Eight candidates running for the Eden Prairie School Board shared their positions on several topics, including student equity, mental health, treatment of culture and gender, and the upcoming referendum at a Sept. 14 forum.
The event was held in the Eden Prairie City Council chambers and was hosted by the League of Women Voters (LWV) of Minnetonka, Eden Prairie, and Hopkins. Peggy Kvam moderated the discussion.
The forum allowed candidates to define themselves against their opponents as they compete for five open school board seats.
Four of these seats are for full four-year terms. The fifth seat is for a special, shorter term of two years. The person elected to this seat will serve the remaining two years left on the term of a school board member who resigned in September 2021.
For the full-term seats, voters will choose four of these six candidates: Steve Bartz (incumbent), Aaron Casper (incumbent), Debjyoti “DD” Dwivedy (incumbent), Abby Libsack (challenger), Francesca Pagan-Umar (incumbent), and Jody Ward-Rannow (challenger).
Candidates for the special two-year term seat are Isaac Kerry and Dennis Stubbs.
How the candidate forum worked
At the forum, candidates answered questions submitted in advance by the public. The atmosphere in the council chamber was collegial, and for the most part, candidates respected their time limits.
The event was lightly attended, with only about a quarter of the 70 seats filled. However, the session was also livestreamed.
Candidates were given two minutes to make an opening statement. Then the question and answer portion began.
First, each of the eight candidates was asked, in rotating order, to answer the same question in one minute. Once all eight had answered, Kvam moved on to the next question. Then, candidates answered a second series of questions to which they had to give a yes or no answer, then explain their answer.
Finally, each candidate was asked to make a closing statement.
How did the candidates respond?
There were many points of agreement, especially about the referendum, prioritizing mental health, school security, and the need to show support and appreciation for teachers and staff.
However, candidates didn’t see eye-to-eye on everything. Topics such as student safety and discipline, book banning, and cultural and gender affirmation of students revealed some notable differences of opinion.
Here are the questions asked of the candidates and a brief summary of the responses.
(Clicking the link provided in each section will allow readers interested in a particular issue to view the relevant section of the recorded livestream. This will let you easily hear the complete set of responses in each of the candidates’ own words.)
View the introduction and opening statements from 0:00 to 21:05.
1. Do you support the two referendum questions? If a referendum fails, what cuts would you recommend?
All of the candidates came out in strong support of both referendum questions. They agreed that passing the operating levy and renewing the technology levy are needed to keep Eden Prairie Schools’ (EPS) positive momentum and fund a quality education.
Candidates said they were optimistic that the referendum will pass, and many said that if it doesn’t, EPS should try again next year.
Only some of the candidates gave clear answers as to what they would recommend cutting if the referendum does not pass.
Libsack said she would ask the superintendent and other board members for advice. Pagan-Umar agreed she would look to the superintendent for advice, but that cuts would probably have to start with making class sizes larger.
Ward-Rannow said the district is already operating very leanly, so it would be vital to have board members to help decide priorities and then figure out how to get the referendum passed the next time. Kerry said he would want to make the least disruptive cuts possible and then campaign aggressively to pass the referendum the next year.
View the candidates’ full responses to this question from 21:05 to 30:07.
2. What actions could the school board take to support and increase mental health awareness and access to resources for all students and all grades in Eden Prairie Schools?
All the candidates supported the need for strong mental health support for EPS students and staff.
Casper said it was key to ensure that staff and teachers had good mental health. He added that since mental health support requires significant funding, passing the referendum would help pay for this.
Dwivedy agreed that getting the referendum passed is the most important thing the school board could do to support mental health since it would provide needed funding.
Libsack and Ward-Rannow said they would ensure students and their families are aware of all available resources and curriculum interventions. Ward-Rannow added that she would also ask teachers and social workers what they needed.
Pagan-Umar said that in addition to making people aware of existing resources, such as EPS’ partnership with Washburn Center for Children, she would advocate for increased mental health screening.
Kerry said he would push for yearly mental health surveys plus metrics for student well-being and happiness like there are for academics. He said making families aware of resources, teacher training and increased accessibility were important.
Bartz said it was vital for EPS to provide access to mental health support and keep students engaged to prevent depression and suicide. He spoke about the importance of a top-down culture where students feel valued and belong.
