This is a story of two schools boards and two school districts both faced with significant challenges. When the St. Cloud and Sartell-St. Stephen school boards meet in January, it will be time for the boards to confront challenges and controversies that were the focus of the November elections.
In both districts, slates of three candidates who were critical of what they argued where cultural, politically motivated actions in the schools campaigned to turn away from discussions of race, equity and gender.
In the St. Cloud district, candidates Mike Bueckers, Theresa Carlstedt and Nicole Rierson were supported by a conservative group called the Central Minnesota Freedom Advocates and they ran as a slate to win three open seats. These candidates lost in a six-person general election to incumbents Zachary Dorholt and Natalie Ringsmuth and newcomer Heather Weems.
In the Sartell-St. Stephen district, a slate of three candidates who said they wanted change and accountability ran. Two of the three, Emily Larson and Jen Smith, are parents and founding members of Kids Over Politics, a group that has been critical of the district’s education equity effort. The third candidate, Scott Wenshau is a parent and has been more recently involved in the group. The three won in a nine-person election and will join Tricia Meling, Matt Moehrle and Jason Nies on the six-member board.
Whether incumbents prevailed or challengers won seats, both boards have serious issues that aren’t solved with catchy campaign slogans.
After more than a year of school shutdowns and distance learning, schools across the nation saw a drop in test scores. Nobody, least of all parents and teachers, was surprised about the impact of such a disruption. But St. Cloud’s test scores and graduation rates posed challenges before Covid and the pandemic made it even worse. For example, about 40 percent of the districts met math standards in 2018. The number fell to 28 percent in 2022. Test scores for Black students are far below the scores for White students. In a district where more than 40 percent of students are Black, that’s huge.
St. Cloud’s graduation rate also dropped during the last five years from about 76 percent in 2017 to 69 percent in 2021. The St. Cloud school board should continue its efforts to recover from Covid interruptions and improve test scores.
In the Sartell-St. Stephen district, the school board has focused on equity issues – providing quality education regardless of race, religion, gender identity or economic background. When the district hired a consulting firm to conduct an equity audit, some parents challenged the premise, process and results. Critics of the equity effort spoke at many school board meetings. The speakers attacked what they saw as a political agenda on issues of race and gender.
Sartell-St. Stephen’s test scores took a hit during Covid too, but the district’s students have consistently scored near the top of state rankings for standardized tests and graduation rates.
The issues raised during the focus on equity still need solutions. Although some parents strongly objected to the audit and its results, it did reveal that work needs to be done.
How will the board, with three new members actually provide solutions about students’ concerns about bullying, fairness, issues of race and religion and discussions of gender identity? Denying those issues exist or are not important are not solutions. Last spring, Superintendent Jeff Ridlehoover presented a sweeping action plan that touches all aspects of student life inside and outside the classroom. The plan recommends actions in 10 topic areas.
The new board should examine that plan and evaluate progress made.
All six board members, but especially the three newcomers, should meet individually with students and listen to their perspectives. Start with student leaders who have worked to create a welcoming and fair education experience.
It’s time to move forward with solutions, not slogans.