Six candidates are running for three seats on the Belle Plaine School Board this year, for a term of four years each. Three newcomers are on this year’s ballot, Eric Johnson, Gary Ludwig, and Gary Steinhagen. In addition, three current members of the school board are running for reelection, Terry Kahle, Terry Morrison, and Tracy O’Brien.
We asked each of the six candidates the following questions. Responses were edited for length and clarity.
Eric Johnson Age: 51
Occupation: Director of Probation- Carver County
Do you or did you have children in the district? Yes- Nick, age 23 (Fort Collins, CO), Elizabeth, 21 (MSU-Moorhead), Lauren, 17 (BPHS), Rachel 13 (BPJH)
What would be your top priorities if elected? If elected, my top priorities would be curriculum, facilities, and staff. Effective content and delivery of a strong curriculum for ALL students is most important in a school district. Accelerated learners should be challenged appropriately, and those students in need of learning assistance should receive the resources they need to succeed. Also, maintaining strong vocational programs is equally important, as a four-year college degree isn’t for everyone. Adequate facilities are critical to make effective curriculum delivery possible. Facilities are also needed to ensure our student extracurricular activities complement school instruction. Belle Plaine enjoys highly successful sports and activities, as well as fine arts programs and academic teams and clubs. In addition, it is important to keep talent here in Belle Plaine by supporting a positive and rewarding academic culture for our staff.
How do you view the district’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and in what ways can it be improved? I applaud teachers and other staff for making the kids a priority in returning to school. Belle Plaine Schools have done very well with the COVID-19 response in my opinion. Communication is important, and parents were informed at every step of the return to school. I believe school administration emphasized the importance of getting kids back to school, while ensuring safety for kids and families. As we’ve discovered, our school district needs to ensure we are using our resources to keep up with the latest technology as it relates to student learning.
What do you see as the top budget priorities? Just as COVID-19 has significantly impacted how we teach our students, it has also impacted the budgets of every school district. As a long-time public employee who oversees a significant department budget, I have seen firsthand how the pandemic has created budget shortfalls. It will be even more important in these difficult budget times to ensure the board is informed on school finance so we can prioritize dollars that will impact student learning and enhance their educational experience.
Why should voters elect you to the school board? I have lived in BP since 2002. My kids have had and continue to have a great experience in this school district. I have volunteered as a coach and on boards and committees. I believe I can contribute to the school board by offering my passion and experience to build success in children.
Terry Kahle Age: 47
Occupation: Agronomy Sales at Ag Partners
Do you or did you have children in the district? Two children in district - 8th grade and 10th grade
What would be your top priorities if elected?
1. Continued teamwork by admin. and staff. The ability to work together and make changes for the best interest of our students. Being transparent with staff and families is very important to me.
2. Continue to focus on increasing enrollment in the district by providing more opportunities for all students.
How do you view the district’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and in what ways can it be improved? Admin. had a great plan going into the school year along with great communication to families and helping them through this changing time. I think it is tough to improve on something that changes constantly. Communication will continue to be key during this pandemic. The staff has been amazing with all the challenges they have been faced with daily.
What do you see as the top budget priorities? The fund balance has increased during my time on the board. This will continue to be a priority for the district going forward. Because we have a healthy fund balance currently, we can maintain the programming we currently have in Belle Plaine Public Schools.
Why should voters elect you to the school board? I believe I have an open mind, and I will listen. When the board faces tough situations, I feel I can remain positive and look at the big picture. I can remember that we are concerned about what is in the best interest of the students in Belle Plaine.
Gary Ludwig Age: 47
Occupation: Executive Director of a Regional Public Transit System
Do you or did you have children in the district? Yes
What would be your top priorities if elected? Since most effective elected officials first acclimate to being a new board member before attempting to make any major decisions or changes, I would learn the inner workings of the organization, study the dynamics of the administration, and build relationships. I would provide an immediate impact with a positive attitude and encouragement, especially for our teachers during the pandemic. I would focus on the health and safety of the students and faculty and provide a strong and steady presence to help guide us through the storm. When appropriate, I would address some concerns regarding our superintendent and look into making investments into our staff and facilities.
