District 833 School Board candidates running for varied reasons
Incumbents say they want to build on past successes while some challengers say they want to contribute to local schools or they see a need for changes.
The 17 candidates seeking five spots on the South Washington County School Board this fall have a host of reasons for running and are bringing a variety of experiences to the race.
Their names will appear on the Nov. 5 ballot; 14 are vying for four four-year seats on the board while three are competing for a two-year special election.
Eighteen candidates had filed by last week's deadline, though one -- Girma Dinssa -- withdrew after filing.
Here are the candidates for the two-year seat:
A Woodbury resident, Laurie Johnson, who has served one four-year term, is running for the two-year seat created by Leslee Boyd's resignation.
An account manager for Thomson Reuters, Johnson said she's committing to a two-year term because her husband is semi-retired and the couple's lifestyle is changing.
Johnson has been a Cub Scout leader, involved in youth ministry and a Junior Great Books volunteer.
Woodbury resident and stay-at-home mom Susan Richardson, who previously worked as a biology teacher, said she is anxious to get back into the education field, which is why she decided to run for the two-year seat on the board.
Richardson, who has two children, said she has always been involved in the schools in some capacity helping out with her children. She has volunteered in the library and as an art history teacher for special education students.
Richardson said the primary reason she decided to run was to help ensure that parents within the district have a voice.
"The School Board is the last group of people that a desperate family can turn to in order to have their grievances heard," she said. "I would like to be there to be a voice for the students and the parents."
Additionally, Richardson said she is concerned about the district budget and the budget matrix since it is very difficult to understand. (The matrix was a tool administrators and board member used to make budget decisions this past year.)
"It took the emotion out of making decisions, but it also took out a lot of the facts," she said. "I would like the community to be able to make their decision based on facts."
Here are the candidates for the four-year seats:
Tracy Brunnette, of Cottage Grove, has served three four-year terms and one two-year term on the board.
Brunnette said she is running for another four-year term because she "loves the job" and wants to keep being an advocate for public education.
A State Farm Insurance manager, Brunnette said she got interested in education when her oldest son, now 29, attended Early Childhood and Family Education classes in St. Paul.
Safiyyah Cummings was a Plymouth, Minn., resident when she filed for a four-year seat on the board, but said she is moving to St. Paul Park by the end of September so will meet the residency requirements.
Cummings just earned a master's degree in human resources and is looking for a job in that area. She she plans to start a family and wants to be involved and have input in the future of District 833 schools.
"My school-age memories are still very vivid and I would like to contribute to someone else's experience," she said.
She has not been involved in the district, but said running for the board is a way to build connections and get involved right after moving next month.
"It's worth giving it a shot," she said of seeking a board seat.
An attorney, Michael Edman said he has been considering running for something for some time and was waiting for the right opportunity.
When he learned of the School Board vacancies, he said, "I started thinking that might make a lot of sense for me."
Edman said his work schedule would allow him to be available for board meetings, and he is interested in the school district's future because he has two children -- ages 4 and 2 -- who will be entering the district in the coming years.
"It really matters to me because it's going to impact my family," he said.
Edman moved to Cottage Grove from St. Paul a little over three years ago, and he said District 833 schools were a big factor in that decision. He was in an International Baccalaureate program when he was in high school, and liked that District 833 offers that program at Park and that it has a Spanish immersion program.
Serving on the board would be Edman's first involvement with the school district. He previously served on the Cottage Grove Charter Commission.
Raj Gandhi said he has interacted with School District 833 through his position as president of the Woodbury soccer club in recent years, but now he's ready to kick up his involvement in local schools.
Gandhi, a Woodbury resident with two boys heading into grades 6 and 7, said his interest in running for a four-year board seat came after volunteering with the Woodbury Athletic Association and serving on the district's curriculum advisory committee.
"It's just another opportunity to stay involved with what my kids are doing," said Gandhi, a first-time candidate.
Gandhi, an engineer for Medtronic who also owns Woodbury rental housing, said no singl education issue has drawn him to the race.
"I don't have an axe to grind," he said. "I'm curious about the system, and the timing is relatively good for me."
John Griffin II
John Griffin said he decided to run for a four-year seat on the board because his job as owner of a bail bonds company affords him the time and flexibility to devote to the position. Also, Griffin said he has observed problems with the district's high school transfer policy, and he wants to be a voice for district residents he said are concerned about a referendum that could raise their property taxes even as their home values are not increasing.
Griffin last year stepped down after serving as an assistant Woodbury High School football coach for 16 years. He also was involved with the Woodbury Athletic Association's football board for 12 years.
"I've done a lot of things here," he said.
Griffin, a Woodbury resident, said he believes people in the Woodbury and Park high school boundaries sometimes feel there is district favoritism toward East Ridge High School and have concerns about the school boundaries and transfer policy.
"This is a great town; it's a great community," Griffin said, but he is not happy with all district decisions. "Either I can decide to do something about it or shut up."
Fred Hess he has watched his middle school-aged son go through Bailey Elementary School and has "more or less learned to really appreciate what they do for the kids."
"I'm fully supportive of what the schools are doing," Hess said, adding that he believes strongly in the importance of arts, music and sports in addition to core classroom studies.
Hess is a Woodbury resident who works in the patient accounting department for LifeLink 3, an air medical transportation company.
A political science major in college, Hess said he believes in representative government and citizen involvement.
