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Get to know your School Board candidates

Six candidates will vie for four open seats on the West Fargo School Board in the June 10 election. Voters will choose four names. The top four vote-getters will be elected to each serve four-year, at-large terms. School Board members are paid an annual salary of $4,730 in the 2014-15 school year. The Pioneer/News will print profiles of each candidate this week and next.

Jon Erickson

  • Occupation: Learning and Development Consultant at Wells Fargo (20 years)
  • Age: 45
  • Education: University of Minnesota Duluth – sports management with minor in business
  • Family: Wife Kathy, two daughters, Megan (10) and Amber (7)
  • Favorite movie: Armageddon

In your opinion, what are the strongest and weakest aspects of the West Fargo School District? I think the strongest, obviously, is that the administration and board has continued working on keeping up with the growth, and they have been able to look ahead and have been able to address it. I believe they have addressed it appropriately.

The downfall could be the same answer. They are trying to provide for these students, but there are definitely some facility needs that they are not able to address at this point. I do believe that once they got the bond referendum passed, it has been full steam ahead. You can see in the building permits, and even in West Fargo in general, that once that passed, everything boomed – the houses, the business, Veterans Boulevard came around and everything just started booming. The community was behind it to help pay for it, and now they are trying to keep up. When I moved out (to Eagle Run) in 2005, I figured it would be at least 10 years before the city started coming toward us. There were still gravel roads out that way, and 32nd Avenue was still gravel then. Here we are at nine years, and we really need road infrastructure built. A lot is going on, and we are trying to grow with it.

What sets you apart from your fellow candidates? What sets me apart is maybe my leadership or team-building skills. That was what I really liked about the strategic plan that Dr. Flowers came up with after the bond referendum. It has a total sense of creating one team and collaborating between different groups – the administration, the board and the teachers – and including everybody so there is not a piece that is missed.

How do you think the district has handled the changing face of West Fargo, from the growth in the south to the new and different socio-economic make-ups? I think they are handling it commendably at this point. They have done a really good job. I try to study some of the different enrollment numbers for the different classes. Are we just having people move south or are we still having the north schools full and having something new? Those schools on the north are still holding. The population is still there. It is all new people moving in, and obviously they are moving in because of the area, but hopefully they are moving in because of the schools, because West Fargo has always had a great reputation there.

With the continuous growth in the district, do you foresee the need to go to the voters for another bond referendum, and would you support one? I would support it if the need is there. I would have to look at the different numbers and see where we are going. (The district) has projections up through, I think, 2025, and somewhere around there, it is supposed to start leveling off. With the schools they have built and the room in the new high school – which is supposed to support 1,500 kids – along with the additional elementary school that has now been named and will start this fall, I think we are OK for now.

Those boundary lines would be what should change, to try to help spread those students out as best as we could. Even if it took some of those new divisions just south of Interstate 94 maybe sliding into the north schools, because there is some room there.

How do you feel your experience at Wells Fargo would tie into being a member of the school board? Managing your customers and finding out who your customers are – in this case, the students and other groups involved – and how to make sure we keep them first. There is always that bottom-line dollar, but we have got to make sure they are first.

A big question has been about teacher salaries. The board has said that teacher salaries are 80 percent of the budget. That means there probably isn’t a lot of room in the budget to draw teachers in. We will have to find other ways.

Patricia Moulton

  • Occupation: Experimental Psychologist, Executive Director of the North Dakota Center for Nursing
  • Age: 41
  • Education: University of North Dakota, Ph. D in experimental psychology with a cognate in teaching and learning.
  • Family: Husband Richard Zaruba, daughter Angela Zaruba (9)
  • Favorite movie: Meet the Robinsons

In your opinion, what are the strongest and weakest aspects of the West Fargo School District? I think the strongest aspect of the district is its STEM initiatives. That is the reason we moved to West Fargo, especially since they have expanded that. When we moved here, there was just the STEM Center for middle school, but now they are in the middle and high schools, and I understand they are going to expand to the elementary level, as well. I think that is a critical part of building our students for the future and for the workforce.

