Voters will have their choice of 10 candidates seeking to fill three open seats on the West Saint Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan Area School Board during the November 2 general election.
Incumbents John Chandler and Marcus Hill are seeking re-election, while Maureen Ramirez is not. Also running for the four-year board seats are Timothy Aune, Stephanie Auran, Mark Grondahl, Sarah Larsen, Robert Reese, Morgan Steele, Jon Vaupel and Elena Villarreal.
The candidates were asked about what they saw as the most important issue facing the district and why voters should choose them. Here are their responses:
Timothy Aune, 58, of Mendota Heights is currently retired and has a bachelor’s degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He said the top issue facing the district is being clear that there still is a pandemic. “Normal is not yet an option,” Aune said. “The best option for close to normal begins with students safely in school. That requires continuing to implement best practices for students and staff, and doing everything possible to encourage everyone to get vaccinated.”
Aune pointed to his executive and board experience as reasons why he should be elected. “An effective board member works in concert with board members, staff and the community to establish policy and goals,” he said. “You engage the teachers and staff working to achieve those goals, and you encourage the community to become partners in our students’ success.”
Stephanie Auran, 52, of West Saint Paul is a recruiter who has some college education and served in the U.S. Air Force. She said the most important issue facing the district is the “widespread use of theories and ideologies throughout the curriculum that takes the focus off academics (reading, writing, math, science, history, etc.) causing division by focusing on students’ differences such as skin color, social status and sexual identity.”
Auran said she is running for the board as a concerned parent whose goal is to help guide the district in becoming a safe place for learning. “Enable educators to teach their subjects and parents/guardians to handle personal subjects as they choose,” she said. “Ensure tax dollars are spent equipping our children with knowledge and skills for their future goals.”
John Chandler, 52 of Mendota Heights is the director of development for Scholarship America. He was an Army National Guard officer, has had executive roles with such nonprofits as the Dodge Nature Center and holds a bachelor’s degree from Louisiana State University. Chandler said community engagement is the top issue facing the district. “We need to find better ways to communicate with the community as many are frustrated with current processes,” he said. “Resuming hybrid School Board meetings is one way to be more accessible and transparent.”
Chandler has served two terms on the board and said he has demonstrated a willingness “to speak with community members to ensure all voices are heard. I have 20 years of military experience serving in strategic roles and am an experienced strategic leader. I have two current District 197 students and one 2021 graduate.”
Mark Grondahl, 50, of Mendota Heights is a risk manager with a bachelor’s degree in accounting from the University of Saint Thomas and an MBA from the University of Minnesota. He counts the budget and referendum process as the top issue facing the district. “Referendums should be voted on only in years of presidential elections, when the most voters cast their votes,” he said. “The voice of the people should be followed. The 2014 rejection (of a stadium levy) and the 2018 revote was embarrassing as the board forced its wishes on the people.”
Grondahl said he is neither a politician nor beholden to a party or special interest group. “That may be good or bad,” he said. “I’ll let the voters decide. Some decisions that are best for the students may be contrary to what I’d personally decide. However, my job would be to vote with the students. I think this is a critical difference between me and other candidates.”
Marcus Hill, 56, of West Saint Paul is a data manager and has a bachelor’s degree in business administration. He said keeping students, teachers and staff safe and healthy is a priority as COVID-19 still dominates. He said the district should continue to focus on supporting teachers and staff; Social-Emotional Learning; its strategic framework; recruiting, developing and retaining top talent that is reflective of the community; and implementing systems of equity.
“I bring a fresh perspective based on lived experiences,” Hill said. “I’m a proven coalition builder (and) a champion for diversity, inclusion and instilling equitable systems. I believe in the value of making data-driven decisions. I want to make student-centered decisions, focused on
Sarah Larsen, 45, of Mendota Heights is a supervisor at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency with a bachelor’s in chemistry from the College of Saint Benedict and a master’s in public health from the University of Minnesota. Larsen said Social-Emotional Learning is a critical issue facing the district after navigating a pandemic and distance learning. “Our School Board needs to provide personal development for staff and a SEL advisory group,” she said. “The ability of our students to make responsible decisions, manage emotions, establish healthy relationships and self-regulate are key to their success.”
Larsen said her experience in the district sets her apart from other candidates. “I’ve been a member of the district Parent Ambassador Network, the Strategic Planning Core team, and have volunteered in our district schools doing everything from math tutoring to book fairs,” she said. “I love our schools, and this is my next step in service to our community.”
Robert Reese, 62, of Sunfish Lake is a vascular surgeon and clinical assistant professor of surgery who recently retired. “With only 29 percent of Two Rivers High School seniors demonstrating academic proficiency in 2020, it’s time to return to placing the emphasis of education on the core studies of reading, English, math and science,” he said. “To continue the current academic slide will only negatively impact your child’s opportunities and future success.”
Reese said his extensive background in surgical education and leadership positions can help create necessary educational change. “I’ll work to reestablish the educational excellence that once was a cornerstone of living in Minnesota,” he said. “In doing so, your child will feel the pride of accomplishment and have their best chance of future success in life.”
Morgan Steele, 36, of West Saint Paul is a French teacher and instruction leader at Richfield High School. She has a bachelor’s degree in French and secondary education from Cornell College, and a master’s in teaching from Grand Canyon University. She said continuing equity work and ensuring that programs are accessible and affordable are two of the top issues facing the district. “Focusing on each individual and on Social-Emotional Learning also needs to be a priority as we continue through a pandemic and unrest due to civil rights violations,” she said.
Steele is the parent of a student at Somerset Elementary and a child who will be there in two years. She has been teaching grades 5-12 for 15 years. “I believe in public education and that the best way to invest in our future is to invest in our students,” she said.
Jon Vaupel, 45, of Mendota Heights works for the Minnesota Department of Education in the Early Learning Services Division. He has a bachelor’s degree in public policy and economics from Syracuse University, a master’s of public policy from American University and a master’s in education from Johns Hopkins. He said COVID-19 is the top issue facing the district. “We must continue the mitigation strategies we have in place (including masks) and support/encourage vaccinations,” he said. “A higher vaccination rate will keep our students safe in school and limit future disruptions. We should think about our approach in a way that values, supports and embraces all students.”
Vaupel said he has spent his career fighting to strengthen the public education system at the “federal (U.S. Senate, U.S. Department of Education), state (Minnesota Department of Education), and local (kindergarten teacher, special education program manager, college and career coach) levels. I also have a steadfast commitment to equity, diversity and inclusivity.”
Elena Villarreal of West Saint Paul could not be reached for this story.
District seeks renewal of its operating levy
During the November 2 election, voters will be asked to renew District 197’s current operating levy, which was approved in 2011 and will expire this year.
The current levy provides the district with $224.48 per pupil or around $1.3 million a year. If renewed by voters, the levy would be in effect for 10 years, beginning in 2022, and would increase each year by the rate of inflation.
District officials say renewal of the levy will not increase a homeowner’s property taxes in 2022. The district plans to use the money to sustain current programs and services, and to maintain class sizes.
A public meeting on the ballot question will be held at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, October 13, at Heritage Middle School, 121 W. Butler Ave., West Saint Paul. For information, call 651-403-7008 or visit isd197.org/2021Levy.
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