"This just seems like it's my turn to step up to the plate because you only have one opportunity in life to do things," he said. "I just need to do something and try to do that community service kind of thing that I think is important for citizens to do."
An area resident for 23 years, Leilani Holmstadt has never run for public office.
A small business owner of a home day care service, Holmstadt said she is running because she cares about educating the next generation.
Holmstadt, of Cottage Grove, said her involvement in education has included attending school board meetings and volunteering with youth education programs.
Wayne A. Johnson
A member of the Cottage Grove Planning Commission, Wayne A. Johnson, who has not run for public office before, said he is concerned about long-term planning by the current District 833 School Board.
The board should be working closer with cities on planning boundary changes because of development, Johnson said.
Johnson is the owner of AAA Wicks plumbing and heating and has served on the Community Education Advisory Committee.
District 833 School Board Member David Kemper said his favorite thing about serving on the School Board for the past four years has been getting to know all of the district staff.
"We have a great bunch of employees," he said.
Kemper has enjoyed his time on the board so much that he has decided to run for a second term. A Woodbury resident, he filed for re-election Aug. 9.
Kemper, who works as a network technician for CenturyLink, said if he is re-elected he would focus on maintaining a sound fiscal budget, maintaining the district's choice programs — International Baccalaureate, Spanish Immersion, Gifted and Talented and Project Lead the Way — and avoiding boundary changes.
"I want to continue on the path of our good education," he said.
Kemper said he was surprised, and pleased, to see such a large turnout of candidates.
"People are excited about our schools," he said.
Woodbury resident Molly Lutz, a stay-at-home mom, said she decided to run because she wanted "to help celebrate the district's successes and acknowledge where we can improve."
Lutz, who previously worked in the travel industry coordinating travel arrangements and documentation for corporate international travelers, filed Aug. 12.
Lutz, who has two children, has been heavily involved within District 833 in a number of capacities — she is president of the Woodbury Middle School PTO and has been a member of the District 833 Communications Committee since 2006.
Previously, Lutz served as president of the Woodbury Elementary PTO and on the interview committee for the hiring of three district principals.
Lutz said her primary issues are: keeping parents and the community informed about the district; addressing basic needs for teachers and students; and the district's financial security.
"As a board member, I would like to have the opportunity to work with Dr. (Keith) Jacobus on his vision as he enters his second year as superintendent," she said. "I would hope to have adequate resources for both neighborhood schools and choice programs.
"All students deserve a quality education for success into adulthood," she added.
Katy McElwee-Stevens, of Newport, is winding down a one-year appointment to the board but said she wants to continue serving.
A bout with cancer behind her, McElwee-Stevens said she considered the two-year seat but opted for a four-year seat because she wanted a longer commitment and fellow incumbent Laurie Johnson was interested in the two-year seat.
McElwee-Stevens works as a paraprofessional at Newport Elementary. If elected to a four-year term, she said she will have to give up the paraprofessional job because under state law she cannot serve on the board and earn more than $8,000 a year working for the district.
It was a hard decision, she said, because of her fondness for the school and its students.
“I’m running for the board because I think the district is going in a really good direction,” McElwee-Stevens said, “and my big thing is to be a liaison between parents and students and school administration.”
“There always seems to be that link that’s missing, that community piece,” she continued. “So my thing is to try to fill that need.”
McElwee-Stevens serves on the volunteer East Ridge High School site team.
A St. Paul Park resident, Katie Schwartz applied for the board seat vacated by Leslee Boyd, ran for board in the election two years ago and was the next highest vote-getter behind the three incumbents in that 2011 race.
Serving on the attendance boundary committee, Schwartz said she feels the southern part of the district is under-represented on the board.
There needs to be a change on the board, said Schwartz, who is a student and stay-at-home mother. She has been a PTA member and volunteers for school fundraisers.
A host of issues involving the District 833 School Board prompted Woodbury resident Mike Thissen to seek a four-year term on the board.
Within the past year, Thissen said he has been troubled by a proposal that would have shuffled Woodbury Elementary students to the Crosswinds Arts and Sciences School building, a flap at East Ridge High School where a Black Panther poem was allowed to be read over the school's PA system and the district's budgeting process.
He said the fact that 17 people emerged for the School Board race is a signal that he's not the only one with concerns.
"The public is not happy with how the School Board is running things," said Thissen, who works as an environmental health specialist for the city of Bloomington.
Thissen, who coaches youth football through the Woodbury Athletic Association, ran unsuccessful bids for School Board in 2010 and for Woodbury City Council in 2012.
Sharon Van Leer
Sharon Van Leer, a multicultural affairs specialist and assistant international student adviser at William Mitchell College of Law, said she had been connected to District 833 for decades.
The Woodbury resident's children, foster children and grandchildren have attended schools here in a period spanning 35 years. And that, she said, is why she's running for a four-year term on the School Board.
"It's about the children," Van Leer said, adding that her hope is to "enrich their educational opportunities."
This represents her first-ever campaign for public office. In the past, Van Leer has served on the South Washington County Education Equity and Integration Community Advisory Board. She also served for eight years on the District 833 foundation.
Other issues of concern for Van Leer are cultural competency and curriculum, she said.
-Compiled by Bulletin staff
Editor's note: David Firkus, a candidate for the two-year seat, did not return calls for comment.