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Published August 01 2010

Frazee-Vergas to hold school board primary

It’s shaping up to be another lively election season in Frazee-Vergas, a 930-student district in northwest Minnesota’s lakes country.

To narrow down a bustling slate of 10 candidates for four open seats, the district will hold a primary Aug. 10, a rare occurrence in school board elections. Today, a second candidate debate takes place in town, and emotions are running high. Most challengers have embraced a platform of sharply criticizing the current board.

Most recently, criticism has focused on a decision to grant Superintendent Deron Stender a new three-year contract roughly a year before his existing contract expires.

Chris Wacker, one of the candidates, says he’s concerned about how polarizing the discussion leading up to the election has become. He’s tried to stay neutral.

“We’ve got two factions right now: the Frazee Education Association-backed candidates and the existing board that’s been under a lot of criticism,” he said. “Everybody’s expecting all the candidates to take a side.”

The Frazee Education Association has not endorsed board candidates.

Candidates have levied varied criticism at district leadership, from spending decisions to legal bills. They’ve bashed its dysfunctional relationship with teachers and the long, tough negotiation over teacher contracts, which cost the district a $25-per-pupil state fine.

“Our superintendent has too much power,” said candidate Carey Alger. “Instead of the board being his boss, the board does what he says.”

Challengers have been especially critical of the superintendent contract approval, which some felt should have been left to the new board to negotiate – a move Alger called “disgusting” and “a disgrace.”

“Deron Stender wanted to get the contract done before the new board got in so he wouldn’t have to worry about his job,” said Mary Lepisto, another candidate.

Dana Laine, the board chairwoman, disagrees the renewal was rushed. Taking care of that task left one less item on the board’s busy agenda. For Stender, it offered “the security of knowing he has a job, knowing that the majority of the board believes in him,” Laine said.

“You have a board that’s been working with him for four years already,” Laine said. “I do believe this is best left in the hands of the current board.”

Stender pointed out the board gave him a positive evaluation only a month earlier. He touted the district’s latest standardized test scores – among the state’s highest in science – achievements he said are getting lost in the pre-election shuffle.

“Among all the criticism and the allegations, we stay focused, we do our job, and we do what’s best for the kids,” said Stender, whose existing contract expires next June 30.

Jerry Bellefeuille, a leader of the Frazee Education Association, said, inevitably, the board election will be at least partly a referendum on the direction of the school district. The relationship between teachers and the administration remains strained.

“I think people realize there needs to be more communication between the administration, the teachers and the board; it needs to be more of a team effort,” he said, adding, “If residents really like our current administration, we’ll make things work regardless.”

Today’s debate is at 7 p.m. in the Frazee Event Center.

About 80 people turned out for the first debate, sponsored by the League of Women Voters. Residents submitted multiple questions, and organizers split candidates in groups of three.

“That way, we could get through more questions,” says moderator Helen Foltz.

Donald Thorp, one of two incumbents running for re-election, said he doesn’t feel at a disadvantage among a group of challengers calling for change. The other incumbent in the race, Richard Ziegler, voted against Stender’s new contract.

Thorp said voters should take into account the precarious Minnesota financial picture in which the board operates.

“You can’t get tunnel vision,” he said. “You have to open up and take in all the information.”

If you go

  • What: Frazee-Vergas School Board candidate forum

  • When: 7 p.m. today

  • Where: Frazee Event Center

  • Information: (218) 334-3423

    Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529