What I have seen – and I am guessing that it is not just the West Fargo School District having issues with this – is the implementation of the new core standards and transitioning students over to that. I think it has been very difficult for my family and for my child as we have done that, so I would just like to see improved communication in that area and better ways to transition.

What sets you apart from your fellow candidates? As part of my job, I have worked across the state with many K-12 institutions, as well as colleges and universities, the state government and the workforce. Part of my job is to work to increase – in particular, nursing – health care awareness, but also to help those students go from high school into college and into the workforce, so I have seen how that has worked across the state.

How do you think the district has handled the changing face of West Fargo, from the growth in the south to the new and different socio-economic make-ups? In the school my daughter goes to, I have noticed a lot of different cultural and socio-economic make-up, and I really like to have a lot of diversity around her. I’m not really certain, but from what I have seen, they have been handling it well.

With the continuous growth in the district, do you foresee the need to go to the voters for another bond referendum, and would you support one? It is certainly possible. Before we even go for a bond referendum, I think it would be critical to really be able to find out if more schools are needed, how they are needed and where they are needed before ever going to the voters for more money. I would absolutely support it if the data supports it and that is truly what we need to do.

How do you feel your knowledge in experimental psychology would tie into being a member of the school board? Most of my experience since I graduated has been working with different organizations – especially non-profit organizations – and building structure and policies. I think a lot of that experience would lend itself well to the West Fargo School Board. Although I have been pretty impressed with their strategic plan, I have some experience of my own in strategic planning, and that would also lend itself well to working with the school board to continue to grow and move forward.

Dan Schaeffer

  • Occupation: Inventory purchasing supervisor, City of Fargo
  • Age: 48
  • Education: Associate degrees in computer programming and sales and marketing from Minnesota State Community and Technical College
  • Family: Wife Heidi, daughters Kayley (12) and Kaitlynn (9), dog named Shadow
  • Favorite Movie: The Wizard of Oz

What are the strongest and weakest aspects of the school district? The strongest thing I see is the teachers we have here, and their one-on-one time with the children.

The weakest thing to me is probably being unable to keep up with demand. Kids live in one neighborhood, and have to go to a school no where near it. I don’t like that.

What sets you apart from the other candidates? I think we are all good. I am just a regular guy. I think the schools needs to be geared more toward getting the students ready for real life. Take something like trigonometry. Of all the people who take that class, how many are actually going to use it. You could teach interviewing skills and just stuff for the real world. I have interviewed, I know, at least 1,000 people for my job, and it is amazing. I often ask myself ‘didn’t they teach them this stuff in school?’

How do you think the district has handled the changing face of West Fargo, from the growth in the south to the new and different socio-economic make-ups? Well, they are trying to keep up. I have been on a couple of committees, and you can tell they are trying, but the projections we are getting just aren’t realistic ones. You pay these people to give you projections, but yet, we keep exceeding them. I think they could have been a little better about getting on the legislators a bit faster to get the money into the system. We get paid based on last year’s enrollment. I didn’t know that, and I’m sure a lot of people didn’t know that. We are running into a deficit in the next couple of years, so we have to have money coming in somehow. I treat everything like a business.

You have to have that money coming in, and you have to have room to grow. Either that or it has to come from another bond referendum.

With the continuous growth in the district, do you foresee the need to go to the voters for another bond referendum and would you support one? Yes. I have been on the inside. We need pools, we need ice, we need all of this stuff for sports that we just don’t have. We have a pool that is 40 or 50 years old. We are in a deficit for our budget and we don’t have the money coming in, and you really don’t want to raise the mill rate, which is another option. In a perfect world, it would be better not to, but you want to be ahead of the game. We don’t want to short-change the kids.

