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Helmut Schmidt, Published May 03 2012

Fargo School Board candidates take on Bluestem, other issues

FARGO – Candidates for the Fargo School Board shared their ideas Thursday on how to handle financial issues tied to the Bluestem Center for the Arts, as well as several other topics, in a 90-minute televised forum in the City Commission chambers.

Nine of the 11 candidates for the board squared off in the forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Red River Valley and the Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber of Commerce.

They’re vying for the four posts up for election June 12 on the nine-member Fargo School Board. Each seat has a four-year term.

Incumbent Paul Meyers, a financial adviser, was optimistic that the Bluestem fundraisers will be able to effectively raise money to support Trollwood Performing Arts School and the Bluestem Center again.

“I think if we give them some time, they’ll get on track,” he said.

Jim Johnson, the current school board president and an employee of Hallett Financial Group, said Bluestem is “alive and well, but needs to move forward. … They’ve struggled as of late, and it’s time for us, the other partner, to get involved.”

Marty Livingood, who works at Cengage Learning, said the school board and Bluestem are “in a hard place.” He said a plan is needed, and asks, “Why weren’t there some of these questions asked when this first started?” Livingood asked.

Jordan Franzen, a Microsoft employee, has been a teacher and school administrator. He praised the current board.

“I feel the board has done the best that they can with a bad situation,” he said.

“However it started, it’s done and over,” said David Gibb III. The Integreon employee urged that future projects have their financial questions answered first before they continue.

Incumbent John Strand, co-owner of the High Plains Reader, said he’d like the city of Moorhead at the table. “The rest of the community needs to rise to the occasion,” he said.

Others took a more hard-line position.

“I don’t like that Fargo Public Schools is being held hostage,” said J.J. Gorden, a local entertainer and artist. He said he’d like to see a plan, so that two years from now, the fundraising is healthy.

“Why is Trollwood where it is? Why did we go there?” asked retiree James Ebsen. “It seems to me that throwing good money after bad is a bad choice.”

“It has become an albatross to keep it open at $550 a day,” said Lillian Jones, an independent consultant with Jones Legal, LLC. “Quite frankly, I think it was a mistake in the beginning.”

The candidates also touched on other issues.

• School crowding or underutilization.

Franzen: “A half-hour on the bus doesn’t hurt learning, but a ton of kids in the classroom does,” he said, saying some children could be shifted to underused schools.

Meyers: “I’m an unabashed supporter of neighborhood schools,” he said, defending the northside schools that have seen enrollment declines, saying they’ve “been paid for, for 40 years.”

Gorden: “Smaller class sizes are great; empty schools are not,” he said, urging more balance between the north- and southside schools.

• Changing schools so they deliver more STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) learning.

Johnson: “I’m an advocated for STEAM. I like to add the (A for the) arts,” to make for a richer educational experience.

Ebsen: It may be time for education to go back to old school, he said, with resources going to trades education, not just STEM.

“Every student doesn’t need to take calculus. And every student doesn’t need to take solid geometry,” Ebsen said.

Strand: “The kids are digital natives. We need to embrace technology now,” he said. “Everybody needs iPads now.”

• Reducing the dropout rate.

Gibb: Urged more resources for at-risk students. “Any little thing that we can give,” he said. “The Fargo School District has to put all its resources into that.”

Jones: The district’s teaching staff should be more diverse, to more accurately reflect the demographics of the area. She said graduation rates of minorities is very low, with only 37 percent of Native Americans statewide graduating on time.

Livingood: Some “kids’ lives are messed up,” he said, as they deal with unstable family situations or homelessness. He said the district needs to work closer with social services, and provide more alternative education options.

Brandi Malarky, the owner of Knead a Break? Massage Therapy, and incumbent Robin Nelson, the executive director of the Boys and Girls Club/Youth Commission in Fargo, were not part of the forum.

Fargo School Board members are paid $1,000 a month for their service.

Sponsors of the forum said it will be re-broadcast on Fargo cable access Channel 12, though times were not yet set.


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Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583