Duluth School Board candidates took the stage at the Duluth Playhouse Family Theater at the Depot Tuesday to answer questions ranging from transparency issues to trust, and discuss their top priorities.
Candidates included Loren Martell and Paul Sandholm running for the District 3 seat being vacated by Nora Sandstad; District 2 incumbent David Kirby and challenger Harry Welty; and At Large incumbent Alanna Oswald and challenger John Schwetman.
The group was asked what they want to see in the next superintendent — current superintendent Bill Gronseth plans to step down after his contract ends next year — and how they would address equity issues within the district. One of the more telling questions was how, if elected, they would help regain the trust of the public following recent news surrounding an apparent lack of transparency surrounding the superintendent search, as well as the hiring and firing of employees.
Oswald was the first to answer. She said board members need to be more responsive to the community and explain why certain decisions were made.
“I respond to every email or phone call I get,” she said. “We need to be more open and have those conversations with the community.”
Schwetman agreed with Oswald and said the board needs to reach out to people more often. Kirby also agreed, saying the board needs to state more clearly what it can and can’t do. Kirby further explained that the board is only in charge of hiring and firing the superintendent.
Welty called recent actions by some board members and administration a disgrace and compared it to a child in trouble.
“Operating under the thought that what people don’t know won’t hurt them is ridiculous,” he said.
Sandholm said a good start would be to allow everybody on the board to have the same information so they could communicate better with the community.
Martell said secrecy is a systemic problem within the board that could be fixed with new people in the boardroom and opening up the agenda sessions to the whole board and the public.
Oswald and Welty agreed with Martell that the agenda sessions should be opened to the public. Kirby said he didn’t see a problem with the current process where the board chair and board clerk set the agenda for upcoming committee and board meetings.
Newcomers Sandholm and Schwetman had different thoughts. Sandholm said he thinks the whole board should be included and how that process works should be decided by the next board. Schwetman said it makes sense to delegate certain things, but that also requires trust. He said he was open to the idea of the agenda sessions being public but wanted to know the trade-offs in doing so before making a decision.
When it came to top priorities, nearly every candidate had different answers. Sandholm said he wants to expand the community programs that are already in schools, such as Lincoln Park Middle School and Laura MacArthur Elementary.
“I think we need to fully fund the programs we already have first,” he said.
Martell said he wants to focus on selling Central High School as soon as possible because that’s what he’s hearing the public wants. Schwetman said he wanted to focus on finding common ground between both the east and west side of town when it comes to allocating resources.
“And being transparent on how we’re doing that,” he said.
Welty said the issue of equity is driving him as well. Oswald also said equity would continue to be her top priority as it has been her first four years on the board. But she also said she plans on focusing on the superintendent search and having citizens engaged in that process, as well as engaging in the conversation of current school boundaries as the district looks to possibly making changes.
Kirby said his priority would be getting to know the new board and focusing on the overcrowding issues at schools within the district he represents.
The candidate forum was sponsored by the News Tribune and the Duluth Chamber of Commerce. Election Day is Nov. 5.