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District 833 School Board race takes shape as seven candidates file

Seven candidates have filed for election to fill three open seats on the South Washington County School Board. Voters will also see a question on the ballot asking them to approve an operating levy increase and a bond measure. (Bulletin file photo)

Seven candidates will vie for three open South Washington County School Board seats this fall.

They include three incumbents, including board chairman Ron Kath of Cottage Grove. Appointees Joe Slavin and Michelle Witte, both of Woodbury, are running for their first full four-year terms.

The four challengers are Patricia Driscoll of Cottage Grove, Dean Barton of St. Paul Park, and Woodbury residents Molly Lutz and Andrea Mayer-Bruestle. All filed by the Aug. 11 deadline.

The Nov. 3 election of three board members will coincide with School District 833’s referendum request that residents dig deeper into their pockets to support school operations and building expansion. Voters will be asked to approve an operating levy increase and a bond measure; both would raise property taxes.

If the referendum passes, owners of homes valued at $250,000 would pay an extra $418 annually, according to district estimates. District administrators say the levy increase is needed to avoid a projected $3.4 million in budget cuts next year and to begin replenishing their reserves. The bond measures would fund a new middle school and expansion and renovations of other school buildings. The district intends to return in 2017 with an additional operating levy increase.

The School Board candidates include:

Dean Barton

Barton, 57, was born in St. Paul. He is a risk and training analyst for American Enterprise Investment Services, which is the clearing firm for Ameriprise Financial Services in Minneapolis. A former Marine, he also served on the Parks and Recreation Commission in St. Paul Park.

Barton volunteers with numerous organizations. He was director of Referee Instruction for the Minnesota State Referee Committee from 2007 to 2011 and is associate director for the Healing Room, a non-denominational ministry in St. Paul. He also mentored teens and volunteers with BestPrep, which provides schools financial literacy programs. He also served on the board of directors for the Minnesota Youth Soccer Association.

He and his wife Roberta have four children. They have lived in south Washington County since the late 1990s.

In an email, Barton cited the need to raise the test scores of minority students in the district.

“Blacks and Hispanics are scoring consistently lower than asian and white (non-Hispanic) students,” he said. “Further, students in all demographics, with few exceptions, are scoring significantly lower at Park than students attending East Ridge and Woodbury high schools.”

This goal can be accomplished, he said, through “greater transparency and less spin on what is really happening in the district”and “an increased focus on needs specific to black and Hispanic students and a breaking away from a one-size-fits-all mentality. This is especially critical if demographic trends continue toward a more diverse student population.”

Patricia Driscoll

Patricia Driscoll, 62, recently retired from her position of elementary principal and Title 1 director in Lake Superior School District 381 in northeastern Minnesota. During her 40-year career, she also analyzed test scores and worked as a special education teacher.

“It’s a way for me to serve the community,” she said of her candidacy.

Driscoll moved to Cottage Grove two months ago.

“All my family lives here,” she said. “They’ve lived here since the ‘70s. It was always my goal to move down here when I retired. I grew up in St. Paul.”

She said that she would have voted for a full $900-per-pupil levy increase this fall but supports the district’s plan to seek a partial increase in November.

“At this point I can see that we’re headed toward deficit operating debt in the coming years so I think it’s important to get people on board with the operating levy in the fall,” she said.

Ron Kath

Ron Kath, 54, who is running for his fourth term, said he wants to help finish what was started on his watch. During his tenure he has helped with the redrawing of school boundaries, particularly as it related to the construction of East Ridge High School.

The growing population of south Washington County will require more boundary adjustments and the construction of a new middle school to alleviate overcrowding at other middle schools in the district, he said.

Kath also noted District 833’s purchase of the Valley Crossing Community School from the Stillwater and North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale districts. He said he wants to be around to help integrate Valley Crossing into the district in time for the 2016-17 school year.

He’s reluctant to take credit for progress.

“I didn’t accomplish anything,” he said. “The district does the accomplishing. What I’m more proud of is that we as a district are coming together as one district. When you have four communities that have different identities, it’s hard when you’re one person in the middle trying to bring everything together. And I think the school district is that person, that magnet.”

