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Published August 12 2010

Primary narrows Frazee-Vergas slate to eight

Seven challengers and one incumbent will move on to November’s School Board election in Frazee-Vergas, Minn., where Tuesday’s primary narrowed a slate of 10 candidates.

Richard Ziegler, an incumbent who’s openly questioned administration and board decisions, was the top vote-getter. Don Thorp, the lone defender of district leadership in candidate debates, dropped out of the running for four open seats.

In final results from the election, the candidates garnered the following support: Ziegler, 830 votes, or almost 22 percent; Matt Bauer, 625 votes, or 16.5 percent; James Nelson, 561 votes, or 14.8 percent; Kenny Fett, 542 votes, or 14.3 percent; Mary Lepisto, 243 votes, or 6.4 percent; Kevin Litzau, 227 votes, or 6 percent; Brenda Como, 203 voters, or 5.3 percent; Chris Wacker, 197 votes, or 5.2 percent; Thorp, 175 votes, or 4.6 percent; and Carey Alger, 142 votes, or 3.7 percent.

Ryan Tangen, the Becker County auditor-treasurer, estimated turnout in the board primary reached close to 25 percent. In comparison, the overall Minnesota turnout in Tuesday’s primary was 15 percent, the highest in a decade.

“In Frazee-Vergas, the School Board vote turned in a real race and generated more voter interest,” Tangen said. “Anything over 20 percent is a pleasant surprise in a primary.”

The district has recently weathered a string of controversies. Contentious teacher contract negotiations stretched months past a state deadline.

This summer, the board approved a new three-year contract for Superintendent Deron Stender, a year before his current contract expires. Ziegler and fellow board member Steve Jepson opposed the contract in a 5-2 vote, calling for a chance for the new board to weigh in.

Most challengers seized on these tensions in the run-up to the primary.

Matt Bauer, a father of three district students and the second-highest vote-getter, said his outspoken support for teachers during the negotiations might have given him an edge.

“I was pretty vocal in standing up for teachers’ rights and against the way they were treated in negotiations,” he said, adding he missed only two School Board meetings in the past year.

Thorp said divisions in the district might have hurt his primary showing, but in the end it was about how forcefully candidates conveyed their messages.

“I feel any time there’s strife between individuals, things happen,” Thorp said. “But I don’t want to blame it on anything.”

He said he remains proud of the district and will continue to be a “perpetual volunteer” there: “I don’t see myself crawling off somewhere and hiding.”

Terry Kalil of the League of Women Voters, which sponsored two debates before the primary, said one event drew more than 90 residents. Voters submitted more than 60 questions for the candidates. The League will sponsor another Frazee debate in October.

“It might look like the result is already clear because there’s such a gap between the top four and the rest,” she said, “but a lot can change between now and then.”

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