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New Grand Forks School Board to face big decisions

When the Grand Forks School Board meets next month, about half of its nine members will be newly elected.

Nine candidates are running for five seats, and only one of those candidates is an incumbent. School Board President Doug Carpenter is seeking re-election. Candidates Bill Palmiscno, Chris Douthit, Shannon Mikula, Brian Reybok, Henry Howe, Jaqueline Hoffarth, Darin Lee and James Kelso also want a spot on the board.

The winners will start with the board at the July 9 meeting and will hold their seats for four years.

Each School Board race is an important time to present different perspectives and for people to be heard, said Terry Brenner, who will start as the district's superintendent in July. The fact that so many residents want to run for the School Board is a positive for the district, he added.

"They have perspectives they want to share, and they find that getting a seat at the table probably has greater influence than not being at the table," he said.

The district is at an important crossroads, said Mikula, a UND academic affairs officer who also practices privately as an attorney. There will be a change in leadership not only with the board but district administration.

"It's a fresh start, as I like to look at it," Mikula said. "We have five seats that are open. That's a majority of the board."

Decisions ahead

Brenner will succeed Superintendent Larry Nybladh, who has led the district for a decade. The board already has approved administrative restructuring, including adding a second assistant superintendent.

Brenner sees the election and administration change as an opportunity for a fresh start and reboot for the district. Moving forward, newly elected leaders also can build on the district's tradition, he said.

The next board likely will have a large say in the district's facilities plan. The board has reviewed several scenarios on how to update its facilities in the most efficient manner. Some scenarios suggest consolidating several elementary schools.

The board has recommended new leadership choose a task force dedicated to researching the facilities plan and seeking public input.

On top of that, the new board could wrap up teacher contract negotiations. Board members will finalize the 2018-19 budget in the face of financial challenges, in part due to less money from the state.

Those issues will have a "dramatic impact" on the community, Carpenter said.

"We have a lot of very significant things going on," Carpenter said. "This is why it is an important election."

He said he feels he has a good understanding of those issues and that his background as a director of administration and operations for the wealth management division at Alerus gives him insight on how to handle the changing environment of finances and education.

Hoffarth, a social work associate professor for UND, said this is the best time to run because there are many opportunities for change. She looks for competence and caring in candidates, which she said she has.

"I really believe I understand the complexities of how decisions impact other decisions," she said, adding he experience as an educator give her an edge. "Usually, it is not a black-and-white solution to a problem."

The district has more than 7,000 students with a very diverse population, said Douthit, a former associate principal for Red River High School who is the county school liaison with the Community Violence Intervention Center in Grand Forks.

"I think it is important that we serve our students and that we meet their needs," he said, adding he can bring is educational experience to the board. "At the end of the day, it truly is, for me, about serving students and ensuring we have competent and caring adults in our classrooms and outside the classrooms."

Children are the community's best assets, and it is important for board members and the district to make decisions that will give students the best education possible, said Palmiscno, executive director of the Grand Forks Park District and a former School Board member. He cited his knowledge of managing and planning facilities.

"In order to build facilities, we're going to have to go out to the public and sell our story, and I think I can help sell that story," he said.

James Kelso, a Republican Broadcast Network radio host of the "Trump Phenomenon," said he wants to focus on promoting local control of education. He opposes accepting additional refugee students in the district. He also advocated for smaller, multiple elementary school and opposed consolidating and centralizing education in Grand Forks into one big school.

"There aren't a bunch of people, maybe none, who are espousing the things I am running on," he said.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has written extensively about Kelso being tied to white supremacist groups, including his time when he moderated, a white nationalist website. Kelso has disputed claims he is a Nazi or white supremacist, describing himself as a right-wing candidate.

"If you just look at the SPLC's track record, they are not really fair on people," he said, adding he is not a racist.

Mikula promoted reversing what she called negative trends, including an administration versus teacher mentality. She also wants the board to work with other governing bodies in the city.

The race is an opportunity for voters to determine who represents them on school policy, quality of education and other important issues for the district, said Lee, a UND mail services supervisor. He said he would work hard and listen to all points of view.

"These decisions will have a lasting effect on our community for years to come," he said, adding the quality of education and well-being of students will be his top priority.

Reybok and Howe did not return messages left by the Herald. The Grand Forks Education Association last week rescinded its endorsement of Reybok, a civilian deployment manager for Grand Forks Air Force Base, after learning he posted politically charged memes on Facebook, including one suggesting Democrats want children to die in mass shootings. He previously told the Herald the posts were meant to be jokes. He has since made his Facebook posts private.

Howe, an attorney, previously faced criminal charges alleging he was involved in a conspiracy to murder a witness against one of his clients in a different case, but those charges that were later dropped. His law license was briefly suspended in 2014 after the North Dakota Supreme Court justices found he bungled an immigration case in which his former clients ultimately were ordered to leave the country.

School Board members make $3,500 a year, and the president of the board makes $4,000 annually.

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers crime and education. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family raises registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as a city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

Have a story idea? Contact Baumgarten at 701-780-1248.

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