Five people, including two incumbent Northfield School Board members, had announced their intention to seek election for four open seats as of Tuesday.
The two incumbents are Noel Stratmoen and Amy Goerwitz, and the three seeking their first four-year terms on the board include Robert Coleman, Claudia Gonzalez-George and Corey Butler. School Board member Rob Hardy announced late last year he would not seek reelection. Ellen Iverson announced in May she won’t run for another term.
Stratmoen’s time as a Northfield School Board member, considered one of the longest in the state, began in July 1980.
“I believe I bring knowledge, experience and continuity to the board and to the community,” Stratmoen wrote in a letter announcing his reelection bid.
Discussing the unprecedented impact COVID-19 is having on local school districts, Stratmoen said although he doesn’t know everything about the pandemic, he has extensive experience regarding budget and transportation issues.
“They will be big issues during this time of social distancing,” he said.
During the course of Stratmoen’s tenure, a number of district referendums have passed, most recently the $41 million referendum in 2018 to build a new Greenvale Park Elementary School building and complete construction work at other schools.
Stratmoen and his wife, Lois, moved to Northfield in 1965 from Brookings, South Dakota, where she had taught high school math and he was an employee at South Dakota State University.
Stratmoen said he was drawn to the community from his initial job at Sheldahl and Northfield’s reputation as an education center.
“When I left my job at Sheldahl to commute to Minneapolis for work at Control Data and later Seagate Corp., we purposely chose to continue to live in Northfield … mostly for the strength of education opportunities for our children,” he said.
Stratmoen said that decision paid off. He spoke highly of the education his two children received from Northfield Public Schools and the positive impact the city has had on the family. Stratmoen has volunteered for public service with the Northfield Arts Guild, Northfield Historical Society and his church.
“For all the benefits given to me and to my family by this community, the public schools have been the most influential,” Stratmoen wrote. “With a strong sense of public service, serving on the Board of Education is the best way to express my appreciation.”
“My training in secondary education, the years I spent in industry and past experience with school board issues will provide me with good insight to addressing future decisions too.”
Goerwitz, who was first elected in 2016, sees her experience over the last four years as providing her with an introduction to the important issues that would guide her in a second term.
The year after she was elected, Northfield voters approved an increased operating levy but rejected a $109 million bond referendum to construct new Northfield High School and Greenvale Park Elementary buildings and conduct smaller renovations.
The following year the smaller referendum, including the Greenvale Park Elementary component, passed. In addition to the highest-cost component, Goerwitz expressed appreciation that smaller renovations are allowing for new space for community services and early childhood learning.
Goerwitz acknowledged COVID-19 is the most pressing issue the district now faces. The learning format students will operate under is still unclear, and Goerwitz knows that in addition to heeding Minnesota Department of Health guidelines, the School Board will make decisions that impact people, students and staff. She believes a one-size-fits-all approach might not work. Instead, she said as many options as possible must be presented while ensuring the safety of everyone.
“It’s really important to keep the students and staff and teachers all safe,” she said. “Safety is definitely the most important issue.”
Goerwitz has spoken with Superintendent Matt Hillmann regarding making sure student handbooks are formatted in a friendlier way for youth and their parents. Another possibility that is being evaluated by Northfield Public Schools includes changing the district’s learning curriculum to include more stories from diverse populations to ensure students of color don’t feel marginalized.
“I don’t think they do now, but I don’t think they feel completely heard either,” she said.
Another top attraction Goerwitz, who has lived in Northfield since 2002, sees in running for reelection is the composition of the School Board, and how, to her, members work to maximize the potential of Northfield Public Schools.
“It’s a very high-functioning group,” she said. “I want to be part of that.”
Coleman, a stay-at-home father of two, said he chose to run primarily because he sees a need for representation for the parents of the young.
Coleman, who has lived in Northfield for three years, has been involved with Early Childhood Family Education and the Hand in Hand preschool program. He just finished a term as the district’s Community Advisory Board chair, has served on the Communications Committee and the remodeling board of the former Greenvale Park Elementary School building. He also assisted in the group supporting the successful 2018 district referendum.
Coleman said if elected, he wants to do a better job of making schools open, accessible and welcoming for all students.
He added he hopes Northfield Public Schools remains a positive financial steward and receives more state funding.
“We must maintain excellent and financially stable schools, in spite of continually insufficient funding from the state and federal governments,” he wrote in a Facebook post announcing his candidacy. “For years, unfunded mandates have greatly increased costs for schooling without adequate monetary support.”
Coleman comes from a family of teachers and school administrators. His wife is a Carleton Spanish faculty member.
“It’s of vital importance,” he said of a public education for all students. “Those ideas have surrounded me for a long time,” he said.
In terms of the district’s COVID-19 response, Coleman said leaders need to prioritize the opinions of outside health experts. He also called for an increased focus on the mental health needs of students and staff.
Coleman, who expects to run a socially distanced campaign due to the pandemic, spoke highly of the work undertaken by Superintendent Hillmann and the quality relationship between the School Board and the district the group serves.
“Hopefully I can help with that,” he said.
Butler, a former reporter for the Faribault Daily News and Northfield News, has lived in Northfield since 2009. He cited his experience sifting through public documents as a journalist and his being a parent of young children as School Board qualifications.
To Butler, who works as a communications professional with the nonprofit Minnesota Society of Certified Public Accountants, public service is important in all levels of government. Despite his belief that the School Board has done well in handling a lack of state funding for education, he believes parents, especially those with younger children, need to play a larger role on the board to ensure their perspectives are heard. Butler said he also wants to ensure prudent fiscal practices are in place and Northfield students of all ethnicities and backgrounds are given a fair chance to succeed while attending school.
He spoke highly of Gov. Tim Walz’s decision last week to grant local school districts more leeway in choosing this fall’s learning format in the wake of COVID-19 depending on virus transmission rates. He said though Northfield Public Schools might have to shift its learning format throughout the year as the progression of the virus continues and an effective vaccine emerges, the district still needs to ensure communication is as strong as possible with all stakeholders.
Gonzalez-George, who has lived in Northfield for a couple years, said a number of factors sparked her interest in running for the board. One reason she cited was the School Board’s quality reputation and the community’s overall regard for education.
She said she hopes to ensure that reputation remains strong, the district continues being financially sustainable, and student needs be met.
“We have a very good school district and we have great staff, but there’s always room for improvement,” Gonzalez-George said.
In citing her qualifications, she spoke of her experience as a teacher in another community and grasp of education forged through other locations.
Gonzalez-George is the mother of a NHS graduate, and her youngest child is entering 10th grade. She has worked at Northfield Community Action Center as a community advocate since February.
Discussing COVID-19 and the ongoing impact the virus is having on school districts, Gonzalez-George said she supports any approach that follows Minnesota Department of Health guidelines and feels the hybrid model of in-person and distance learning is the most comfortable for her.