School safety common theme in school board race

Oct. 2—MANKATO — It's been a year of many changes for the Mankato Area Public Schools Board, with several mid-term appointments amid resignations.

Now 11 candidates are looking to either be elected or reelected for three four-year terms and one two-year term as topics such as enrollment, staffing shortages and school culture encompass recent board discussions.

Following are summaries of the candidates for the four-year terms and their positions:

Jamie Aanenson

Jamie Aanenson of North Mankato has three children in MAPS and is running for a four-year spot on the board to serve kids in the district, bring leadership to the board and to navigate decisions in a post-pandemic world.

He works as an information technology director for a financial services company and has other experience serving on the EduCare board, the Mankato Basketball Association board and the Mankato Peppers Softball board.

Aanenson ran unsuccessfully for the School Board in 2020. Now, he said he's had teachers reach out to encourage him to run again.

"I'm passionate about public education, and I'm guessing everybody will say that, but I try to be involved in as many things in the community as I can," he said. "I really want to give our children the best opportunity to succeed."

He said he believes the biggest problem facing the district right now is its budget.

"That is due to the loss of students," he said. "Unless we're able to get those children that have left this district back, there's going to be a lot of tough decisions."

Aanenson has spoken to families who have left the district to ask why they've left.

"The pandemic response is an obvious one. Hopefully that's in our past, and we have to be smart with what is asked of our parents and our kids moving forward if there's any spikes in cases again.

"But the main issue right now comes down to classroom management and the discipline, security and safety that people are feeling. That's the answer I get most of the time," he said. "The teachers that I talk to and that I trust really feel their hands are tied when it comes to discipline. There's got to be a culture change here in this district where we get back to holding the children accountable."

Patrick Baker

The Mankato Area Public Schools board unanimously voted to appoint Patrick Baker to fill its vacant seat following then-Vice Chair Kenneth Reid's resignation in May. He is now running for a four-year term.

Baker, who was born and raised in Mankato and graduated from Mankato East Senior High School, serves as government relations director for Western Governors University. He was previously vice president and director of government and institutional affairs for Greater Mankato Growth, a position he held between 2012-2020.

Baker has two daughters who will be attending the district in the near future, and his wife is a teacher at Mankato West.

He said some of the biggest issues he sees facing the district right now include school culture, which to him includes both behavior concerns and teacher burnout.

"I think (behavior concerns are) something that I know our district is addressing. I think it continues to need to be a focus, because distracted learners are ones that are not doing much learning," he said.

"Certainly, COVID-19 made teaching harder. School behavior has made teaching harder. All of the additional things that we are putting on the plates of teachers is causing some burnout issues."

Baker said he's also focusing on being more innovative in education, which includes ideas for student and business connections.

Baker said that preventing burnout and attracting staff in part involves more support for teachers in the classroom.

"I worry about the sustainability of the model we have set up now in terms of one teacher, one classroom and whether we can do something different there in terms of a team-teaching approach or making sure there are more opportunities for our teachers to share workload."

Baker has also been involved in a group of district leaders and community leaders who provided input on a future strategic enrollment plan for the district.

Darren Kern

Darren Kern, of North Mankato, started teaching 28 years ago and is now an elementary school principal in the Le Sueur-Henderson School District. He has also served as a superintendent at a previous district.

He said he's running for a four-year term on the board because he's an advocate for public education.

"I think that we've taken some wrong turns in education in recent years. I'm interested in just representing kids. I believe in kids, I believe in all kids, and I think I can make a difference on the School Board," he said.

Kern said he believes one of the biggest challenges facing the board is enrollment.

"We've lost a lot of students. That, of course, is tied to funding. We have to figure out how to give a reason for people to want to stay at the district, come back to the district and choose the district if they're in another district so those finances can be turned around," he said.

"I also want to advocate for teachers to make sure that people understand it's not an easy job."

Kern said one of his solutions to low enrollment numbers is to communicate with students directly.

"We hear from community leaders and we hear from parents often, but we don't spend enough time listening to our students. They're going to tell us why they want to attend Mankato Area Public Schools. To increase enrollment, we have to give people a reason to want to go there," he said.

Kern also touched on attracting and retaining staff.

"I think it boils down to trust between the district administration, the School Board and the teachers. Similar to trying to attract students to the district, all school districts in the nation are experiencing shortages in staffing. You also have to give staff a reason to want to teach in the district."

Kari Pratt

Kari Pratt of Mankato is a former teacher at Mankato Area Public Schools, where she worked for 13 years, and is an independent contractor for Art of Problem Solving, a math curriculum company.

Pratt has worked across the MAPS district, having also worked as a math instructional coach for five years, which led to opportunities to work in all of the K-12 buildings.

She has two children in the district.

Pratt resigned from MAPS at the end of the 2021-22 school year, intending to run for the School Board where she is pursuing a four-year term.

"I resigned because I felt as though student behavior and safety in the school were at a point where I wasn't feeling supported or feeling comfortable, and I really felt that I could take my knowledge to a different level outside of the school by running for School Board," she said.

Pratt said part of her reasons for wanting to be on the board include thinking that a teacher's voice is needed.

"I just feel as though we need a teacher perspective when it comes to making decisions that affect the teachers in our district and then ultimately our students," Pratt said. "I think there's a lot of ideas that are great ideas, but we need to think about how they're going to be implemented and, really, having a teacher's perspective I think is important for that."

