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Pamela Knudson, Forum Communications, Published October 13 2012

‘Stark’ choices to lead public instruction in North Dakota

For the first time in 26 years, North Dakota voters will elect a new superintendent of public instruction.

Kirsten Baesler of Mandan and Tracy Potter of Bismarck are vying for the position held for those 26 years by Wayne Sanstead, who is not seeking re-election.

Potter and Baesler described as “stark” the differences in their respective positions, but agree that the most pressing issue is the rapid enrollment growth in some school districts.

“The property tax base just can’t support the new facilities and new teachers that are needed,” Potter said, noting in particular Stanley, Williston and Watford City. “That’s where the state comes in. This is one of those cases where we actually do have to throw money at the problem.”

Baesler said she would recommend that the distribution of state aid payments be adjusted to allow schools to receive state foundation aid payments based on current, rather than the previous year’s, enrollment.

“This would ensure that our districts have the ability to respond quickly and accurately to changing student enrollments,” she said.

Pace of change

“We’re at a point in North Dakota where we have an opportunity to provide resources for rich learning and changes in teaching,” Baesler said.

A three-pronged plan she rolled out in August also calls for a reduction in the number of students who need to take college remedial courses and an effort to promote accelerated advancement of high school students through dual-credit and advanced placement courses.

Potter opposes what he called “the push toward measuring the quality of the educational system through standardized testing,” he said. “It’s a seductive approach, but it’s wrong-headed and the wrong direction for education.”

Instead he proposes an emphasis on “the quality of teacher training, better mentoring of teachers, and treating (teachers) like the professionals they are.”

The Department of Public Instruction “doesn’t need a radical shake-up,” he said, “but a transition that’s smooth and steady.”

Baesler, who was endorsed by the North Dakota Education Association, said the department should be led differently, so control can revert to local school districts.

She proposes changes that would shift it “from a regulatory to a service-oriented department,” she said.

Experience touted

Baesler’s qualifications include her experience leading a school district of more than 500 employees and an annual budget of $33 million, she said, as well as her perspective as a teacher, media specialist, administrator and parent.

Potter said his experience as a former teacher and administrator of the state’s tourism department, and his 19 years at the helm of the Fort Abraham Lincoln Foundation, are assets he’d bring to the job of superintendent.

North Dakota’s superintendent of public instruction serves a four-year term and receives an annual salary of $102,868.

Although the office is nonpartisan, North Dakota’s political parties offer letters of support to their endorsed candidates. Baesler was endorsed by North Dakota Republicans. Potter, who ran as an independent, did not seek a letter of support from either party.

Max Laird, who was endorsed by the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party, did not receive enough votes in the June primary to qualify for the November election.

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Pamela Knudson writes for the Grand Forks Herald