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Duluth At Large School Board candidates weigh in on the issues

Clockwise from upper left: Loren Martell, Sally Trnka, Harry Welty, Josh Gorham, Bogdana (Dana) Krivogorsky

Five candidates are vying for two At Large Duluth School Board seats. The Sept. 12 primary will leave four for the general election in November.

Those running are:

Josh Gorham, 34, a public-health nurse and Lakeside resident. He is married with three children — two at Lester Park Elementary and one not yet school age. See gorhamforschoolboard.com.

Bogdana (Dana) Krivogorsky, 40, who is married with two children and lives in upper Woodland. She is a scientist, most recently employed with the University of Minnesota Duluth. See facebook.com/danaforschools.

Loren Martell, 65, a self-employed widower who lives in East Hillside.

Sally Trnka, 34, executive director of the Northern Minnesota Network who lives in Woodland. She and her partner have a son who attends Myers-Wilkins Elementary. See sallyforschoolboard.com.

Incumbent Harry Welty, 66, a former teacher who lives in Chester Park. He is married with two grown children who attended East High School and two grandchildren who attend North Star Academy. See weltyforschoolboard.com.

The following are their responses to three questions posed by the News Tribune:

What is the school district's biggest challenge, and why?

Gorham: The achievement gap, because the variety of factors that influence the disparity exist both in the school system and outside of it. For example, factors such as homelessness, food insecurity, racism and overall economic instability impact the child's likelihood of success in school. These factors can be addressed in schools to an extent, but some of the solutions go beyond the walls of the schools.

Krivogorsky: Open communication: admit mistakes and move forward. Exploring possibilities for improving and learning from past mistakes instead of shying away from the issues. Open dialogue: Yes, there is a gaping achievement gap; there is inequality and budget woes. It is ugly and unpleasant, but very much a necessary conversation.

Martell: The School Board's biggest challenge is its budget. Primarily because so many of the Red Plan's projections on savings and property sales have fallen through, the district is struggling with a structural deficit. Lack of resources has made it very tough to deal with persistent, serious problems. The board has been unable to make much progress in addressing the achievement gap and the inequities between the eastern and western parts of the district.

Trnka: Reducing the achievement gap is my top priority. A variety of national groups are creating roadmaps for reducing the achievement gap through enhanced cultural competence, comprehensive support for students, engagement with community groups, securing adequate resources and strong district support. Working with partners, I will prioritize the elimination of the achievement and access gaps. I experienced what it was like to go to a school that so strongly represented the exceptional diversity in our community at Duluth Central High School; I'd like to ensure a similar experience for all Duluth students.

Welty: Being obligated to use most of its property taxes for the retirement of Red Plan debt but only a negligible amount of its taxing power for educational expenses, which in turn has led to a 30 percent enrollment decline of eligible Duluth students. (During the 2016-17 school year, 30 percent of Duluth resident students were enrolled outside of the district.)

With declining enrollment a continual issue, how should the district attempt to attract new and former students?

Gorham: We need to market the strengths of Duluth public schools while also engaging with our community to learn more about what they are wanting and expecting from the public school system. Listening, building bridges and establishing better rapport with the community are the first strategies that I would suggest.

Krivogorsky: Transparency is pivotal. Parents and the public should have free and unrestricted access to all relevant information, since they're the main stakeholders. Secondly, we need to control our finances. We need to create a budget committee (we do not have one) consisting of professionals fluent in governmental accounting. Our chief goal should be the learning of our kids, not the reputations or interests of administrators. We need to reduce class sizes and increase learning hours — vital for attracting more students, helping our kids grow and ensuring their future success.

Martell: Improvements needed to lure students — making class sizes smaller, putting seven periods back in the schools — cost money. For years, the board has been too passive in searching for solutions. We have to move aggressively to sell vacant properties for the highest price. We have to search for funding, without simply hitting the already-burdened taxpayers. A local representative should look out for local constituents. If I were on the board, I would be searching for more grant money and advocating more strongly for our schools.

Trnka: This is a multifaceted issue that requires strategic thinking and the development of short- and long-term goals. As a board member, I will be a positive voice to identify sustainable solutions. Children ages birth to 5 represent the highest rate of children living in poverty in our city. I'm committed to working to facilitate strong early childhood programs that support families and serve as an early safety net for children in Duluth. As an executive director, I am experienced with identifying solutions to complicated challenges.

Welty: Stop picking fights with other schools and make friends. Treat our liabilities like a challenge, then face them head-on and overcome them. We will need the community to grant us additional financing to replace the funding we transferred from the classroom to build new schools.

What do you like most about the district's schools?

Gorham: The people. I have met students, staff, teachers, families and principals that put a lot of heart into our schools. A cafeteria manager at Lincoln Park Middle School who made a special soup recipe for a student dealing with the effects of chemotherapy, for example. There are many great people and stories within our schools that demonstrate why our public schools are great.

Krivogorsky: People. There is nothing but positive experiences: nutrition workers, teachers, principals, PTA members, clerical workers, administration. Ojibwe and Spanish immersion programs, after-class activities and clubs, sustainable play areas and commitment of the teaching staff.

Martell: The most important asset for any organization is its people. ISD 709 has a stellar staff. The achievements that have been made within the restraints of a constricted budget are laudable. Spanish (language) immersion has been quite successful. A science lab modeled after MIT has been a great addition to the schools. There has also been a genuine commitment to counter bullying and improve the social climate in the district.

Trnka: We have remarkable children in our district's schools. Those students benefit from unique programming including the STEM program, the language immersion program and the community school collaborative programs. I truly hope that I have the opportunity and privilege to serve our district to promote and expand all that is good about Duluth public schools.

Welty: Number one, our children. Number two, our teachers.

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