Stubbs said that funding is key to providing quality mental health support. He said he felt EPS was doing a great job with treating student mental health and that it provided access to many programs to help students.
View the candidates’ full responses to this question from 30:08 to 39:49.
3. What personal or professional obligations do you have that would cause you to miss more than two school board meetings?
The candidates agreed that attendance was important and that virtual meeting technology would allow them to connect remotely if they could not attend in person.
Casper pointed out that meetings are planned a year in advance, so members have plenty of advance scheduling notice. He said he did not have any conflicts and that in the past, if he was ill or needed to travel, he connected remotely.
Dwivedy mentioned that he sometimes travels when deployed for his role in the U.S. Army Reserves but that he connects remotely.
Libsack said she would be as committed as possible but that her family and her kids’ activities are her first priority. She agreed with Dwivedy that remote meeting technology would be an advantage.
Kerry said attending school board meetings would be one of his highest priorities but that as an Eden Prairie firefighter, he would have to go if called to respond to a fire in the community.
Ward-Rannow, Pagan-Umar, and Stubbs said they did not have any specific obligations likely to cause them to miss meetings. Bartz echoed this, but mentioned his job in healthcare as a possible reason why his schedule might change on a meeting night.
View the candidates’ full responses to this question from 39:50 to 45:31.
4. What involvements in non-sports related experiences with the Eden Prairie school district do you have which support classroom education or the learning community?
Candidates had a variety of responses based on their personal experiences.
Libsack talked about being a class parent, helping with class parties, grading math papers for teachers, organizing school carnivals, and volunteering at EPHS’ math center.
Pagan-Umar talked about classroom volunteering, including supporting a teacher with special education students, and fundraising for teacher grants at Central Middle School through the Parent-Teacher Organization (PTO).
Ward-Rannow said she volunteers 5-10 hours a week as Eagle Heights Spanish Immersion (EHSI) PTO president, and volunteered 20 hours a week supporting families and teachers at the start of hybrid learning in spring 2020.
Bartz said he has volunteered as a career mentor providing job shadow experiences in healthcare to students, chaperoned field trips, and helped at school carnivals and fundraisers.
Casper said he has been involved with school fundraising, has volunteered with the marching band and the drama program, and his family hosted interns when EHSI was a recently established program.
Dwivedy said he has offered to help with Eden Prairie High School (EPHS) capstone projects, supported German exchange students interning at Rotary International, and supports the Foundation for Eden Prairie Schools with fundraising.
Kerry said he supported his children’s distance learning, promoted student achievement as a former education reporter with Eden Prairie Local News (EPLN), and has written educational children’s books about history and science.
Stubbs said he has chaperoned field trips to the zoo and nature center, helped at class parties, and helps reprogram school iPads each year. He also supported his children during distance learning.
View the candidates’ full responses to this question from 45:32 to 55:21.
5. What policies do you support to assure that our gifted programming is not socioeconomically and culturally biased?
All candidates agreed gifted programming should be available to all students who would benefit from it. Several noted that EPS’ gifted programming has been expanded in recent years to give more students the opportunity to take part in it.
Pagan-Umar said she supports removing access thresholds and criteria platforms that prevent some students from taking part in gifted programming. She said EPHS has already increased student access to Advanced Placement (AP) courses, with enrollment doubling and even tripling for certain demographics over previous years.
As a board member, Dwivedy said he helped change the policy regarding being able to look into student data by ethnic groups, which can help identify achievement gaps. He said more students of color than ever before are taking AP classes and he feels current initiatives are working well.
Ward-Rannow said she wanted improved, less confusing communication to families about gifted programming options. She said EPS should reexamine programming through an equity lens to ensure there aren’t hidden biases. She said, for instance, it was not equitable to expect English as a second language learners and EHSI students to take required standardized tests in English.
Kerry agreed that communication about gifted programs and how to access them should be clearer. He said he would like to see closer attention paid to data and metrics on these programs, to identify any imbalances between socioeconomic groups and then to address those discrepancies.
Stubbs agreed with a lot of what the other candidates said. He then read aloud some of the current EPS policies about personalized learning and equitable access and said this showed the district was already doing a good job, and he commended it for its work.
Bartz spoke about the need to identify and remove barriers to students accessing gifted programming. He also said he would advocate for teacher training to help reach all students across the range of diversity and backgrounds, and to encourage and empower these students to try higher-level coursework.