I haven’t examined everything yet, but I do foresee something like that in the future. If we do, I would have a lot more open forums. There wasn’t much of that last time. I have no problem talking to an auditorium full of people and letting them know the facts. That way, people will have a better way of making a conscientious decision.

You recently referred to yourself as a “fixer.” What do you mean by that, and what needs fixing in the district? I go into things, look at the problem, look for the best solution and go with it. I’m a good problem-solving person. I see some problems in the district and instead of being behind and forcing it down people’s throats, we have to try to give them everything we can. We have to fix this growth problem – it’s not so much fixing as it is keeping up. I give them kudos for what they have done, but that is what I do. I fix.

Allan Skramstad

  • Occupation: Retired, former professor of aviation at the University of North Dakota
  • Age: 67
  • Education: Undergraduate degree in accounting and business administration from Moorhead State
  • University, graduate degree in business education from UND, over 40 credits in educational leadership at North Dakota State University
  • Family: Three adult children: Tracy, Lisa and Scott
  • Favorite movie: We Were Soldiers

In your opinion, what are the strongest and weakest aspects of the West Fargo School District?

I think the strongest is the leadership of the district in Dr. Flowers. That was the wisest decision that has been made in a long time for West Fargo Public Schools. Another part is the leadership team that he has developed, and we have a very dynamic school board. The weakest is the phenomenal growth in West Fargo. It has been and it is hard to keep up with that growth. You just watch not only the community but the school district develop. The school district has been experiencing, historically, 4 (percent) to 5 percent growth for the last several years. At the current rate, 4 to 5 percent per year almost dictates a new facility. Will it end? Well, I hope not. New people will come to the community and add some vibrancy and dynamics to the community.

What sets you apart from your fellow candidates?

I have had four children go through public education. I have five grandchildren currently going through public education. I have enjoyed listening to my own children – plus my grandchildren – tell stories about their classes, along with some of their pitfalls and excitement going through the classes. I look at this as being my time to give back to not only the community, but the school district.

How do you think the district has handled the changing face of West Fargo, from the growth in the south to the new and different socio-economic make-ups?

I was privileged enough to sit on the first long range facility planning committee that Dr. Flowers formed once he became superintendent. That committee was a part of the successive attempts to get facilities built for the continuing growth in enrollment. I looked at the dynamics of that committee sitting there, and just realized that we have a district comprised of several facilities, and we have district today that is comprised of 8,500 children. They come from all walks of life, and the district has recognized the need for the facilities in the fact that they came up with that $82 million bond referendum in 2011. It was a challenge to the committee knowing that two previous bond attempts had failed for about 20 percent less than that $82 million. The district and the committee recognized the need and did their due diligence in putting together meet-and-greets, sharing the word with not only the community, but with the staff, teachers and parents. They were successful in getting that bond referendum passed, which led to three brand new facilities and Sheyenne High School being remodel into a full-time high school. In that process, we got those facilities, but the growth was so dynamic that there was a recognition that another facility needed to be built, and that is Legacy Elementary School, which will open in the fall of 2015.

With the continuous growth in the district, do you foresee the need to go to the voters for another bond referendum, and would you support one?

You take a look at the dynamics of the school district. When the bond referendum passed, it was based on two elementary schools, a middle school and the revamping of Sheyenne High School. With the revamping of Sheyenne, we were going to have two high schools in the district. The need for providing more opportunities for the students was part of the underlying reason for splitting the high schools. Do I foresee a need? We need water. We need ice. At some point I would hope that through collaboration – and it might be public and private partnerships through the school district, the park district and maybe some private entity – we could put together a multi-purpose facility that would include water and ice for additional opportunities that are going to be needed by two large swim teams and two large hockey teams. Is that going to happen overnight? I don’t think so. If West Fargo continues to grow like it has, that is an additional 400 to 500 students. Should the need arise, I will support it.

In your opinion, what advantages come with being the only incumbent – albeit short-lived – in the running?

