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Consecutive debates for Rochester School Board take different tones

The library staff asked one person to leave for refusing to remain quiet during the debate.

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Rochester School Board candidates Julie Workman and John Whelan debate issues at the Rochester Public Library on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022.
Jordan Shearer / Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER — Two consecutive debates Wednesday night for seats on the Rochester School Board took different tones as the candidates discussed a variety of issues in the district.

The first debate included incumbent Julie Workman and her challenger John Whelan. The second debate included candidates Justin Cook and Rae Parker. The incumbent for the seat, Melissa Amundsen, chose not to run for re-election.

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The first debate touched on a number of social issues, and revealed contentious differences between the two vote-seekers. Workman used her opening statement to strongly criticize her opponent for allegedly providing incorrect information about the school board's work.

"Is the slate in some kind of omniscient, clairvoyant or convoluted time warp to know things before they occur," Workman said. "Shame on the slate."

Parker and Whelan are two of four candidates running as a self-described group, which was what Workman referred to as "the slate."

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Whelan, meanwhile, accused the school district of censorship since his campaign website could not be accessed through the district's internet system.

Wednesday's debates followed two earlier debates for the school board on Monday .

The candidates discussed topics ranging from the gender-neutral bathrooms to book banning to student discipline to the use of school resource officers.

"I think we're doing some things in the school right now that put children at risk," Whelan said, referring to the gender neutral bathrooms. "I see no reason for any such thing, and I think there's going to be a catastrophe. If the school district's in financial trouble now, they'll be in huge financial trouble from that."

The library staff asked one person to leave for refusing to remain quiet during the debate. The staff issued at least one other warning to others in the audience.

Workman challenged Whelan right up to his closing remarks, during which he quoted Martin Luther King Jr. and his renowned speech "I Have a Dream."

"I'm not sure it's fair to compare what happened in 1700 or 1800 or 1900 with the world today," Workman said. "I think the comments about Martin Luther King and the 'content of your character' could be... thought of as very nasty for some people."

By comparison, the candidates of the second debate focused less on their opponents and more on the issues and how they would or wouldn't address them.

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Parker pointed out the district's declining test scores and emphasized the need to restore student performance.

"We will again have academic scores that are the envy of the state," Parker said.

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Rochester School Board candidates Justin Cook and Rae Parker debate issues at the Rochester Public Library on Sept. 28, 2022.
Jordan Shearer / Post Bulletin

When asked what the candidates' main priorities would be if elected, Cook emphasized the importance of making students proficient in literacy by the third grade. He emphasized the importance of that during an earlier debate leading up to the primary election as well.

"Not only is ensuring that early elementary students achieve reading proficiency a moral imperative, but it's a strategic opportunity for the district," Cook said. "We can be a leader in the state (with) Rochester Public Schools."

Although Cook and Parker didn't outright criticize each other, they did take different stances on issues.

Cook said one of the changes over the last 10 years is the number of investments that have been made in areas of school counselors and mental health supports. He said as the district looks to address budget deficits, he would be hesitant to reduce those investments.

Parker indicated it's beyond the scope of the school district's responsibilities to provide in-depth care for students' mental health.

"If there's that significant of a trauma, they need more professional help than what just a school counselor can handle," Parker said.

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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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