Casper said he supports the current policies that the EPS board and district have worked hard to achieve, and believes this will continue to improve even further. He noted he would want to make sure each student has the opportunity to reach their maximum capabilities, and feels EPS is on track to achieve that.
Libsack said she was not sure if there are any cultural biases in EPS gifted programming. She said entrance tests are the basis for entering programs like KEY and MOSAIC in elementary school, but any student can choose to take enriched classes at the middle school and AP classes at the high school, regardless of how they do on standardized testing.
View the candidates’ full responses to this question from 55:22 to 1:05:08.
6. What steps should be taken to prevent violence at our Eden Prairie schools?
All candidates agreed that preventing violence in EP schools should be a major priority. However, they shared differing views on the best way to achieve this.
Ward-Rannow, Pagan-Umar, Libsack, and Kerry all strongly stressed the need for improved mental health support for both students and teachers. Ward-Rannow said it was vital to identify students who might feel isolated or bullied, and help them not want to self-harm or harm others.
Kerry and Pagan-Umar also emphasized the connection between past trauma and violence. Pagan-Umar noted the importance of strong facilities security, personal connections between staff and students, and social-emotional learning.
Kerry agreed and added that he would advocate for teaching both staff and students to recognize warnings of a mental health crisis, to better connect with and support isolated students.
Bartz emphasized the need to promote strong character and personal responsibility, and to develop a good school culture. He said that EPS has multi-tier system supports (MTSS) in place that help define behavior expectations and promote accountability, which are supported by the student handbook.
Dwivedy said that students need to feel a sense of belonging to feel secure and mentally healthy, and they will then behave and learn better ways of doing things. He also talked about MTSS already in place to help students.
Casper stressed the need to establish strong relationships between students and staff, and maintain clear expectations to hold everyone accountable. Casper also said because there are different levels of violence, good relationships with the police are important in case their intervention is needed.
Libsack said it was unfortunate and sad that any student should fear violence in school, and said she echoed what her fellow candidates said. She said that community-building is important, with restorative practices and clear consequences.
Stubbs focused on clear boundaries and consequences. He said he hated to use the word “expel” but said students involved in violent incidents who were distracting and negatively impacting other students, should be removed from school and helped with some “special education” outside of school hours.
View the candidates’ full responses to this question from 1:05:09 to 1:14:53.
7. What should our district do to retain top teachers when faced with the high increase in stress and burnout that many teachers are feeling?
All candidates agreed that retaining excellent teachers and staff is vital. They also said that passing the referendum would allow EPS to pay teachers competitive salaries and recruit the best talent.
Kerry said that especially after the past few difficult years, in addition to paying “extremely competitive salaries,” it was vital for the board to show teachers how much they are appreciated and to value their voices in decision-making.
Ward-Rannow agreed the board should better connect with teachers to build a stronger community. She said the board should be asking teachers and all staff, including support and facilities maintenance staff, what support they need.
Stubbs agreed that it was important to show teachers appreciation and encouragement so they feel heard, and to address and fix problems. He said ensuring small class sizes was also very important.
Bartz said that teachers did “the heavy lifting” during the pandemic, and the board needs to listen to them, support them, and identify what is causing their burnout. He said the board needs to show appreciation and budget for adequate wages and benefits.
Casper emphasized the need to pass the operating levy to provide stability and keep EPS a “destination district” with top salaries and benefits. He said he supported board policies that enable teacher appreciation and provide strong mental health support.
Dwivedy agreed that passing the referendum is key to supporting teachers and recruiting the best talent. He said the board also needs to respect the collective bargaining process and empower teachers to bring their best to the classroom.
Libsack said teachers face many demands beyond the curriculum, including teaching to differing needs, and monitoring students’ emotional well-being. She said they need to be heard and also supported by more paraprofessionals in each classroom.
Pagan-Umar said she agreed with what had already been said. She also pointed out that providing interesting learning enrichment opportunities that allow teachers to share their passions will help make EPS a satisfying and attractive place to work.
View the candidates’ full responses to this question from 1:14:53 to 1:24:44.
8. What is the ideal class size in your opinion? Please explain your answer.
Candidate responses about ideal class sizes varied from general to specific. Most candidates said they felt younger students needed smaller classes.
