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Wrenshall School Board candidates stress transparency, relationship building during forum

Four candidates vying for seats on the Wrenshall School Board introduced themselves to community members and answered questions at a candidate forum hosted by Education Minnesota Wrenshall Tuesday, Sept. 20.

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Wrenshall School Board candidates, from left, Eric Ankrum, Kristin Reinsch, Mary Carlson and Benjamin Johnson discuss topics at a candidate forum on Tuesday, Sept. 20.
Dylan Sherman / Cloquet Pine Journal
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WRENSHALL — Four of the seven candidates for seats on the Wrenshall School Board took part in a candidate forum Tuesday, Sept. 20, hosted by Education Minnesota Wrenshall, the district's teachers' union.

The candidates that participated included Eric Ankrum, Kristin Reinsch, Mary Carlson and Benjamin Johnson. They answered questions from the union with around 50 people in attendance. Johnson is currently filling a temporary seat on the board, but is running for one of the three vacant positions.

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Denise North, Education Minnesota Wrenshall president and a social studies teacher, asks Wrenshall School Board candidates a question during a candidate forum on Tuesday, Sept. 20.
Dylan Sherman / Cloquet Pine Journal

Each of the candidates said they were running to restore transparency, communication and trust in the district.

When it came to a question on what the biggest issue is facing the district, Ankrum said his concern is the uncertainty and he added that several different topics stem from that. He listed the state of the budget, enrollment numbers, curriculum and what is happening next in the district.

Johnson said he thought the biggest issue was the lack of trust between the board and the stakeholders.

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"People need to understand where we are coming from when we reach decisions and when we take actions in the school," he said. "We need to work together as a group and restore communication."

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Johnson added the board needs to be more responsible with taxpayer dollars. A recent issue saw the district spend over $53,000 on attorney's fees and an investigation and administrative leave for an employee, Johnson said — funds he believes could have been used for a variety of different things from staffing the new career and technical education building to addressing repairs in district buildings.

Budget focus

When asked how district funds should be best allocated within the current constraints of the budget, Reinsch said looking toward the community is a start.

"Obviously budget cuts are at the forefront of everyone's mind," she said. "We don't want to give up what we have here at Wrenshall, but I am sure there are creative ways we can do better."

She added that asking people why they are choosing to leave the district and then trying to figure out ways to bring them back would be an option.

Securing state funding for programs was another idea Reinsch proposed the district look into.

Carlson added the district needs a short-term plan for possible cuts but also a long-term plan in order to avoid returning to this position.

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"One of the things I am experiencing right now is that bringing in new staff is far more expensive than keeping my old staff," she said. "One of the best things we can do in the short term is staff retention."

Cheryl Lund, a resident, asked the candidates a question about why there isn't much clarity on the district's budget.

Johnson explained that while he is not on the budget committee, the district's budget is linked to enrollment. Until finalized enrollment numbers are in, the budget fluctuates.

Carlson added the last update presented at a board meeting was that the budget was not in good shape, but did not go in to more specifics.

Johnson recommended everyone in the room contact their state representatives to ask for more funding from the state.

"They are sitting on a ton of money — a budget surplus right now — and we need to get that back out to our schools," he said.

Incumbents to hold separate event

When it came to a question about the board's role in building a relationship with employees, each candidate agreed that having a relationship was needed.

Three incumbents chose not to participate in the forum, and sent a joint letter to community members addressed to "our bosses (Wrenshall School District residents)," explaining their reasoning.

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The board members — Jack Eudy, Debra Washenesky and Cindy Bourn — said it was inappropriate for the teachers' union to be involved to this degree in campaigns.

"Personally we have been dismayed and disappointed in the teachers' decision to use the open forum time at board meetings to attack the board members that are up for election," the letter said. "Their conduct has been dishonest and unprofessional."

The letter also claimed the union recruited the candidates for the election. Each of the candidates at the forum responded to the claim saying they were not asked to run for the position.

The incumbents are instead hosting their own event on Thursday, Sept. 22 at the Wrenshall Park, or Silverbrook Town Hall in case of weather.

According to the letter, the incumbents listed topics and stances they share, including parents knowing what their children are being taught, opposing any ideology or theory that tells some children they are victims or oppressed, opposing teaching that pits one race against another, and concerns about the trends of introducing sexual topics to younger children.

Lund said the letter was one of the reasons she attended the forum Tuesday, and she plans to attend the event on Thursday, as well.

"This is ridiculous," she said in reference to the letter. "I don't like that they sent this to me and they are not participating in this event."

Denise North, president of the union and a social studies teacher, added she was disappointed the other board members decided not to participate, but said she was pleased with how the forum went, and that candidates were forward-looking and positive.

"I liked hearing positivity, even among a very serious budget condition, more serious than it has been in years," she said.

MORE FROM DYLAN SHERMAN:
A total of 106 residents signed a petition against Loving Earth Memorial Gardens, a new green cemetery located in Blackhoof Township.

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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