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Eden Prairie School Board candidates tackle nutrition, inclusion and achievement gap at forum

The importance of listening to parents was front-of-mind for the nine Eden Prairie School Board candidates at a public forum on Oct. 3.

Around 50 people gathered in the Eden Prairie City Council chambers, 8080 Mitchell Road, to hear Erin Barstad, Aaron Casper, Adam Seidel, Albert Born, Debjyoti “DD” Dwivedy, Esra Riggs, Fadumo Hassan, Krystal Queen and Veronica Stoltz respond to questions submitted by the public and consolidated by the League of Women Voters-Minnetonka, Eden Prairie and Hopkins (LWVMEPH), which hosted the event.

The public engagement was higher than usual, with 20 questions submitted to the forum online ahead of time, said Barb Westmoreland of the LWVMEPH. The forum was the fifth the group has hosted this year, and Westmoreland has helped organize all of them.

“Often the same topics will come up,” Westmoreland said, and it’s the organizers’ job to sort, consolidate and clarify the submissions to create a lively and informative forum.

The Designing Pathways referendum, which voters passed last May, appeared in spirit when the moderator asked if districts should be allowed to hold votes on special election days. Queen and Barstad both said no, while others acknowledged that while it’s not ideal and can result in lower turnout, special elections allow for funding and construction to progress on reasonable timetables.

When asked about inclusion and closing the achievement gap, candidates offered differing solutions. Hassan, who is an equity specialist at Bloomington Public Schools, said teachers and staff need to work on implicit bias and provide equitable support to students who arrive in kindergarten with different levels of preparedness than their peers, and Riggs proposed hiring more teachers of color and said Eden Prairie should be “the first one to close that gap.”

According to data from the Minnesota Department of Education, 89.1% of Eden Prairie Schools staff are white, compared to 57.9% of students in 2018; the student body is 14.8% black, while just 3.2% of staff are black. State-wide, according to an August State of the Schools report from the Minnesota Department of Education, while the overall on-time 2018 graduation rate was 83.2%, Native American students graduated at a rate of 51%, black and African American students at a rate of 67.4%, and Hispanic students at a rate of 66.8%.

Many of the candidates took similar stances on topics like nutrition (schools should offer more healthy choices and look to surrounding districts for best practices) and sex education (students should learn age-appropriate information, as mandated by the state, and parents should be able to easily review the curriculum and opt their children out).

When asked a rapid-response question about whether teachers should be armed, candidates gave eight “no”s and one “maybe”: Born said he is “open to the idea of arming select staff that are well-vetted and trained.” Seidel, the incumbent, called the district’s current partnership with Eden Prairie police, which assigns liaison officers to monitor schools, the “correct and most secure” option for students and staff.

Attendees Jenn Krajacic and Emily Colaizy each have a kindergarten student in Eden Prairie Schools and jointly moderate a private Facebook group titled Eden Prairie Lunch Reform, which had 369 members as of Oct. 7. They’d spoken with several candidates − Barstad, Stoltz, Seidel and Debjyoti − about lunch reform at Eden Prairie Schools prior to the forum and valued the opportunity to hear about more issues facing the district.

“It was fascinating for me to hear the facets behind all these issues,” Krajacic said.

“I appreciated the in-person dynamic,” Colaizy added, noting that listening to candidates live is different than reading a Q&A online. (You can read Eden Prairie News’ Q&As with the candidates at bit.ly/2LLqzIj and watch the Oct. 3 forum online at bit.ly/2Mh1y6Y.)

Twelve-year Eden Prairie residents Rabia Mohammed and Faisal Masood, whose children attend a charter school that moved from Eden Prairie to Minnetonka, agreed with the candidates that the School Board should listen to parent voices, but they were disappointed that more issues affecting teachers weren’t discussed.

“There are so many different ways we can teach the teachers, educate the teachers” about diversity and inclusion, Mohammed said.

“This profession needs to be supported in a better way,” Masood added.

Candidate Aaron Orwick was not at the forum; he submitted a brief statement which the moderator read aloud before the other candidates gave their opening statements.