Dwivedy said there was no ideal size, but noted that EPS class sizes for grades K-5 are the smallest in the southwest metro area. He said passing the referendum will help keep these class sizes small and support teachers and students for the best learning.
Libsack said the ideal class size varies, but she would prefer 10-15 for kindergarten, 20 maximum for other elementary grades, and up to 25 for middle and high school, to promote individualized learning.
Casper said since he wasn’t an educator he didn’t feel qualified to give an ideal number, but felt small class sizes were critical especially in the lower grades. He noted EPS’ small class sizes especially in K-2, and agreed with Dwivedy that passing the referendum was key to keeping these.
Stubbs said he thought 8-10 students per class was ideal for pre-K. He said he thought 22-25 had been a good K-3 size for his own children, and that as students get older and are more responsible and better listeners, it would be fine for class sizes to increase.
Pagan-Umar said as a former teacher, she would want 12-15 students per class, so she could create three groups of 4-5 upper-, middle-, and lower-tier learners. She would want an assistant so they could rotate and provide instruction tailored to student needs.
Bartz said classes should be as small as possible to help students and teachers connect and build relationships. He also advocated for more student teachers. He said passing the referendum would keep K-2 class sizes small and potentially decrease grades 3-4 class sizes.
Kerry said that small-as-possible class sizes create stronger teacher-student relationships, and stressed the need to pass the referendum to fund this. He said it would be important to look at the data to ensure this is the best way to spend district money, but said he felt confident it was.
Ward-Rannow also made the practical point that although small class sizes are ideal, EPS’ finite building resources must be considered. She said due to space constraints, EHSI is currently “bursting at the seams” and in the pursuit of smaller class sizes, it will be necessary to discuss how resources are allocated.
View the candidates’ full responses to this question from 1:24:45 to 1:33:13.
9. Yes or no: Do you support policies that embrace the universal lunch program?
All of the candidates said that they were in favor of the now-ended, pandemic-era universal free lunch program.
Starting in March 2020, a federal child nutrition waiver provided free lunch and other food assistance to children regardless of family income, at a time when many families’ financial and lifestyle circumstances were rapidly worsening and food insecurity was rising. Although some of the food assistance measures were extended, the federally sponsored universal free lunch program expired on June 30, 2022 and has not been renewed.
Stubbs said that growing up with a single mom and his brothers, his family did not have much money. He said they relied on programs like this for free lunch, free tutoring, and free after-school care.
Casper, Bartz, and Dwivedy noted that families got used to the free lunch program during the pandemic, and that it had a positive impact on students who couldn’t otherwise afford to buy lunch.
Casper said that losing it will negatively impact many households, especially combined with the effects of inflation and rising food and gas prices. Dwivedy noted that free lunch is the only good meal of the day for some EPS students.
Bartz said that free lunch is more equitable, a point echoed by Ward-Rannow, who spoke about the stigma students experience if they are turned away from the lunch line due to being unable to pay. She talked about how EHSI PTO has “angel funds” to help cover unpaid lunch bills but that universal free lunch would be best.
Casper, Pagan-Umar, Ward-Rannow, and Kerry pointed out that hunger negatively impacts student progress because it makes it harder to learn and widening the achievement gap.
Pagan-Umar said that in the absence of the free lunch program, families could apply for the free and reduced lunch program; however, she noted that family circumstances can change suddenly. She also advocated for larger portion sizes.
Kerry said the absence of the universal free lunch program was “a travesty” and that he would like to see existing programs expanded and better publicized. He said in a community as affluent as Eden Prairie, no child should suffer from food insecurity.
Libsack said she supported the universal lunch program as long as her child could still purchase optional megabites (an additional entree portion purchasable after the first full meal has been eaten).
View the candidates’ full responses to this question from 1:33:14 to 1:40:50.
10. Yes or no: Do you agree with the statement that all teachers should acknowledge students’ chosen culture and gender?
Not all candidates addressed the first part of the question regarding affirming students’ chosen culture, but those who did said that they felt teachers should do this. Dwivedy noted the need to be respectful to everyone and inclusive of culture.
Candidates were divided on the second part of the question regarding affirming students’ chosen gender.
Some felt that it was a good idea to affirm chosen gender for older students, but not necessarily to do this automatically for younger students.
Casper said in-school gender affirmation should be “specifically tempered” based on the age of the student and different stages of development. He said he would support affirming chosen gender for older students but would be more careful with younger students, whom he felt might not be fully aware of the choices they are making.