Pratt said that the district's enrollment numbers are reflective of some of the behavior within the schools.

"And then, perhaps the lack of communication from the schools to the public or to those involved. I've had conversations with families who have left the district. A lot of it stems from a behavior incident that maybe was overlooked or there was no closure. They didn't feel the school responded appropriately," she said.

Her strategies for bringing people back include having open communication and listening to stakeholders involved.

"Making sure that when there are disciplinary issues, that we are making sure that we are communicating what the resolution is and how we're moving forward," she said. "I believe that we need to have really high expectations for behavior, because I do believe that students thrive when they're in an environment where they have some boundaries, they have expectations, and they know those consequences."

She also said that giving teachers a voice would make them feel more supported.

"I am a firm believer in public education. I think that we can do amazing things and that Mankato has done amazing things, but my focus really is how do we support those who are working the closest with our students, how do we get people into the classroom and fully fund those needs so that we can really reach students."

Jodi Sapp

Board chair Jodi Sapp of Mankato was first elected in 2001 and has been on multiple committees in the district. Her kids are both MAPS graduates.

Sapp has worked in a residential setting for adults with intellectual disabilities for 30 years. She is also on the board for the South Central Service Cooperative and is a founding member of the Greater Mankato Diversity Council.

She was elected chair in January 2021 and is running for a four-year term.

Sapp said the reason she continues to run for the board is to serve the community and advocate for kids. She also said her experience could be of benefit to a new board.

"I have a lot of historical knowledge about the way things are done, why they're done, why decisions were made in contracts at some point, things like that," she said. "I don't think there's anything wrong with a little bit of some of that history."

Sapp said some of the issues she's paying attention to this time around include student achievement, especially after COVID-19 took a toll on students.

"Test scores have obviously taken a hit, so getting kids and teachers back up to speed."

Sapp also said she's concerned about school safety.

When it comes to enrollment, Sapp said she understands that school choices exist for a reason.

"Not everything works for everybody," she said. "I feel bad that we've lost people that we did due to our masking policy. Other than that, I think if we just keep doing what Mankato schools do and that is educating kids and taking care of the whole kid, not just the educational part, I think that people are going to come back. It's not going to happen overnight, but I think it's going to happen."

Sapp said during her time on the board, she's proudest of being a founding member of the diversity council. She also recognized the district's growth over the years, including its newest schools.

Shannon Sinning

The board appointed Shannon Sinning in July after Bukata Hayes' resignation, and he is now running for a four-year term.

Sinning, of Mankato, grew up in Mapleton and graduated with an accounting degree from Gustavus Adolphus College.

He has been working at a commercial insurance agency in Mankato for four years and has kids in the MAPS district.

Sinning has sought to be on the board in the past. Sapp previously told The Free Press that Sinning was a top contender when both he and Baker sought to fill Reid's vacancy.

He also ran for the board in 2020.

Sinning said it's his kids who are his reason for wanting to run.

"There's a lot of things I've learned as a parent, as a businessperson and community member. I'm involved in a lot of nonprofits. Just things I've learned about boards, the way they're structured," he said.

"There's things I think I've learned as a parent about things I like about the school district that are going well. There's always things you can improve on."

Sinning said his focuses on the board include enrollment, school safety and making sure every child has a chance to succeed regardless of background.

"I think one of my biggest goals is to figure out why exactly we've lost those 500 students, around that number, because we're a growing community," he said.

Sinning said he also wants to improve access security within the district.

"No matter where you're at politically, as a parent, as a community member, safety for our students is probably the No. 1 priority. I think we need to do something, we need to correct that with our elementaries that don't have that secure single point of entry or access point," he said.

As staffing levels impact the district, Sinning also acknowledged the board needs to determine why some of their jobs aren't being filled first over others.

"Is it pay? Is it the environment? Do people feel comfortable or safe in our schools? Those types of things," he said.

Brianne Vogt

Brianne Vogt, of North Mankato, has one child in the MAPS district.

She grew up in Mankato and attended several Mankato elementary schools, Dakota Meadows Middle School and graduated from Mankato West in 1999.

She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Stout with a degree in dietetics and is now a stay-at-home mom. She is running for a four-year term.

According to her candidate profile, Vogt removed one of her daughters from Dakota Meadows this school year due to the current state of the school.

She said she wanted to run for School Board because she believes the district is looking for some change.

"I believe that some of that change can start with refreshing the school board. I think I would be a great candidate for that, because I have school-aged children, so I understand the struggles that they're currently facing. I want to make a difference," she said.

Vogt said some of the challenges facing the district right now include enrollment numbers and their impact on the budget.

"I think the school district needs to figure out why people are leaving, being interested in what those reasons are, talk to parents who maybe have left and see what that is and then be able to work to address those issues."

She said she is also paying attention to safety and mental health struggles facing students.

"I do know that the schools have some great mental health resources available to them. I just think that maybe we need to expand on those or find new methods on checking in with our students to make sure that they're doing OK."

Crystal Wells

Crystal Wells, of Madison Lake, currently works at home as a full-time mother and student. She has one child in the district.

According to her candidate profile, Wells wants to be on the board after discovering not long ago that she wanted to work with children. When her son was born, her goals shifted to wanting to work with them.

She is running for a four-year term.

Her background includes 14 years in the hospitality industry.

Wells did not respond to The Free Press for an interview.

Editor's Note: Coverage of the other open School Board seat for a two-year term will appear in a future edition of The Free Press.