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Community questions Wrenshall School Board incumbents on budget, campaign letter

Cindy Bourn, Debra Washenesky and Jack Eudy answered questions about the district's budget and items they felt were hot-button issues. The event Thursday came on the heels of a candidate forum hosted by Education Minnesota Wrenshall in which the incumbents declined to participate.

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About 40 people filled the Silver Brook Town Hall on Thursday, Sept. 22, to learn more about Wrenshall School Board incumbents Cindy Bourn, Debra Washenesky and Jack Eudy and to ask them questions.
Dylan Sherman / Cloquet Pine Journal
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WRENSHALL — Residents got the first chance to ask incumbent Wrenshall School Board candidates about concerns with the district budget, topics being taught in school and the future of the district during a campaign event in the Silver Brook Town Hall on Thursday, Sept. 22.

The incumbents — Cindy Bourn, Debra Washenesky and Jack Eudy — declined to attend a forum held by Education Minnesota Wrenshall, the school district's teachers' union, on Tuesday, Sept. 20. Instead, they opted to host their own event Thursday.

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The candidates took questions on the state of the school district's budget and enrollment numbers in the district.

Eudy said the current state of the budget is a result of different things, including the COVID-19 pandemic, inflation and enrollment. Officials had been in the middle of construction for the career and technical education building, as well as building updates throughout the district.

While the latest budget projected a $300,000 deficit, Eudy said a final number will be known when enrollment stabilizes, as each student in the district brings in $10,000 worth of state funding.

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One thing that was lost after the pandemic was students getting free lunches. Not only did the funding affect the school district, but Eudy said sometimes lunch at school is the only one a child gets.

Washenesky added that the costs associated with a recent investigation into an employee were not just because of the three incumbent, but the entire school board.

"They were substantial complaints that had to be investigated," she said. "This was complaints from students, from parents, and they were substantial and the investigation is not over."

When asked if progress with the career and technical education program could be made without him on the board, Eudy said yes it could.

"But I will always be involved because I will volunteer," he said.

Eudy said he wants to get "tangled up" with the trade union again to have a pathway for students to careers right after high school. While the path may not be for everyone, Eudy said it gives a lot of students a starting point in other careers or even a chance to make money before going to college.

Finalizing the programs in the new building will also attract more students to Wrenshall, something Eudy said would also help alleviate budget constraints.

Questions about the candidate's letter

Discussion halfway through the event devolved into some argument among residents about critical race theory and what other topics were being taught in the district. Critical race theory is an academic framework dating back to the 1970s that centers on the idea that racism is systemic in U.S. institutions. The theory itself is not a fixture of K-12 education.

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The discussion came from a letter sent out by the incumbents to every resident in the district, where the candidates stated their views on certain issues including not teaching critical race theory. The Wrenshall School Board had previously stated that critical race theory was not being taught in the district .

Critical race theory was not the only topic the candidates spoke about, as they said gender identity lessons were something parents should be aware of. Within Wrenshall, Bourn said administrators set up a sensitivity training for students, and the board wanted to view the training before students.

While the training has not been presented to students, Washenesky said parents should be aware and have the final say on if their child participates.

Another topic listed in the letter was a trend to introduce sexual topics to younger and younger children, and the candidates want to preserve the children's innocence and keep them children for an appropriate amount of time. When asked about the question, Bourn referenced and passed out a book that was being promoted for 10-year-olds, with one resident holding it up and saying "it has sex in it," showing cartoon-styled depictions of sex.

When a resident asked if the book was in the school, Bourn said she got the book off the internet and does not know if it is in any Wrenshall classroom.

"I want people to see what's being promoted as appropriate material for 10-year-olds in the public schools," she said.

One teacher in attendance said it felt like a slap in the face for Bourn to pull out the book and not clarify that it is not being used in Wrenshall classrooms.

Residents in attendance also asked the candidates why their letter stated the four candidates who participated in the previous forum were chosen by the teacher's union. The four candidates all denied being asked or recruited to run for office by Education Minnesota Wrenshall.

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Bourn, who wrote the letter, said she was under that impression after two candidates spoke at a board meeting and mentioned similar things teachers had mentioned to the board.

Wrenshall School Board candidates stress transparency, relationship building during forum

"I was categorically wrong," she said.

Mary Carlson, another school board candidate and one said to be recruited, said Bourn sent out the letter to everyone in the district as fact.

"Do you understand how hurtful that is?" she said. "The mail person hand-delivered that letter to me because she knew it was about me."

When asked if she would mail out a retraction or a letter explaining the mistake, Bourn said she would take it under consideration, and if another mailer is sent out, the correction would be included.

Community takeaways

Cheryl Lund, a resident who was present at the forum on Tuesday, Sept. 20, said she was pleasantly surprised and had all her questions answered after the event.

"This went good, I got all my questions answered," she said.

Burnell Peterson, a former history teacher in the district, said he learned a lot and thought the event went well.

"I came into this meeting with some opinions, and I am leaving with some different opinions than I had before," he said.

Peterson said one of the things he has come to respect is how hard it is for board members to do their job.

"I thought I came in here knowing who I was going to vote for, but now I am going to have to give it a think," he said.

While residents had to attend two different events to meet all the candidates, Carlson said she has been working with Eudy to set up another forum where all the candidates participate. It would be moderated by someone outside of the district, Carlson said, and she has reached out to a Christian radio DJ as an option.

A final date has yet to be set for the proposed forum.

Dylan covers the local governments of Cloquet and Carlton County, as well as the Esko and Wrenshall school boards for the Cloquet Pine Journal.
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