Herald and Journal, Oct. 15, 2001

HLWW board candidates questioned at forum

By Lynda Jensen

Six of eight candidates who filed for two Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted school board positions squared off Tuesday during a forum sponsored by the Howard Lake Business Association.

The remaining two candidates did not participate for different reasons.

Incumbent Kirk Jensen announced his withdrawal from the election, saying it wasn't fair to his family or the public at large, because he felt unable to give the time required to serve on all of the different committee assignments and meetings, he said.

Jensen's name will still appear on the ballot, since he did not withdraw it within the 24-hour period after filing.

However Jensen urged voters to choose someone else, saying that even if he was voted in, he would not take the position.

"It would truly be a wasted vote this time around," Jensen said.

Incumbent Leo Weber was unable to attend the forum due to illness.

Present were: John Lideen, Rob Merritt, Randy Heuer, Richard Lammers, and Kirk Jensen, all of Howard Lake, filed along with Charlie Borrell and Stephanie Smith, both of Waverly.

Weber, Lammers, Heuer, and Jensen are incumbents.

This year marks the final year of the nine-member HLWW school board. The school board will be trimmed to its final size of seven board members, as part of the process of the Winsted consolidation.

There are four terms that are expiring, but only two will be filled.

Currently, Heuer acts as the vice chair, and Lammers is clerk. These positions are determined by the school board after the election.

Topics at the forum included everything from their feelings on the potential school consolidation with Lester Prairie, to how they felt about the future agriculture school.

Introductions and candidates' priorities

Borrell is a part-time farmer and owner of a satellite dish company from Waverly.

Borrell has also acted as a substitute teacher for Lester Prairie and Winsted, he said.

He indicated that the current school board was going against the will of the people, and predicted that the bond referendum for a new school located in Winsted would not pass.

Lammers introduced himself as a veteran of the Army, and senior detective in Buffalo. He was commander of the Buffalo and Waverly American Legion posts, and has served on the HLWW board for 13 years. He declared his support for keeping the school site in Howard Lake.

Stephanie Smith of Waverly has children in the district. She served as coach for HLWW girls sports.

Smith indicated that the new school should be located in a central location. She is against consolidation with Lester Prairie.

Her priority is to strengthen curriculum. As a girls coach, she hears a lot of complaints from students about the lack of opportunities, she said.

Heuer identified two needs for the district: open enrollment numbers, which are causing student numbers to drop, and the need to move ahead with the school consolidation.

Heuer's goals now are the same as before, he said.

His priority is to deliver a high quality education at a reasonable cost, he said.

"We will absolutely be better off financially with Lester Prairie," he said. "We need to build a new high school."

Merritt is a USDA grain inspector. He indicated that he was open to the idea of the school being located in Winsted, if it passed the referendum, he said. His main priority is to have a new school built.

Merritt, although not on the current board, is a member of the potential consolidation committee for HLWW school district right now.

His second priority is to hire and retain the best teachers, he said.

Pride in the school, and retaining students is also important to Merritt, he said.

"I would like this district to be the greener pasture (compared to other districts)," he said.

Lideen is a volunteer coach for senior high varsity, has owned small businesses in the past, and was a past Laker Booster president.

"I don't know if we need a new high school," Lideen said. "I don't think the board has looked at all the possible alternatives."

He declined to make a reference one way or the other for the school site location, since he did not feel the need for a new school, Lideen said.

Lideen described the current board as a group that has very few dissenting opinions, ruled by a few vocal individuals, he said.

The board needs to increase communication with the teachers and public at large, Lideen said.

Borrell agreed with this, saying that it was too much of "just follow me," on the board. "You won't see that from Charlie Borrell," he said.

Borrell also agreed with Lideen, saying he was not convinced that a new school is needed, pointing out that the graduation numbers from last year, 60, were lower than his own graduating class in 1973, or 90 students, he said.

"If less people graduate, do we need a new school?" Borrell asked.

HLWW's strengths, weaknesses

Nearly all of the candidates agreed that a strength of HLWW was the staff and teachers.

When asked about the strengths and weaknesses of the district, Lammers indicated that a positive part of HLWW was safe environment for students, and that the only weakness of the district now was the aging buildings.

Heuer pointed out the good financial position of the school right now, which was the result of shrewd financial planning, he said. A weakness, in his opinion, was the existing facilities not being comparable to other districts, he said.