I think, first and foremost, is the experience. Even though I may be a short-lived incumbent, I go back to the time that Dana Diesel-Wallace was superintendent and I shadowed her and the board. I sat in on the questioning of the candidates for the superintendent position. I listened to their responses and provided some questions myself. When Dr. Flowers was hired, he mentored me for a while, and I continued shadowing the board as part of my collegiate studies at NDSU. Even though, officially, I have only been a board member for six months, I have followed the board since 2010 and sat through almost all of their meetings and the hiring process. I sat on the first long range facility planning committee, and am aware of the process that it takes to get new facilities and the process the board goes through to make a decision. Experience is going to be my key factor.

Kara Stack

  • Occupation: Director of Diversity Initiatives at North Dakota State University
  • Age: 44
  • Education: Bachelor’s degree in English and communications Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D.
  • Master’s degree in counseling and student affairs Minnesota State University Moorhead, currently
  • working on doctorate in education at North Dakota State University.
  • Family: Husband Wally. Three children: Joey (16), Emma (13) and Jacob (11)
  • Favorite movie: Stand By Me

In your opinion, what are the strongest and weakest aspects of the West Fargo School District?

The growth of the school district and the growing enrollment. I also think the accountability that they have to stakeholders in terms of the whole process they went through in trying to advocate for funding to build the new high school is great. I think that the teachers and administrators are very strong. We have always been incredibly pleased with the teachers our kids have had in terms of how students are made the core of what they are doing. None of them are doing this to get rich. They are doing this because they really care about the students and things like that. Whenever I have a problem, I have been incredibly pleased with the swift response I get from principals, assistant superintendents and everybody. Despite the growth, they are trying to do what they can to stay connected with the people. I see the growth as a challenge, and something that, at this point, there is nothing we can do to change it. I think it needs to put us on high alert on how we continue to maintain that small-town closeness and be able to communicate with families and things like that. As we are seeing that growth come at exceptionally high rates and even with their best estimates, it is exceeding that. It is important to make sure our kids still feel like individuals and not a huge pack of kids roaming the halls. Another thing I think they can improve upon is communication. I know I have heard the administration talk about that as well. No matter how well they think they are communicating, it is still a problem reaching people. Coming from Horace – with a much smaller elementary school than the ones they are building – we have seen how important it is to have good communication with our teachers as well as with our principals. I want to make sure we keep doing that as we continue to grow.

What sets you apart from your fellow candidates?

I think one thing is my background in education. I come from a family of teachers. My grandfather was actually the superintendent in Felton (Minn.). I come from a long line of educators, mostly in the K-12 system so I am kind of the oddball who went to higher education. I have grown up hearing the messages – both from an administrator as well as from teachers – about different kinds of struggles they have, not just from working with students but also with the families of students. I have an understanding and a real appreciation of teachers from that lived experience. The work that I do puts me in touch with incoming college freshmen, and I see the impact of a gap between what they are expected to do to graduate from high school and what is needed from them to be successful in college. My oldest (child) is finishing up his sophomore year and getting messages about what he needs to complete to be eligible to graduate, I know he needs more to be successful in college. I want to be a part of helping to address those disparities.

How do you think the district has handled the changing face of West Fargo, from the growth in the south to the new and different socio-economic make-ups?

I think the district is focused on making sure each individual student is successful. I don’t know how aware they are of the specific needs that come with diverse identities and diverse backgrounds. One student population I work with at NDSU – and one I am very passionate about working with – is our LGBT population. I know I have heard from people in the community who also work with LGBT youth is that West Fargo schools have been very supportive in making a gay-straight alliance. I know some teachers who are ESL teachers as well. Maybe there is more of a need to engage families in some of those conversations as well. The socio-economic aspect is huge. In Horace, there is a big socio-economic difference in that little but growing town. I know our schools have been very proactive in getting to know students, especially the students whose families struggle economically, to make sure they still have access to the same opportunities.

With the continuous growth in the district, do you foresee the need to go to the voters for another bond referendum, and would you support one?

