The last of the candidate forums sponsored by the League of Women Voters – Minnetonka, Eden Prairie, Hopkins (LWV MEPH), was Oct. 7 at the Eden Prairie City Center.
“Of the four forums the LWV MEPH has hosted this fall, the Eden Prairie School Board Forum fielded the largest number [of]and most diverse questions,” noted Karen Berg, LWV MEPH Candidate Forum chair.
The LWV MEPH describes its format as nonpartisan, unbiased and impartial as established by the League of Women Voters Minnesota. The forum followed Minnesota Governor Tim Walz’s COVID-19 guidelines.
The six candidates running for three seats on the Eden Prairie School Board are Maryam Abdi, Beth Fletcher, Tony Morimoto, Francesca Pagan-Umar, former school board member Kim Ross and C. J. Strehl.
The forum opened with two-minute opening statements from each candidate. Questions submitted by the public were then presented with each candidate given a chance to answer.
Maryam Abd, a 12-year Eden Prairie resident, said she is running for school board to bring a fresh perspective to the board.
Beth Fletcher, a former middle school math teacher, past Parent-Teacher Organization (PTO) president of Prairie View and the District PTO organization, and mother of three, said she wants to maintain excellence in the schools. She said she believes that the district needs good leaders during difficult times.
Tony Morimoto, an Eden Prairie resident and business owner, used his dog to get attention about his campaign. He said he hopes that when he has children someday, they will go to a great district.
Francesca Pagan-Umar, an experienced educator and mother of three Eden Prairie students, addressed the achievement gap in Eden Prairie Schools. She did her master’s degree work in general and special education. She said she wants to use science and facts for a safe pandemic response.
Kim Ross, who served on the Eden Prairie School Board from 2008 -2011 and has been a mentor at Eden Prairie High School. She said she believes that in these rapidly changing times experience matters and said she will focus on raising the achievements of all students, ensuring equitable opportunity for all students and supporting a culture of social justice.
C. J. Strehl said he is running to with a goal to make all residents proud of Eden Prairie schools. He said the district has the highest per pupil spending in all the western suburban school districts and the smallest class sizes. He noted that some community residents are not happy with the school system. The father of four Eden Prairie Schools students, Strehl has a finance and accounting background that he said the district will need in the next two years.
Top issue to address
Strehl stated that the state is going to face a significant deficit within the next two years, and that he is the only candidate with a finance and accounting background. He said he wants to use a creative approach without impacting the district objectives.
The achievement gap is Pagen-Umar’s top issue. “It is not just the students that are personally impacted; it has an impact on learning for entire classrooms.” She said she believes support is needed for underperforming students outside the classroom. We need to recruit high-quality teachers who reflect the diversity of our classrooms and would provide challenging coursework for all our students, she said.
Ross said she would focus on inequality in classrooms. “The achievement gap is one manifestation of that,” Ross stated. She cited third-grade black students reading at grade level 15 percent lower than white students and then graduate 15% less white students. She said she wants to look at kindergarten readiness, grade school foundations and ninth- grade assessments. We need to look beyond the achievement gap to the opportunity gap, according to Ross.
Abdi said she would like to look at opportunity and inclusion along with the achievement gap. She would like to look at working with parents to achieve this goal, using an audit system yearly. She would like to hire high-quality teachers of different races and cultures.
“Distance learning is a complete failure,” said Morimoto, who added that he would work on getting everyone back in the classroom. He stated that his employees are afraid if the schools have distance learning; they can’t make money if they don’t work. He said he believes that if the teachers aren’t willing to be in the classroom, “we can hire more teachers.”
COVID-19 is the top issue for Fletcher. She said she wants to get students back into classrooms safely and likes the online option for the families who want it. She wants to make sure student needs are being met.
Fletcher said that each year she was PTO president, the organization raised more than $40,000 that the school needed by the teacher and students.
Abdi said she believes our schools are well funded compared to other schools
Strehl said he believes that the district is going to have to face the issue of lack of funding from the state. If we deliver great education the community will support our schools, he said.
Morimoto said he believes that the district soon will not be adequately funded. He said he wants to raise money by doing a billion-dollar bond offering.
Pagan-Umar said she believes Eden Prairie schools are underfunded. She stated that currently 80 percent of the budget goes to teacher compensation, yet their salaries do not keep pace with their education or experience. Twenty percent of the budget is tied up by state and federal regulations, she said, adding she is willing to advocate with the state and federal government to increase funding.
Ross said she believes the district is in good shape because of the federal government CARES act. She stated the district has built up quite a large reserve to get us through rough patches, adding that the board should monitor the budget and advocate with legislators for funding.
Diversity of the school board
Ross said she believes the board must actively seek out the views and perspectives that may have been underserved, adding that she thinks the board needs to be aware of the inequities and make sure it is serving all students.
Morimoto said he believes it is all about mindset: “We must focus on the most important minority there is, the individual. Successful people take agency over what they do. The current board wants the maximum amount of credit and the minimum amount of responsibility.”
Abdi said she believes the school board should include people who are being underserved. “We need to represent people of all color.”
Strehl said that if he took the position of advocating for a more diverse school board, he would be saying ‘don’t vote for me.’ The world he lives in does not include a diverse community but he is committed to speaking and learning within the community since 43 percent of the district is people of color, he said.
Fletcher said that diversity is very important to her and she wants every student to have a bright future.
Pagan-Umar said she believes that including BIPOC (Black, Indigenous People of Color) is absolutely important. You can not just have white people advocating for you, she said, adding that she believes it is essential that the school board reflect the student population.
Finance course requirement
Pagan- Umar said she believes financial education is an essential life skill and she supports requiring a finance course.
Ross also said she agrees that financial education should be required for high school graduation.
Fletcher said she needs more information about the class; she wonders if it can be included in other courses.
Adbi agrees that financial education is important.
Strehl said he thinks the district should bring in people from the community to teach financial acuity courses.
Morimoto said he believes financial education should be required in eighth grade.The candidate forums will be rebroadcast several times each week on city cable channels and are available on-demand at edenprairie.org/CityTV leading up to Election Day.