Aberdeen’s school board candidates were less shy about speaking with Dakota Free Press than our city council candidates. While only three in ten city candidates agreed to podcast interviews, four of our five school board candidates took the mighty DFP mic. You can click the following links to review DFP Podcast interviews with Renée Wise, Brian Sharp, Aaron Schultz, and Ken Santema before tomorrow’s vote.
Aberdeen voters get to pick three of the five candidates. I will cast votes for two: Aaron Schultz and incumbent Brian Sharp.
Aaron Schultz made the best impression on me. He has made his career in public service, interning on Capitol Hill, working for an indigenous rights group in D.C., and now working as director of Aberdeen’s United Way. His non-profit work will inform his fiscal decision-making and his understanding of local social issues affecting the services the school district must provide. Schultz’s work with indigenous peoples around the country and his own status as an enrolled member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate will add to the board a useful perspective on the increasing racial and cultural diversity among our students.
Brian Sharp [photo by Spencer Dobson]Incumbent Brian Sharp brings his own bit of diversity to the school board. When he made time to field my questions in his tractor barn during planting time, he pointed out that he’s the only active farmer on the school board, the only member and candidate he knows of paying agricultural property tax (which isn’t really property tax but a weird mutant hybrid of property and income tax). He doesn’t talk a lot—his answers were the most succinct of all the candidates we interviewed—and he’s the sort of flashy warrior I like to see running for office… but his mellow, confident approach may have something to do with why his neighbors have elected him to the school board four times already and will probably do so again tomorrow. I’ll show up and help them do so.
Renée Wise offered an intelligent and sincere conversation about what she wants as a school board member and as a parent from the school district. Her commitment to seeing the district provide more individualized instruction for dyslexic students like her daughter is honest and admirable.
However, as a teacher and parent, I think her focus on expanding individualized instruction through technology is ill-advised and impractical. The ideal individualized instruction is one-on-one interaction between a student and a teacher. Conventional schools can’t afford that student-teacher ratio. To individualize instruction for 20 students in a 90-minute class means each student gets 4.5 minutes of genuine individualized instruction… or more likely no such attention more days than not, as the teacher becomes a mere monitor and tech trouble-shooter as the kids do different lessons on computers.
Wise was able to speak to other issues, but I sense that her focus on her family’s specific issues might lead her to feel frustrated with the 95% of board meeting time that would not deal with those issues. Wise could grow into school board duties to deal with broader issues, but at this time, I’m not prepared to give her my vote.
Ken Santema has an inclination similar to Wise’s to bring more technology to the classroom, to make kids want to do their homework. In our podcast interview, he acknowledged more technology costs money and said the way to pay for it is to get rid of some teaching staff.
Don’t get me wrong: I like machines and spend a great deal of time with them learning and communicating. But I also recognize that every machine we incorporate into our schools should be supporting the work teachers do, not replacing teachers. Every teacher we cut from a school is one less role model or mentor who can make school memorable, or survivable, in a way that no machine can. Kids need more adults in their lives, not fewer, and not just to show them how to use machines, but how to use their brains and hearts.
Santema also wishes that federal funding would disappear from K-12 education. Last school year, Uncle Sam put a million bucks in our school district’s general fund and another million in special education (4% and 16%, respectively, of those categories).
I appreciate Santema’s conservative political philosophy. I appreciate his willingness in our interview to advocate higher local taxes to relieve us of the scourge of federal intrusion in our local schools. Santema is as capable of having serious policy discussions as any other candidate I’ve met this year. But he appears to view teachers and federal resources as burdens rather than opportunities. Such views don’t help schools solve the practical problems of teaching our kids.
The odd candidate out is incumbent Kevin Burckhard, whom I contacted on April 27 through the e-mail address listed on the Aberdeen board webpage. I received no response. My critique of non-responsive city council candidates applies to school board candidates as well.
I thus am voting for two of my allotted three school board candidates: newcomer Aaron Schultz and incumbent Brian Sharp. I am content to let my neighbors pick the third.