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Our View: Rochester School Board endorsements: Nathan, Marvin, Workman, Cook

We want our community to go forward, with a school board that strives to meet the educational and emotional needs of Rochester's increasingly diverse student population.

Our View editorial graphic
Our View
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Apple-picking season has come and gone in southeast Minnesota, and if you enjoyed a brisk autumn afternoon at an orchard, then you likely faced a decision: “Pick your own” or “by the bag.”

Picking your own apples takes more time and effort (and sometimes costs a bit more), but you can inspect every apple and get exactly what you want. When you buy a bag that someone else picked – well, there's a good chance that when you get them home, you'll discover some less-than-perfect fruit. And, if you're not careful, one or two bad apples can affect the whole bag.

On Nov. 8, voters will face a similar decision regarding the Rochester School Board.

Four candidates for board seats – Rae Parker, John Whelan, Kim Rishavy and Elena Niehoff – stand united on a conservative platform of strict classroom discipline, parental rights, critical thinking and a back-to-basics curriculum. They also criticize what they describe as the current board's tolerance and/or promotion of critical race theory, disruptive behavior, declining test scores, ineffective remote learning strategies, sexualization of children, political activism and fiscal irresponsibility.

While school board races are non-partisan, this bloc of candidates wants Rochester residents to vote a “straight ticket” that would fundamentally alter the board's makeup and force a dramatic re-thinking of the school district's goals and strategies for achieving them.

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Of course, voters don't have to vote a straight ticket. The bloc includes two stronger candidates and two weaker ones, and the Post Bulletin's editorial board spent a good deal of time discussing the possibility of endorsing some of the bloc candidates. After all, a dissenting voice or two can be a good thing for a governing body, right?

But ultimately, our board concluded that these four candidates all have signed on to a vision that hearkens back to a mythical time when every Rochester student was white, middle-class, had two parents at home and referred to adults as “Sir” or “Ma'am.”

That's the wrong vision for Rochester. We want our community to go forward, with a school board that strives to meet the educational and emotional needs of Rochester's increasingly diverse student population. The school board candidates who will pursue that goal are Cathy Nathan, Jean Marvin, Julie Workman and Justin Cook.

Experience matters

The Seat 5 contests pits challenger Rishavy against incumbent Marvin, who has served on the board for eight years. The Seat 6 race pits Niehoff against incumbent Cathy Nathan, who is wrapping up her first four-year term.

We see these races as slam-dunk decisions, and that would be true even if the bloc didn't exist.

Cathy Nathan
Cathy Nathan.
Contributed

During candidate forums sponsored by the League of Women Voters, Nathan and Marvin demonstrated an encyclopedic knowledge of the school district's operations and strategic plans. They didn't sugar-coat the challenges ahead (most notably an impending financial crisis that could force some very difficult cuts) but ardently defended the goal of creating an educational environment in which all children – regardless of race, gender identity, disability and income – will have the opportunity to fulfill their highest potential.

Niehoff struggled in the forum. We don't doubt her sincerity or passion for education, but she seemed to be reading prepared answers that had been written by someone else and didn't always align with the questions posed by moderators. Put bluntly, if this forum had been a boxing match, the referee would have stopped it in the early rounds – perhaps right after Niehoff said, “The notion that a child learns better with a teacher of the same color is just a theory. It is not practical for real life.”

Jean Marvin.jpg
Jean Marvin

The Marvin-Rishavy forum was more compelling, but if we had to use one word to describe Rishavy's views, it would be “rigid.” Her back-to-basics message is built at least partially on her contentions that school isn't about belonging, and that teachers aren't social workers.

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Rochester might well need a renewed focus on reading, writing and math, but we'd argue that kids who feel welcomed and a sense of belonging at school will achieve more, while kids who feel ignored, lonely or bullied will struggle. And, anyone who has spent time in front of a classroom knows that part of a teacher's job is to look for signs of trouble and help kids get the assistance they need – which sounds a lot like social work. Rishavy denies that reality, and that alone should disqualify her from a school board seat.

The races for Seat 2 and Seat 4 are more compelling.