I would also ask the administration to spotlight at least one male and one female student who demonstrated excellence in academics, athletics, or the arts at the beginning of each school board meeting to remind everyone of our purpose, which is the development and accomplishments of our students.
How do you view the district’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and in what ways can it be improved?
I am not thrilled with the response, but we are sailing in uncharted waters, so I feel compelled to give the district a passing grade. However, now we need to turn our attention to creating viable learning systems that will carry us successfully through these challenging times. I believe we are putting too much pressure on our teachers to implement the hybrid learning model. Our district requires teachers to simultaneously accommodate both classroom learning and online instruction, but this practice is very hard on teachers and just isn’t sustainable. Therefore, we need to look at what other districts are doing well and make adjustments accordingly. Some neighboring schools are dedicating teachers either for classroom instruction or for distance learning, so an individual teacher is responsible for just one teaching method, not both. If we cannot ease the pressure on our teachers, then I propose we concentrate on 100% distance learning until the State allows all our students to be in the buildings all day every day. Distance learning may not be ideal for many families, but we need to focus on the highest quality education we can sustain, while still maintaining the health and safety of both students and staff.
What do you see as the top budget priorities?
The overall financial status of our district is advertised to be healthy. While the current board members and administration certainly deserve some credit for this, the last few years of a thriving economy, combined with dramatically increasing market values on our homes and extremely low interest rates, have contributed significantly to our favorable financial situation. Given this, we should evaluate how to leverage our position of financial strength to make smart investments into our staff and facilities. The students and staff should come first, but I believe we need to plan now for capital investments, such as additional gym space and a performing arts center.
Why should voters elect you to the school board?
I have been a resident of Belle Plaine since 2003 and have two children enrolled in the district.
Most of my family members are school teachers, including my wife of 23 years who has a master’s degree in education. Therefore, I have inside knowledge and a unique perspective about Minnesota schools.
I have a degree in business administration from UMD and have devoted my entire adult life to public service. I am the Executive Director of Trailblazer Transit, which is a rural public transportation system that I built from scratch starting in 1997. Trailblazer is now one of the largest rural transit systems in Minnesota operating in about 45 cities and covering over 2,000 square miles. Since Trailblazer is a unique government entity with a joint powers board, I work with a large number of elected government officials and am responsible for a biannual budget of more than $14 million of federal, state, and local tax dollars.
I am fiscally conservative, but I believe we must make more investments in our students, teachers, and facilities, especially considering the district’s healthy financial position. For example, even though some of Belle Plaine’s biggest assets are in the arts, I don’t think our district has properly invested in this area.
I am known for maintaining high expectations and building collaborative partnerships. I am passionate about helping people and improving the quality of life in our communities. I am a compassionate person who likes to fight for the underdog. I want to be a school board member because I care about our children. We are living in difficult times that require strong and steady leadership, and I believe I can make a difference.
Terry Morrison Age: 63
Occupation: Farmer and also co-owner of MPG Travel Solutions and MPG Sales
Do you or did you have children in the district? I graduated from Belle Plaine Public Schools as well as all three of my adult age children
What would be your top priorities if elected? My priorities continue to be focused on ensuring our kids get the most from Belle Plaine Schools. We need to keep a focus on our test scores and their continued improvement. Our kids only get one chance and we need to make sure they are prepared when they leave us for their next adventure. I want to see a learning environment in our schools that is free from harassment and bullying. We need to spend our tax dollars wisely. We will be challenged in the near future as we deal with the fallout from COVID-19 and the slowing economy. We need to increase our focus on vocational and technical training. There are many good jobs in this area that we should be preparing our kids for.
