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Long-term budget solution is top issue with school board candidates

The number one priority among all five Farmington Area school board candidates was to come up with a long-term budgetary solution for the district.

The candidates shared their goals at a forum Wednesday, Oct. 12, hosted by the Dakota County Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Newcomers Jacilyn Doyle, John Guist and Steve Wilson are challenging incumbents Jake Cordes and Julie Singewald for three four-year terms.

Despite big budgetary wins at the capitol last year, school officials say it doesn't make up for a decade of sluggish spending. When the state doesn't give schools enough income to work with, schools often take their needs to the public in the form of a referendum, as Farmington did in 2015 with a levy increase and a $45 million request for building bonds which voters approved.

But referendums are like band-aids, officials say, and don't provide long-term solutions.

The district's expenditures are projected to be over $68 million next school year.

"I think the community is kind of struggling with where we're at as a school district," said Doyle, 31, a social studies teacher. "Having levies introduced every three years puts a lot of burden on the community."

Singewald said the district needs to communicate the budget needs to state lawmakers.

"Farmington sits in somewhat of a quagmire of laws that really put a burden on our taxpayers," she said.

Wilson, 47, an insurance executive who is also a former city council member, thinks there's a disconnect between school officials and residents.

"Why are we only hearing about financial matters when there's a referendum?" asked Wilson.

Guist, 50, a local pastor, also wants accountability.

"I would like to be sure that the district operates within its means and be efficient as possible," he said.

The three newcomers criticized the implementation and cost of the iPad push. In 2015, the board approved a $961,605 plan to lease iPads for another three years at a one-to-one ratio for kindergarten through 12th grade. The decision was not unanimous, with two members voting no because of budgetary concerns.

"I think it was a little hasty," Doyle said.

Wilson said the decision deserved closer scrutiny.

"I think the iPad had a bit of a rocky rollout. I think it's critical for the school district and school board to evaluate what role that technology plays and the expense related to it," he said.

Incumbents were asked about the most difficult decisions they've had to make as board members.

Singewald, 44, a hospital lab director who has been a school board member since 2008, became emotional when talking about the board decision made last school year to move the graduation due to a construction project on the high school stadium.

"It was very hard to make a decision to have a project start that I knew was impacting a group of kids that it was very important to," she said.

Cordes, 25, a sales specialist who has served on the school board since 2013, talked about cutting staff.

"There were a number of personnel decisions we made over the last four years that at the time seemed very hard," he said.

The contentious teacher contracts that stretched out for months over the 2015-2016 school year was a topic brought up by an audience member. Sticking points with the negotiations were lowering class sizes and raising pay for teachers and staff.

Both incumbents called the process, "a learning experience."

"We probably could have done a better job at setting the norms at the very beginning," Singewald said.

Cordes said communication between the parties and the public could have been better.

"At the end of the day, we all have constituents that we report to, and if the accurate message isn't getting out there, that can be a disappointment," he said.

Guist said the negotiations were too long.

"Things usually don't end well when they continue to drag out," he said. "I know how hard both sides worked...it was a painful thing."

Candidates Garret Roach and Brian Treakle have withdrawn from the race. Their names will still appear on the ballot, as they withdrew after the filing deadline.

Kristin Goodreau, 44, an adoption agency director, is running unopposed in a special election to fill the remaining two years left by former member Tera Lee who resigned to take a teaching position in the district.

The entire forum can be viewed online at www.dcrchamber.com/voter-guide.cfm.

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