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League hosts West Fargo School Board candidate forum

Ten West Fargo School Board candidates took questions from the audience during a Red River Valley League of Women Voters candidate forum held Tuesday, May 22, 2018. Wendy Reuer/The Forum

WEST FARGO—School safety, mental health, school lunches and handling enrollment growth were a large part of the discussion at a candidate forum for West Fargo School Board members.

Ten of the 13 candidates who are vying for four seats on the seven-person board attended the forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of the Red River Valley on Tuesday, May 22.

Incumbents Allan Skramstad, Kara Gravely-Stack and Jon Erickson attended along with former board member Jeff Shirley, who was defeated in the 2016 election. Newcomers Summer Kristianson, Jessica Heilman, Barry Miller, Jim Jonas, Matour Alier and Shelly Trieb also took questions from the roughly two dozen audience members.

The board is considering asking voters to approve a bond to build a third high school and middle school to keep up with the fast growth the district has experienced for nearly a decade, which is expected to continue, and possibly fund additional school safety measures.

Handling the growth, building and district spending was a topic for the candidates. While most support the idea of neighborhood schools, Miller said he did not.

Miller said he is running on a platform that would hold the district to less spending. Miller, who owns a tax and accounting business, said the board should wait until after the election to consider a bond. Miller said the district has not been accepting of differing opinions.

"I've tried to be on committees, unfortunately the board and the members want the same people. They don't want opposing viewpoints," Miller said. "I honestly feel there are people being excluded, voices not being heard. I think it's time for a new vision, new leadership."

While Miller is running because he feels excluded, Alier said he wanted to serve the public school system that welcomed him.

Alier grew up in South Sudan and then spent time in a refugee camp before moving to the U.S. and Fargo, where he now works as an eligibility worker for Cass County Economic Assistance.

"I want to ensure all the students have what they need to learn. I want to give back to the community that has done so much for me," he said.

Jonas said his longtime experiences as a coach and teacher at West Fargo High School would be invaluable to helping students, his focus if elected.

"I will bring the institutional knowledge I have as a teacher here," Jonas said. "I've proven I'm dedicated to students through my coaching and teaching career."

Trieb agreed that the board should be student focused and pointed to school lunches, which she said are inadequate and not as healthy as they should be.

"I'm a strong believer in public education. It gives all an equal chance to succeed," she said. Most candidates agreed school safety has to be a priority for the district in light of recent school shootings. Some candidates addressed the issue of whether teachers should carry guns.

Skramstad said he was strictly opposed, while Kristianson said she feels teachers should have the option to be armed if they want. Kristianson also said she would like to see improvements in mental health support for students.

"I have personally seen where West Fargo does lack in helping our students with mental health when they go through anything traumatic," Kristianson said.

Heilman, who holds a bachelor's degree in child and family studies from Concordia University and a master's degree in human development and family science, agreed that student mental health assistance should be a priority. However, while she and most candidates supported collaboration between Fargo and West Fargo, such as the recent proposal for the two school districts to build a Level D facility at Agassiz, she was clear that the two districts should not merge.

Shirley, who is also passionate about improving mental health education, agreed, saying merging the two large districts is not a highly feasible plan, nor has there been community support of the idea.

He, along with Gravely-Stack and Erickson, said they would like to continue the work they have started as board members in helping the district grow and focus on students.

Wendy Reuer

Wendy reports for The Forum and West Fargo Pioneer, where she is also assistant editor. A University of Minnesota Morris graduate from North Dakota, Wendy started her career in television news and entertainment in Minnesota and at CBS in Television City, Calif. before working at newspapers in Minnesota and North Dakota. 

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