Based on what I have heard from the superintendent at some of the school board meetings, our projections for enrollment are pointing in the direction of needing another high school in just a few years. I am looking at my youngest son potentially going to a different high school than my older two, which is crazy because we just opened that school. I think we have to do whatever we can to support those students so they are successful. If that means another bond referendum, then I think I support that. I do think our school district has been incredibly intentional about using the funding appropriately and I have colleagues on the Fargo School Board who have talked about that as well. They admire the things this district has done to be accountable with those funds. We are not building castles; we are building schools.

In your mind, what are the advantages and disadvantages of being the only Horace resident on the West Fargo School Board?

I know the school board is set up with an at-large membership, so we are not broken into districts and representing our areas. For the most part, the board has been really good about representing everybody, but I do think I bring a perspective of somebody who has been dealing with the changes first-hand. My oldest made good friends in middle school and most of those friends now go to a different high school than he does. There is an upheaval there. He is in the first graduating class of the (Sheyenne) high school. There are no upperclassmen, so there is a struggle there for him to get an authentic high school experience for good or for bad. As someone who lives out in that area, an advantage is that I can help bring that voice. I would certainly have opinions or perspectives to bring for parents whose kids go to Westside Elementary as well, or at Aurora or any of those schools. It is a unique perspective when you are somebody living through this. Maybe we need to not just invite people to meetings, but also get out there and meet with parents at these different schools as we proceed.

Shauna Vistad

  • Occupation: Manager of the Special Investigations Unit, Blue Cross Blue Shield
  • Age: 35
  • Education: Bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice at North Dakota State University, pursuing a Master’s
  • degree in business administration at the University of North Dakota.
  • Family: Husband Joe. Stepdaughter Brandi (19), son Braden (14)
  • Favorite movie: The Fast and the Furious

In your opinion, what are the strongest and weakest aspects of the West Fargo School District?

The strongest aspect, I think, is the community as a whole. This district has a lot of support because you have a community that wants to keep that small-town feel, but at the same time, that is actually fought by its weakness which is the fact that the school district is growing so rapidly. It is difficult to maintain that feel and still make sure that all of the quality facilities are available for every student. 

What sets you apart from your fellow candidates?

Having a daughter who has just entered college – as well as myself still being in college – I can see what skill set is really needed to be successful in that environment. From a first-person perspective as well as helping her get into college and hearing about her struggles as a freshman, it is easy to see what would have helped her to be better prepared for that.

How do you think the district has handled the changing face of West Fargo, from the growth in the south to the new and different socio-economic make-ups?

I think it is quite the challenge, and they are trying to do the best they can without having anyone feel like there is a socio-economic division in any one area, but we need to ensure that is being balanced with doing things in the most efficient and effective manner. We might reach a point where we are going to say ‘we have to dismiss people’s feelings about this to make sure we are doing what is best for the district as a whole.

With the continuous growth in the district, do you foresee the need to go to the voters for another bond referendum, and would you support one?

I don’t know. I think we first need to look at the buildings and facilities that we currently have available and determine if we have used them in the most effective manner possible. Have we designed our new facilities to be multi-purpose and ensure we have utilized that space to its maximum effectiveness before we decide whether or not we would need to go for another bond referendum? One advantage you say you may have is that you are young.

What advantages or benefits do you see youth bringing to the school board?

In the program I am in, I work with other students who went straight from their bachelor’s to their master’s programs, so they haven’t been out working in the real world. I can see some of the areas of opportunity that I think would help them to have been more successful, and it is a skill set that if don’t start to develop it at a young age, it is going to make college very difficult for you and will make future employment very difficult. I think it is important that we are helping our students to build those skill sets. Also, I think it is important that we are working with them to make them well-rounded to set them up and put them in better positions for scholarships and things like that as they enter the area they want to go, or that we have helped them identify the right career path for them and help give them the tools they need to be successful if they decide to enter the workforce or a trade industry right after school.