"I've worked with kids for 30 years, and I've seen good and bad facilities," Lideen said. "I've turned out champions in either one. A facility doesn't dictate success."

"The communication is very poor from our administration and school board," Lideen said. He pointed out that the school web site still had last year's faculty listed on it.

Borrell outlined teachers as the strength, and open enrollment as a weakness.

He knew of several parents in the Waverly area who drop their children off in Buffalo for daycare - and once they end up in Buffalo as young children, they stay there as students, he said.

The district should devise a way to catch these students, such as working on transportation issues, he said.

Smith agreed with the daycare issue. The district's strength is in its teachers, but the athletic program - particularly for the girls, is dismal,she said.

Lideen identified the conflict among the three cities as a definite weakness. "We should get our three communities to work together, not to fight each other," Lideen said.

Lammers agreed. "We need to stop in-fighting in the district," he said.

Lideen repeated that the board should look into other possibilities instead of building a new school.

Communication also needs to be improved between the public and administration, Lideen said.

Open enrollment is the most serious problem for the district, Borrell said. "If we keep losing kids, we won't ever need a new school," he said.

The district is missing opportunities, Merritt said. He would also like to see more parental involvement.

Merritt indicated that he would like to see the athletic curriculum expand.

"There's a lot of nice ideas here, but it doesn't mean anything without money and a checkbook," Heuer said. "We lose 300 students to open enrollment every year, and that comes out to $1.2 million every single year lost," Heuer said.

Heuer indicated that the curriculum and facilities are inter-related.

Change is a scary subject, even when it is necessary, Heuer commented.

Change is OK as long as people are open to it in the first place, Smith interjected.

She indicated that voters should listen to the students themselves. "The kids want to stay here (in Howard Lake)," she said.

Consolidation?

When asked about the potential consolidation, candidates gave a variety of answers.

"It's not necessary," Smith said. "The students don't want it." She indicated that the reasons for building a new school given by the district right now were poor ones.

"I would rather send them (her own children) somewhere else than Lester Prairie," she said.

"I would be against any merger," Borrell said. Part of the reason was an identity issue, he said. "What are we going to be? Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted-Lester Prairie?

"We're not going to be a tight knit community," he said. However, he added that Lester Prairie was a nice school from his experience teaching there, and that he was not putting them down.

"We don't need to be bigger," Borrell said.

Merritt indicated that $9 million is a lot of money - and looking at the bottom line - perhaps it would be a good idea to consolidate.

"I'd sure like to pay less and get more," he said.

"People will vote with their pocketbooks," Heuer said, saying that he thought people would look at it from a financial perspective.

Consolidating with Lester Prairie was very clearly the direction to move, Heuer said.

Lideen said when he thought of consolidating, the big question for him was "Why?" he said.

"We don't know if that money is there with Ventura as governor," Lideen said. "I thought we were building for growth. If we consolidate with Lester Prairie, then we need to build again," he said.

"We haven't successfully consolidated ourselves from the last time," Lideen said.

Lammers indicated that he voted against consolidation in the past. "We need to take care of what we have - we don't need to assimilate debt," he said.

Poor communication by administration and the board was again brought up by Lideen.

"The board doesn't want input from the public," he said. These people should be talking with the public, and not dictating to people what they will do, or ignoring them, he said.

Merritt invited the public to contact him at home, he said.

Lammers encouraged people to attend board meetings and take part in task forces.

Borrell indicated that the board failed to get input from the public - instead, forming endless committees that seem to go nowhere, he said. "I'm sick and tired of that. I don't need a committee to tell me how the public feels," he said.

Communication is a two-way street and advertisements from newspaper and radio were one-way forms of communication to the public, Heuer said.

"We have done a very good job with communication," Heuer said.

Thoughts on the new agriculture school

Lammers indicated it would be a great opportunity for a new ag school.

Smith indicated it was a good idea, although she didn't know the details about it.

Borrell stated he was against it. "I farm. It doesn't take much," he said. "You can't teach that in a school anyway. . . that takes experience." "What farmers need is business education."

Lideen indicated it was an interesting concept, and that he wasn't completely against it, but wondered where the money would come from, and if the state could sustain it.

Heuer described the ag school as an exciting project and described two other board members' ideas as naive and dangerous when it came to farming.

"It's not simply an ag school," Heuer said. The ag classes are related to sciences and other modern fields that teach ag-related jobs, not farming per se, he said.

Merritt indicated that he thought the district should focus on one thing at a time. "I think it's time to ask people about the new school and where."

