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Rochester School Board candidates talk about better test scores and keeping parenting, politics out of school

The candidates included Justin Cook, Rae Parker and Abdullahi Yusuf, each of whom is vying for the position held by outgoing board member Melissa Amundsen.

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From left, candidates for Rochester School Board Justin Cook, Abdullahi Yusuf and Rae Parker discuss issues at a forum hosted Monday, July 11, 2022, by the League of Women Voters, The Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce, the Rochester Public Library and the Rochester Post Bulletin.
Jordan Shearer / Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER — As the election draws closer, a trio of candidates for Rochester School Board gathered on Monday to debate a slew of issues related to the district.

The candidates included Justin Cook, Rae Parker, and Abdullahi Yusuf, each of whom is vying for the position held by outgoing board member Melissa Amundsen. The forum, hosted at the Rochester Public Library, was sponsored by the League of Women Voters, The Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce and the Rochester Post Bulletin.

The candidates answered questions on topics ranging from the school district’s budget to issues of diversity, to what qualifies them as individuals for the role in the first place. They also were allowed an opening and closing statement.

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Rochester School Board candidate Abdullahi Yusuf speaks at a forum.
Jordan Shearer / Post Bulletin

Should the school district seek a referendum from the voters to ameliorate its financial position? Cook said it would be irresponsible not to give voters a say on the situation. Yusuf said a referendum should be a last resort. Parker said the district should learn to operate more efficiently within its existing budget.

One of the most controversial questions was how the candidates would respond to parental concerns about what is being taught in the classroom. Parker said her concerns are the same as the parents — that teaching about topics like oppressors and the oppressed is “divisive.”

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Cook said that while he's open to hearing about parents' concerns, he has "little appetite" for efforts to politicize the school system.

"I care about centering the students," Cook said. "How do we develop critical thinking skills in our students? Provide them with facts ... that's the role of the schools."

Yusuf said what’s taught in school is important, but that it is up to the parents to teach character, ultimately creating a partnership between students' homes and the school system.

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Rochester School Board candidate Justin Cook speaks at a forum.
Jordan Shearer / Post Bulletin

Parker, a graduate of RPS herself, said she's running for the board to help address issues such as violence and falling enrollment, as well as poor academic performance.

“I’ve been involved in the schools. My kids have been in the schools, and my grandkids are still in the schools,” Parker said. “So I have reason to make sure things are going well for them.”

Cook also spoke about having children in the school system and wanting to make sure it’s run well for them. An attorney by trade, he described himself as a strong negotiator and how that would be a benefit to the school board.

Although he commented on a range of issues, Cook continued returning to the issue of improving third-grade literacy levels as something he sees important. He went on to say that addressing that issue will benefit students down the road.

“I will focus intently on achieving reading proficiency by the end of grade three for every single student in our school system,” Cook said. “The science is in. The tools are available. We need to aggressively deploy them. It will be a game changer. It will change the amount of behavioral supports required by students in middle school. It will be such a worthy investment.”

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Rochester School Board candidate Rae Parker speaks at a forum.
Jordan Shearer / Post Bulletin.

Yusuf is also a product of Rochester Public Schools. He spoke about knowing the value of education as an immigrant. He also spoke about his work as a doctoral candidate and how that would benefit the school district.

“What I want to do is make sure our education system has the model of students come first,” Yusuf said. “When that happens, it changes the culture and the way of thinking and addresses the issues in the student.”

Jordan Shearer covers K-12 education for the Post Bulletin. A Rochester native, he graduated from Bemidji State University in 2013 before heading out to write for a small newsroom in the boonies of western Nebraska. Bringing things full circle, he returned to Rochester in 2020 just shy of a decade after leaving. Readers can reach Jordan at 507-285-7710 or jshearer@postbulletin.com.
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