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Rochester School Board candidates debate the core direction of the district

The two debates included incumbents Jean Marvin and Cathy Nathan, and their challengers Kim Rishavy and Elena Niehoff.

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Rochester School Board candidates Jean Marvin, left, and Kim Rishavy debate issues at the Rochester Public Library on Monday, Sept. 26, 2022.
Jordan Shearer / Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER — The back-to-back debates held Monday night for the Rochester School Board showed very different scenarios for the district depending on the outcome of the election in November.

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The first debate was between incumbent Cathy Nathan and her challenger Elena Niehoff. The second debate was between incumbent Jean Marvin and her challenger Kim Rishavy.

Although the candidates answered a myriad of questions related to different areas of the school board, the overall discussion showed conflicting opinions about the direction of the district.

"I think everything is at stake," Nathan said. "Our students cannot be academically successful if they do not feel like they are welcome and that they belong in their school."

The issues at the heart of the discussion were equity and belonging and whether or not they play into the education of students. The incumbents have expressed support for initiatives focused on equity and belonging, saying they go hand-in-hand with academics. The challengers have said those issues take the focus away from academics.

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Both Rishavy and Niehoff are part of a bloc of four candidates who are running as a self-described group.

Niehoff indicated that equity is not just a distraction from academics but a threat to the success of students.

"I believe that equity, white privilege and the theory of oppressed and oppressors (is) one of the most dangerous ideas pushed on our children," Niehoff said.

The candidates' conflicting views on the subject of equity could be seen in other questions as well. One of them was about hiring teachers of color.

Students of color make up more than 45% of the district. The teaching staff, by contrast, is more than 90% white.

Nathan has supported the district's efforts to hire a more diverse teaching staff to better reflect it's student body. Niehoff said the district's selection of teachers should be based on their abilities and not their ethnic backgrounds.

"The notion that the child learns better with a teacher of the same color is just a theory," Niehoff said.

Aside from the questions related to the nuts and bolts of the district, the candidates also responded to more philosophical questions.

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When asked about the separation of church and state, Nathan said students are allowed to adhere to their faith practices "as long as it doesn't interfere with the free and appropriate access to public education for all students."

Niehoff took a more pro-church stance on the issue.

"The separation of church and state does not exist; it is a myth," she said. "I believe that it's absolutely a necessity to ensure that our children have the life of faith. And, it's up to the parents to decide what kind of faith they're going to have."

The struggle for control of the school board could either reinforce or dismantle some of the most high-profile initiatives underway over the last year. It also possibly could put the board at odds with RPS Superintendent Kent Pekel.

When the current school board hired Pekel, one of the three goals it gave him for his first year was to develop the department of diversity, equity and inclusion.

At the time of his hiring, school board member Julie Workman said one of the reasons she supported him for the role was because of a TED Talk he gave. In the video , he talks about the importance of developing strong relationships with students.

During Monday's debate, Rishavy expressed the opposite opinion.

"We are supposed to be teaching academics, not a sense of belonging," Rishavy said. "That belongs at home."

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Marvin took the opposite stance, saying that if students don't feel like they belong, they will create trouble.

"Kids need to feel that they belong to something," Marvin said.

Pekel also has supported other initiatives that were debated Monday night among the candidates. He congratulated the board for the work it did on equity before he came. He also has supported the board's efforts to diversify the teaching staff.

One of the most recent projects for Pekel and the incumbents has been the development of the strategic plan, which essentially serves as a guiding document for the district.

That also became a point of disagreement during the debate.

"There's not one thing in the strategic plan that talks about academics," Rishavy said. "There's nothing strategic about it."

The strategic plan has 15 objectives that speak about a variety of goals. The first objective states: "increase capacity to provide each learner with an education that is culturally responsive and that deepens student learning."

Marvin challenged Rishavy's statement on the plan.

"The number one piece of the strategic plan is about teaching and learning," Marvin said. "Everything in the strategic plan, including ensuring that kids feel safe and welcomed, is based on helping them improve their academics."

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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