How do you view the district’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and in what ways can it be improved? COVID-19 has created some very unique challenges for our school district. Our first priority needs to be the health and safety of our kids and our staff. We will need to coordinate our efforts with state guidelines and direction. While we would all like to have our kids back in school on a full time basis, this virus has been unpredictable. We will all need to remain flexible and prepared to adapt as it becomes necessary. Our budget will be impacted over the next year due to COVID-19. We will need to monitor the impacts this will have on it and react accordingly. One area that we need to look at would be increasing the resource we provide those kids who are doing the distance learning plan. They may need additional support to keep up and thrive.
What do you see as the top budget priorities? Our top budget priorities need to be focused on what helps our students. With COVID-19, we need to make sure their educational and emotional needs are both being met. I would like to see us spend more resources in the areas of vocational, agriculture and technical training. We need to continue to contain our administrative costs. We are working on a plan to look at the needs of our facility maintenance. We should not ignore the long term needs of our buildings.
Why should voters elect you to the school board?
It has been a pleasure to serve the taxpayers and the community of Belle Plaine for the past two years on the school board. I will continue to listen to our community. I appreciate the feedback I continue to receive and look forward to hearing what concerns folks may have in our district. While I may not be able to make the changes that everyone would like, I will continue to do the best job I possibly can. My style is to ask questions. The more information we have to make a decision, the better it is for all concerned. I believe in setting goals and holding people accountable. We should know what results we are looking for and have the measurements in place to know if what we are doing is making a difference. Thank you for the opportunity to serve.
Tracy O’Brien Age: 45
Occupation: Food Broker - Chain Accounts
Do you or did you have children in the district? I have three children in the district - a 4th grader, a sophomore and a senior.
What would be your top priorities if elected? Financially, we are one of the most efficient school districts in the state. My priority is to continue to make sure our district is financially stable and to offer an excellent learning experience for our children. I want to make this year as normal as possible for students and staff and make sure students have experiences such as Wolf Ridge, prom, field trips, which are also important parts of their school experience.
How do you view the district’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and in what ways can it be improved? I feel the district is doing an outstanding job. Communication to parents from teachers and administration has been timely and informative; they thrive when students are in the building and have adapted well to distance learning. Mental health is always something we can improve on, not only with students but our staff. This is uncharted territory; we need to make sure both student and staff needs are taken care of so we have a healthy safe learning environment for all.
What do you see as the top budget priorities? More CTE offerings so we attract and retain student numbers. Not all students go on to pursue a four year degree, so offering more options may help students find a career they may not have even thought of to pursue. One specific program we’ve talked about in the past is Prostart. I would love to see this added to our district.
Why should voters elect you to the school board? Our students and their learning are my top priority. I will always advocate for them and what’s best for kids. I want our parents to feel confident that our district is providing the best education and opportunities for their children.
Gary Steinhagen Age: 56
Occupation: Dairy Farmer
Do you or did you have children in the district? I have 3 children who are or were in the Belle Plaine Schools.
What would be your top priorities if elected? Two years ago the school district attempted to be the only school district in the state to fully fund a community center. Unfortunately, the school board sent out information that was half the true cost of this project and simply refused to send out the true long term financial tax impact. This did much to divide the community. My top priorities will be to restore transparency and trust in the school board. My first step would be to reach out to the community and listen to what they want from us as a board. Other priorities should be to help students who struggle with distance learning to get caught up to their classmates and to work on bringing students who open enroll in other districts back to Belle Plaine.
How do you view the district’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and in what ways can it be improved? The district’s response is in line with other public school plans. As a district, we should bring students back to classrooms as soon as safely possible.
What do you see as the top budget priorities?
Our district like all others is a pandemic economy. Many individuals and businesses are struggling and we have to hold tax increases down. We also have to think about student needs. On top of my list would be trying to find ways to lower class sizes in the elementary school and offer a wider variety of career and technical class choices for senior high students.
Why should voters elect you to the school board? As a former school board member who served the district from 2010-2014, I realize our role is simply to provide the best education we can afford to our students. We have to be honest and listen to the community. As a farmer, I support many businesses in town and have good working relationships with many business owners and a wide variety of other people around the district. I’m approachable and will listen to people’s concerns and suggestions. I have a work ethic to get things done and won’t be just another yes man on the board.