Libsack said she felt that as students get older and more secure in their identity, they may be ready to make a choice about their gender and teachers should accept that. However, she said for younger students, this should first be discussed with the parent, child, and teacher.
Stubbs said that if it was age-appropriate, it was important to recognize everyone where they come from, and that all students should be accepted and have the same opportunities to thrive. However, he said he does not believe it is the schools’ job to “promote or encourage anything.” He said that it is a parent’s job to raise their kids, and that teachers should support all kids however they are.
Bartz said that as a healthcare provider, he works with the transgender community, and that “we are on a big learning curve.” He said that he would be supportive if age-appropriate, but for younger students it would be important to talk with parents to ensure this is what the child wants. He said that teachers need to accept older students for who they are and how they identify.
Dwivedy said he would not say yes or no. He felt it was important to be respectful of students’ chosen gender. However, he said that the students should register with the school as the gender they want to be recognized as. If they want to be recognized as a different gender, they should go through “due process” and change their school registration, and then teachers should recognize their new chosen gender.
Other candidates said they would unequivocally respect all students’ requests to affirm their chosen gender.
Kerry said it was crucial for teachers to “meet students where they are” so students feel welcome and included. He also said that because students who identify as transgender have significantly worse mental health outcomes and higher rates of suicide, teachers should affirm them when asked to do so, to help set students on a healthy path.
Ward-Rannow replied yes, “full stop.” She said this question just means a teacher using a different pronoun or name for a student, not doing medical procedures or making medical decisions about gender: “It simply means calling them what they’ve asked to be called.” Like Kerry, she noted the increased rates of mental health issues and suicide among transgender individuals as additional proof of the need to support students with gender affirmation.
Pagan-Umar agreed and said that the district should recognize and respect each individual as their full authentic self. She said it was as important as pronouncing someone’s name right and that there should be no questions or qualms about it. She added that she was disappointed that this was “still something we have to talk about.”
View the candidates’ full responses to this question from 1:40:51 to 1:49:42.
11. Yes or no: Would you vote to ban any books from the current curriculum or inventory?
Seven of the candidates answered no to this question, and one said yes, with varying explanations and qualifiers.
Pagan-Umar said no, she hasn’t come across any books in the curriculum that didn’t seem an appropriate part of a “rigorous education.”
Dwivedy said no, since the EPS board does not have the power to vote to ban books because it operates from a policy governance model. Instead, he said decisions about which books belong in the curriculum are made, and should be made, by teachers.
Kerry said no, that level of censorship would be inappropriate for the EPS board. He said he would trust school librarians to select their own books. He also pointed out that anyone concerned about what students are reading should remember that “the internet exists.”
Stubbs said no, he supports letting kids read everything with all subjects and perspectives, and that they should have access to anything they want. However, he said specific books should not be promoted or placed on display to encourage children to read them, and children should be left to find their own books.
Bartz said no, the board would have to receive a very serious complaint to reconsider its policy of not getting involved in decisions on this level. He stressed that parents should know what their children are reading, and make any concerns known. He added that schools should provide books for education, not for politicizing or promoting agendas.
Libsack said that yes, she would vote to ban books not “completely developmentally appropriate,” although she said she did not know enough about the current curriculum or inventory to talk specifics. She said she trusted EPS librarians and teachers to choose the right books and said it wouldn’t be a board decision anyway, but she still would ban a book if she felt it necessary.
Casper said no, because it was not the board’s role to get involved in decisions at this level. He said in order to ban a book, the board as a whole would have to agree to change policy. However, he said he has not seen anything to warrant that, and that as long as teachers are following policy, there should be no issue.
Ward-Rannow said no, book banning should not happen unless a book violates policy. She said that we should teach critical thinking by exposing kids to as much information and as many viewpoints as possible. She said if her child brought home a book she disagreed with, it would provide an opportunity to have an important discussion. She said teaching critical thinking is what our schools are about.
View the candidates’ full responses to this question from 1:49:43 to 1:55:40.
View the candidates’ closing statements and the conclusion of the candidate forum from 1:55:41 to 2:10:11.
Watch the candidate forum now
If you didn’t attend the forum or watch the livestream, we encourage you to watch it between now and election day on Nov. 8 for a full picture of candidates’ stated positions.