to be able to serve on the school board because I want to be a part of South St Paul’s future, which I think is directly linked to the education our children receive in our schools,” she said.

Weber said the funding disparity between the district and neighboring districts is a problem the Legislature needs to resolve. 

“It is not fair that our homeowners are penalized because our tax base does not have the commercial district like West St Paul or the home values of South Washington County,” said Weber, adding she would work with local lawmakers and the community to rally for equal funding. 

If elected, Weber said she would prioritize ending funding disparities while working with the Legislature to do so, as well as working on the space issues that may arise with the addition to the district of new residents with young families.

 

Wendy Woods Felton, 51, is finishing her fourth term on the board. She works at Oxendales Market and has a degree from Inver Hills Community College in executive secretarial, as well as a medical clerical degree certificate. 

Felton said she has a long history of working with the youth of the community. She has attended training offered through the Minnesota School Board Association and received recognition for her hours of attendance. 

Felton added her tenure on the board is valuable in making necessary decisions that have to be made on a regular basis.

“I believe that a quality education is the right of every student in our district,” Felton said, adding she wants to give students every possible opportunity so they can lead successful lives when they leave school. 

She said one job of the board is to keep the district fiscally sound by keeping up on all funding resources the district has.

“We are fortunate to have a great staff that watches the spending and keeps us in our board policy guidelines regarding fund balances,” Felton said, adding beyond state and federal funding sources, the board has to search for as many opportunities as it can to support students and staff. 

If re-elected, Felton said it would be a priority for her to focus on communication this term. She said it is important for families and the community to get to know the district and what is has to offer. 

“We need to promote the great things our schools are involved in and also make sure we let the families know that we are working on issues of things that need improvement,” Felton said.

 

Election Day is Nov. 6. To find your polling place visit www.pollfinder.sos.state.mn.us.

 

-Hannah Burlingame can be reached at 651-748-7824 or hburlingame@lillienws.com. 

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