A relative newcomer to the South Washington County Schools community was the top vote-getter in last week’s school board election, while voters ousted the board chairwoman.
Katy McElwee-Stevens lost her bid for another term while three other incumbents retained their seats. But those returning incumbents all trailed first-place finisher Patricia Driscoll, a challenger who will join the board in January.
Incumbents Katie Schwartz of St. Paul Park, Sharon Van Leer of Woodbury and Tracy Brunnette of Cottage Grove all held onto their seats in a 10-candidate race for four seats on the board.
Also, Heather Hirsch of Cottage Grove won a special election to a two-year term, beating out four other candidates. That position has been vacant since the June death of former board member Joe Slavin.
Driscoll, of Cottage Grove, led the crowded field for four-year terms.
“I am so excited to serve my community in this capacity,” Driscoll wrote after the Nov. 7 election. It was her second run for the board, having lost when she ran in 2015, shortly after she moved to the area in retirement. “I am especially grateful that all three referendum questions passed and am looking forward to the next four years. My hope is to inspire the board to do more and expect more to improve education and learning. I am very proud to be serving a community that supports public education.”
McElwee-Stevens, whose tenure on the board has included appointments and election wins as well as ballot defeats, put the loss in perspective when discussing the outcome.
McElwee-Stevens’ father entered hospice in July and died Sept. 8, just as campaigning traditionally begins to ramp up.
“I chose to be with my family versus run a major campaign this time, and I wouldn’t change that for anything,” she said. Had her father’s health not been an issue, McElwee-Stevens said she would have spent more time out campaigning, talking to people, emailing supporters.
“This time when I got back here after that,” she said of her father’s death, “there’s just no energy.”
Still, McElwee-Stevens said while she wanted to serve another term, she was excited the district’s three-question referendum passed.
“I’m leaving the district in a great situation,” she said of the school’s finances, which are expected to improve with the referendum’s passage.
The winners’ percentages were: Driscoll, 11.96; Schwartz, 11.07; Brunnette, 10.92; and Van Leer, 10.91.
They beat out six other candidates: McElwee-Stevens of Newport, Alexandra Hedberg of Woodbury, William Thurmes of Cottage Grove, Thor Halverson of Woodbury, David Pyrz of Woodbury and Douglas Hoffman of Woodbury.
Van Leer recalled that she only won her first election four years ago by five votes.
“This was a landslide compared to the other” race, she joked.
Van Leer said she wants to focus over the next four years on academic achievement gaps, and to address racial tensions in the district.
“I’m looking forward to helping close that achievement (gap),” she said. “That’s my main goal, and to bring more diversity into the schools.”
Brunnette said she wanted to thank the community for supporting all three questions on the referendum.
“I’m excited to continue to advocate for District 833 and our communities and our students,” she said of her re-election.
McElwee-Stevens’ loss shocked her friends and colleagues.
“It was very, very surprising to me, to be honest,” Brunnette said.
Van Leer said the board will lose continuity with McElwee-Stevens’ departure.
McElwee-Stevens’ term ends in December. She said she’ll take some time before deciding how she’ll stay involved in the community.
“I will have to do something as far as service for the communities,” she said. “That’s just the way I’m wired. I will be looking for opportunities to give back.”
McElwee-Stevens said he was thankful for the opportunity to serve on the board.
“It was so wonderful to be able to serve the community and I truly believe it was a privilege to be able to do that,” she said. “For people to put their trust in me to help guide their children’s education, it’s so humbling.”Special election
In the race for the two-year seat, Hirsch edged Steve Lagoon of Cottage Grove by 69 votes, 25.33 percent to 24.63 percent. The other three candidates in the special election were Sean Brown of Woodbury, Wael Abdelkader of Woodbury and Duane Girard of Newport.
Hirsch admitted that she was surprised by her win. Other candidates probably did more campaigning or door-knocking, she said, while her campaigning focused mainly on conversations with families, word of mouth or social media.
Hirsch works for the Minnesota Department of Education’s school safety technical assistance center. She said she wants to work on improving school climate and perceptions about the district’s schools and students. She also wants to focus on helping students who need mental health and counseling assistance.
Hirsch said she was “humbled” voters chose her. Since she won a special election to fill a vacancy, Hirsch is expected to be sworn into office in December.