The current ag program is doing extremely well under Jim Weninger's guidance, he said. Borrell agreed.

The reason FFA does so well is because of the instructor, and alumni support, Merritt said. If the ag program got too large, it may lose its grass roots support, he said.

Audience queries

Questions from the audience included Howard Lake residents and council members who demanded to know why the school board always seemed to schedule its committee meetings over their council meeting nights, the first and third Tuesdays of each month.

Heuer defended the district's past record of doing this by saying that they couldn't cater to everyone else's schedules, and that there was too many people on committees to avoid those Tuesdays.

"Why couldn't their schedules be better?" asked resident Toby Drusch. "I can't see that you can't find a night that doesn't conflict," he said.

"It's not uncommon to have five or six meetings per month," Heuer said. "That's what we elect officials for - to represent us."

Drusch also indicated he thought the district was underestimating the number of students to be lost on the northern edge of the district, which is a fast-growing area.

Jack Littfin of Winsted, who was on the task force for four years, indicated that the location near Winsted is still closer than Watertown or Buffalo for Waverly people. He pointed out that 200 Lester Prairie students was a big gain.

"Why would anybody do that? Send kids elsewhere?" Littfin asked. "We're half as close to the next school."

Lammers said that taking the center of the school district and sending it south would cause twice as much traffic on Wright County Road 6.

The traffic on Wright County Road 6 is still better than Highway 12, Littfin said.

It also gives the sensation of "my district is leaving me," Lammers said.

Smith said the district was highly underestimating the growth of Wright County. "We will grow and grow faster," she said.

"Are the opportunities only with Lester Prairie?" Smith asked. "No."

Smith herself graduated with a class of more than 400 students, she said. "I would like to have gone to a smaller school," she said.

The consolidation with Lester Prairie would pay for one quarter of the project, Littfin said. "My God, that's a gift from heaven," he said.

"Let's vote and put it to the people," Merritt said. Although he preferred the site in Howard Lake, if the levy passed in Winsted, then so be it, he said. "These people have done a multitude of studies. The public should trust that," he said.

Resident and Howard Lake City Clerk Gene Gilbert asked what will happen to the rest of the buildings, if the new school is built. Each one of these buildings will need maintenance, food service, and other costs to keep them running.

Heuer indicated that the district needs all of the buildings, and that the Howard Lake facility would probably be converted to a middle school up to grade eight.

HLWW has one of the higher per foot, per person ratios in the county, Lideen said. "Can we afford that? Are we using our schools as we could?"

"Our school is full," Heuer said.

Howard Lake resident and business owner Trudy Berg wondered how much space that Community Education and Early Childhood education was taking up, and how much revenue it was generating, if any.

"Is is justified to let them use it?" Berg asked.

"There's many things we could do," Borrell said. "We're not looking at other options. They may say that, but I don't believe it," he said.

Borrell indicated that the number of students from Lester Prairie wasn't guaranteed, but that the debt was. "It's asinine," he said.

It was pointed out that the district could choose to consolidate without assimilating Lester Prairie's debt.

However, Heuer indicated that the district planned to take on the debt as part of the deal.

Former Howard Lake mayor Mark Custer indicated that he thought the whole problem was a turf issue. He asked how much it would cost to keep the old schools open. "It's going to cost a hell of a lot of money," Custer said.

"We're going to need all the buildings," Heuer said.

The subject turned to a previous site location choice in Victor Township, with Heuer repeating himself from the past, saying that the township residents were against the idea. "We tried to address that," he said.

"But you stopped looking," commented Howard Lake resident Bob Schermann. "That's what really bugs me."

"We're never going to find a site that makes everyone happy," Heuer said. "It's impossible."

"You pitted two communities against each other - and boy, did you really start something," Schermann said.

Howard Lake resident Milt Jensen commented that he thought the present high school building is adequate. "We have everything we need here," he said.

Lideen indicated that the location was a huge dissension in the community at large. "It's splitting our communities as a result," he said. "We should think of the future of our kids, and try to get along," he said.

Smith agreed. "We should focus on our kids . . . it's their future, not ours," she said.

"We need to move forward," Heuer said.

Borrell said it was evident that, whether the new school was built or not, that the district needed to be in touch with the citizenry.

"The school has been and always will be the heart of this community," Lammers said. "The damage is done with fighting."

Lammers advised voters to speak with their minds, but to vote their hearts.


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