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School safety occupies candidates' attention

Four of five candidates for school board weighed in at the Cloquet Area Chamber of Commerce candidate forum Oct. 25.

In the wake of two lockdowns within the past year, the topic of school safety drew provocative responses from an incumbent and newcomer alike. Both advocated for a stronger security presence in Cloquet’s public schools.

“I would support having professionals in the building, some of our professionals, carefully screened and carefully trained and able to use special tactics and tools to stop a threat,” incumbent Ted Lammi said.

“I personally would love to see some resource officers in all of the schools, and not just the high school,” challenger Jamie Graham said, while suggesting the use of retired service veterans.

When reached for further comment afterward, Lammi confirmed he meant training and arming school staff with firearms.

“I would not rule out a discussion about having those people armed,” Lammi told the Pine Knot. He reasoned that if there is no funding or political will to put a police officer in every school, then further exploration was warranted. He reiterated a careful screening process for school personnel and said it was “because they are there.”

“If not (police), we have to consider alternatives,” Lammi said, describing how school safety is an issue on everyone’s mind and a backdrop to every discussion about school operation.

Described by candidates as disruptive and even traumatic, the lockdowns in March and September eventually proved to be the results of elaborate international hoaxes affecting numerous districts. Lammi said it’s up to the federal government to put a stop to those.

He was joined in the forum by fellow incumbent Dave Battaglia, and challengers Graham and Sarah Plante Buhs. Incumbent Gary “Hawk” Huard was not in attendance.

“It’d be nice to have a few more (school resource officers),” Battaglia said. “It all comes down to money, and I don’t know if that day will come.”

Voters will elect three of the five at-large candidates to fill half the seats on the public school board. The board represents District 94 and decides what to do with its revenues of almost $37 million annually.

Like her fellow challenger, Plante Buhs has children in school and rose through the ranks of parents’ organizations. With experience in fire service and now leading United Way of Carlton County, Plante Buhs addressed school violence by saying she’d want to ensure the district employed a more organized way to help students process the threats.

“We’re fortunate the two threats we’ve had in the last year were not real threats,” Plante Buhs said. “We learned some things we can improve on.”

Plante Buhs and Graham both said the school board needed more diversity, noting that Melissa Juntunen is the sole woman on the current board.

Graham chose to run because she didn’t like the district’s pandemic response the longer it went, and was more critical than the others of the district’s experience with distance learning.

All the candidates hoped to avoid distance learning again in the future.

“We learned that it’s not a good way to teach kids,” said Battaglia, the former high school principal and teacher with 34 years experience in local public schools and 12 years on the board.

On the topic of funding, Battaglia and Lammi both praised the district’s teachers and staff. But they noted a funding deficit between Cloquet and some other districts receiving more money per student based on property tax apportionments, an average of $2,381 to Cloquet’s $850.

“We do a great job, but it’s not a level playing field,” Battaglia said.

He and Lammi said the district needed to lobby to receive money from the state’s $9 billion surplus.

“The solution has got to come from the state,” Lammi said, saying he’d be using his “pen and voice,” to reach out to legislators.

On teacher shortages, Graham said the district ought to partner with Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College now that it’s going to offer a four-year teaching degree.

“We can work with them to get some of those great candidates into our school district,” she said.

In an era of fewer teaching applicants, Plante Buhs noted it was important for a school board to create an inviting environment.

“It is important when you go to work that you feel valued, that you’re needed and wanted,” Plante Buhs said. “It’s appreciated.”

None of the candidates agreed with banning books or teaching whitewashed versions of history:

-“You can’t ban history,” Graham said. “You have to learn the history so you can learn how to do better.”

-“I have no interest in micromanaging any of those things,” Battaglia said. “If there’s an uprising, we’ll get our nose in there and make a decision and help out. … (But) I do not see it as part of our job, banning books.”

-“Our job as a school board is to protect the library from outside influences that would ban books,” Lammi said.

-“If you don’t like it, you don’t get to erase it,” Plante Buhs said.

They all appreciated board oversight of a robust community education program, with Plante Buhs noting it was often a person’s “first time or first experience with Cloquet schools and their education.”

Lammi, a swimming instructor, said classes are so sought after that the swimming program could use more instructors.

“We’ve got a lot of kids who want to learn how to swim,” he said.

When moderator Tony Sertich asked the school board candidates what they’d prioritize given a fantasy of unlimited funding, Lammi said he’d hire teachers to reduce class sizes, noting 34 students in a calculus class is too many. Plante Buhs said she’d fund mental health resources.

“A lot of teachers are struggling with (students’) mental health taking up their time,” she said.

Battaglia and Graham agreed.

“Our kids took a huge hit mentally, in all levels of our school,” Graham said, citing pandemic setbacks.

“I would get more mental health workers into buildings and more help for special education,” Battaglia said.

As final thoughts, the spirited discussion ended with Plante Buhs and Graham asking voters to support their “different perspective,” Graham said. While incumbents Battaglia and Lammi noted “productive” recent years during their board tenures.

“I’m here for all kids,” Lammi said. “We have a gem of a school system.”