Extreme views

Whelan, running against 12-year incumbent Julie Workman for Seat 4, is a very cool customer. He was unflappable in the candidate forum, speaking off-the-cuff with ease and demonstrating an excellent knowledge on a variety of topics. And, while other members of the so-called “bloc” repeatedly accused the current board of “social engineering,” Whelan was adamant that extra-curricular activities help students learn the interpersonal skills they'll need to become contributing members of society.

Julie Workman.jpg
Julie Workman

Workman, on the other hand, came across as over-prepared during the forum. She seemed to have a large catalog of prepared answers at her disposal, but she raced to say as much as she could in 90 seconds, and her haste didn't serve the audience well.

Whelan spoke deliberately, which usually we'd see as a positive trait; however, when he calmly and bluntly stated his staunch opposition to gender-neutral bathrooms, he left no room for doubt about his views regarding LGBTQ rights. Furthermore, in his “Meet the Candidate” profile on the bloc's website, he likened the district's current educational philosophy to “collectivist ideology implemented in Russia, China, Cuba, North Korea and other totalitarian nations.”

It's difficult not to tune out a candidate whose views are that extreme.

So, while Workman didn't have a great debate, we choose to focus on the fact that she taught music in Rochester for 36 years, followed by a 12-year board tenure advocating for early childhood education, mental health services and programs that serve Rochester's diverse student population.

We won't criticize Workman for being overly passionate about a thankless, low-paying job, and we'd be hard-pressed to name a board member who has worked harder for Rochester students during the past 12 years. If Workman brings that same passion to another four-year term – and we have no doubt that she will – then our students will be the better for it.

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Finally, we arrive at the Seat 2 race, which is the only one that features no incumbent.

Justin Cook headshot (1).jpg
Justin Cook

Of the four bloc candidates, Rae Parker came across as the least strident during her candidate forum with her opponent, Justin Cook. She also is the only bloc candidate who got remotely specific about what a “back to basics” approach would mean, and we agree that a renewed focus on intensive phonics-based reading instruction would help improve students' reading ability and test scores.

Similarly, we share her concern that some students in Rochester are doing very little classwork, yet they still pass. As Parker put it, “We need students to show up for class. We have to have students turn in their coursework. We have to have students who earn a passing grade in order to pass.”

But where Parker loses us – and where Cook gains our endorsement – is their conflicting views about the role schools can and should play in helping kids succeed.

Cook, who has lived in Rochester for five years and has four kids in elementary school, puts the matter in simple terms: “The goal is to provide a learning environment that is conducive for every student in the school system to identify and pursue their passions, and to unleash the potential of every student.” That includes students who've had a tough start in life, enduring difficulties at home that make learning a challenge.

Parker, on the other hand, seemed almost dismissive of childhood trauma. “Everybody has had some sort of trauma in their lifetime,” she said. “Young children are not immune to that; however, I don't think we should treat all children as having had trauma in their life. The amount of social work and mental health people who are being put into the schools – if there's that significant of a trauma, then they need more professional help than what a school counselor can handle.”

Parker was vague when asked where she'd make budget cuts, which makes her statements about trauma and school counselors quite worrisome. There's a nationwide shortage of child psychiatrists, psychologists and counselors, and for many children, access to professional help will depend on a referral from a school counselor or social worker.

Cook lacks Parker's lengthy history in Rochester, but his enthusiasm, optimism and belief in the potential of every child will be a valuable asset on the school board.

Jean Marvin, Cathy Nathan, Julie Workman and Justin Cook
Jean Marvin, Cathy Nathan, Julie Workman and Justin Cook.
Contributed

Give Pekel a chance

In endorsing Cathy Nathan, Jean Marvin, Julie Workman and Justin Cook, the Post Bulletin's editorial board is doubling down on its belief that Superintendent Kent Pekel is leading Rochester Public Schools in the right direction after some missteps under his predecessor, Michael Muñoz.

Pekel has demonstrated a great awareness of the challenges and opportunities inherent to a growing community with an increasingly diverse population. Implementation of the strategic plan the district adopted on his watch has barely begun, and electing a slate of candidates who oppose this plan might very well prompt a lame-duck Pekel to look for a new job.

Given the well-documented shortage of good candidates to replace him, that's a risk Rochester can't afford to take.

Related Topics: OUR VIEWELECTION 2022
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