Kath is pleased that they were able to get a partial levy referendum on the November ballot. Even if voters indicated they would not support the original proposal of a $900-per-pupil levy this fall, the district is headed in the right direction with a $525-per-pupil request this year, he said. He hopes voters will approve the remaining $375 per pupil in 2017.

“I really feel I can bring some leadership to the community to get us through that initiative,” he said. ”Hopefully the voters will think I’ve been doing a decent job and give me another shot.”

Molly Lutz

Molly Lutz, 46, a School Board candidate in 2013, is a mother of two who has been heavily involved within District 833. She served as president of the Woodbury Middle School Parent Teacher Organization and has been a member of the District 833 Communications Committee since 2006. She also served as president of the Woodbury Elementary Parent Teacher Organization and on the interview committee for the hiring of three district principals. She has also worked in the travel industry arranging itineraries and documentation for corporate international travelers.

“The most important aspect the district needs to do is regain the confidence of the community,” Lutz said in a statement. “The administration needs to be forthcoming and transparent with their plans. The district also needs to listen to the community prior to making decisions.

“I would like to see more consistency between schools,” Lutz added. “The middle school curriculum has changed every year since my first child attended. I would like find a way for students to have more options for fine arts, STEM or other interest classes during this time of exploration.”

Andrea Mayer-Bruestle

Andrea Bruestle, 42, is a self-described citizen journalist and blogger. She and her family moved to Woodbury in 2002. Two of her four children graduated from Woodbury High School.

“We have a long history in this district,” Mayer-Bruestle said. “We moved here for the reason that we knew the schools were good and the community was great. As I’ve seen things happen, I have been working to keep the district accountable to the people. The people are who they serve. I’ve been criticized for it. In some ways this is saying, ‘OK, I’m going to put my money where my mouth is. I’m going to run. If can’t do it from the outside, I’ll do it from the inside.’”

Mayer-Bruestle said she will push for greater financial transparency, including a return to line-item budgeting so taxpayers can see how their money is spent.

“The School Board has abdicated its power to the administration to the point of becoming an advisory committee rather than the employers of the superintendent,” she said.

Joe Slavin

Incumbent Joe Slavin, 43, has three daughters who attend District 833 schools. His 25-year career in education includes his current position of principal at Skyview Middle School in the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale district.

“As a career public educator, I strongly believe in public education,” he said.

District 833 is hardly unique in its budget woes, he said. State funding has not kept up with the rate of inflation, leaving many school districts to resort to seeking local levy increases.

“If you look at over at least the last 10 years, the per-pupil increase has rarely matched the rate of inflation,” he said. “Not surprisingly, our school district, like other school districts in the state, are relying on operating levy to be part of the revenue picture.

“My two main goals are student achievement and creating opportunities for students and supporting the district administration and making sure those two areas continue to be the main focus,” he added.

Michelle Witte

Michelle Witte, 52, is the director of operations for the Merrill Community Arts Center, which includes the Black Box Theatre at East Ridge High School. She was the lead fundraiser for the multi-million-dollar project.

Witte was appointed to an open School Board seat last year. She won a coin toss after the six board members could not decide between her and Slavin. Slavin later was appointed to another open seat.

“I have been very involved with the school for the last 12, 15 years and really enjoy the opportunity to be a part of the positive conversation about how we can continue to keep our schools strong and provide great education and fulfill our mission for our kids and our district,” she said.

In 2006 and 2007, she worked on a citizen committee that campaigned for the passage of school bond and levy measures. She served on a district budget committee, was involved in the design of East Ridge and co-founded booster clubs for the East Ridge girls hockey and robotics teams.

One of her daughters graduated from East Ridge in 2013. Another daughter will begin her sophomore year at Woodbury High School.

In addition to keeping pace with how education is delivered, including technological innovations, Witte said it’s imperative to establish long-term and sustainable funding in order to pay teachers and administrators what they’re worth.

“We’re not competitive,” Witte said. “We’ve lost some good administration and good teachers for lack of salary competitiveness. We need to address that. We owe our kids to make sure that we’re doing what we can.”

William Loeffler

William Loeffler is a playwright and journalist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He worked 15 years writing features for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has also written travel stories based on his trips to all seven continents. He and his wife, Michelle, ran the Boston Marathon in 2009. 

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