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Martell, Sandstad face off in District 3 school board race

Nora Sandstad (left) and Loren Martell

Voters heading to the polls one week from today to pick a new Duluth School Board member in the 3rd District will choose between Nora Sandstad, an assistant St. Louis County attorney and former teacher, and Loren Martell, a small-business owner.

District 3 includes downtown Duluth and the Duluth Heights, Piedmont, Central Hillside and Park Point neighborhoods. The seat currently is held by Bill Westholm, who is not seeking re-election.

Sandstad, 36, advocates for improving the image of the school district to attract and retain students who may be looking elsewhere. She has two young children who will be entering the school district in the next few years.

Sandstad said she has a background that would benefit the school board, and noted that she'll be invested in the school district for the next 16 years with her children.

"I have a teaching experience. I have a master's in education. I can have a conversation about best practices in teaching and contribute to that," she said. "I am an attorney and along with that comes great problem-solving skills and the ability to remain civil in a public meeting and the ability to make tough decisions and say no when necessary, but to advocate for things that are important to our students and teachers as well."

Martell, 63, who operates a water systems company in Duluth, said he wants to address inequity between the schools on Duluth's east and west sides, as well as create more transparency on the Duluth School Board.

He noted that he's been raising those concerns for several years and said his concerns resonate with District 3 residents. Martell said a number of residents still are upset about the district's long-range facilities plan and are upset about the district's inability to sell closed school buildings.

"They see the promise of equitable education across the whole city as another betrayal of the West End and I also think some of the complaints expressed about the (school) district in the 3rd District are tied to the general angst in the country about government mismanagement, reckless spending," he said.

This is Martell's third campaign for a seat on the Duluth School Board. He unsuccessfully ran for an At Large seat in 2013 and the District 2 seat in 2011.

This is Sandstad's first run for public office.

Priorities

If elected, Sandstad said that she'd like to ensure that students are able to take the courses in which they're interested and that class sizes are appropriate. She pointed out that art and music classes in the elementary schools have been cut back for financial reasons.

She'd also like to expand the school district's immersion program. The district currently offers Ojibwe at Lowell Elementary School.

"I think that would be a good thing to draw in parents, especially parents who have a choice about where to send their kids," she said.

In addition to addressing east-west inequity, Martell said his priority will be to create more transparency and to encourage a diverse range of voices to attend board meetings.

"I'd like to welcome back and restore some trust. I want more procedures opened up and made more transparent and democratic. I want better government, better use of funds by the school district," he said.

He said the school district's increasing levy hasn't yielded an excellent education, pointing to a gap in the proficiency rates between students in Duluth's eastern schools and western schools.

"We haven't seen any progress in real education. In fact, we've gone backwards in many areas, especially in the western schools," he said.

Enrollment issues

On enrollment, Sandstad said she'd like to reach out to parents of young children and address the reasons why they might not choose to enroll their children in the Duluth school district; as the mother of a 4-year-old, she recently researched school options in the area.

"I think we need to do some work as a district on messaging and making sure the image of the district matches up with the great education," she said.

Martell noted that enrollment is affected by the increasing competitiveness in the area and the Duluth school district needs to be competing for students.

"The board itself has to project a better image and be more responsive to the public. The board, after all, is made up of the public's representatives and people believe that the board has not been responsive enough," he said.

Budget concerns

When it comes to the budget, Martell said he wants an increase in the funding allocated to the schools in western Duluth, particularly with a new Edison high school slated to open in 2017 that will compete for students. The board needs to deal with the potential loss of students "as if it's a crisis situation," he said.

"I do feel Denfeld is vulnerable to competition from that new high school and we have to find the money. It's not going to be easy in the budget, but we have to prioritize particularly to address the western schools," he said.

Sandstad said she wants to ensure the district has enough staff to maintain appropriate class sizes, offer electives that students want and provide transportation so that students have access to educational opportunities. As a former teacher, she said she also wants to ensure that the district is finding creative ways in the budget to retain teachers, possibly with a type of loan-forgiveness program.

"I was someone who left teaching in part because of the struggle to pay off student loans. That's something that I think is important," she said. "I think, in general, we totally undervalue teachers as a society and that's not something we can change within one district — but we want to have really excellent teachers teaching our kids and so we have to come up with creative ways to make sure they're going to stick with us."

Board dynamics

Sandstad said she hopes that the addition of three new board members in January will change the dynamic of the school board and lessen the animosity that's been present in recent years. She said she would consider having workshops, in addition to committee meetings, that allow board members to discuss specific issues facing the district.

"The board needs to get together in January and look at the structure and ensure that the procedure set up for board meetings is facilitating discussion and allowing ideas to come forward," she said.

The board currently has a problem with transparency and isn't welcoming to the public, Martell said. Among other steps, he called for agenda sessions to be open to the public, similar to the Duluth City Council's sessions.

"I don't think there's been desire to have both sides given full ability to express their point of view. It's been one side against the other, but neither is listening to the other side and I believe part of that is procedural," he said. "I think you're better off with an open debate, a fair and open debate, than you are in the current situation, where it's set up for conflict because one side feels that they're not being heard and any time you have that type of situation, you're going to have a conflict."

DULUTH SCHOOL BOARD DISTRICT 3 RACE: Grid with questions and bios for the candidates (PDF)

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