Board hopefuls share opinions

Four school contenders take part in a virtual public forum

by Nick Wognum
Four candidates for three Ely School Board positions found plenty of common ground Tuesday night.
A candidates’ forum, held virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic, featured no fireworks and a few technical glitches, with sketchy rural internet service often disrupting responses delivered by candidate Darren Visser.
One of three first-time candidates, Visser joined fellow political newcomers Rachel Brophy and Hollee Coombe and incumbent Tom Omerza at the event sponsored by Ely’s Rotary Club and the local branch of the American Association of University Women.
The candidates took turns answering questions in the 90-minute event, and all four voices consistent support for district teaching staff and providing further opportunities for students.
Perhaps the most notable exchange came at the end of the forum, when all four candidates said they would support parents exercising the right to pull their children out of lessons on potentially controversial topics such as climate change, politics, sex education and racial justice.
“Some parents truly believe those issues should be taught at home and I respect that,” said Visser, who taught for more than 20 years in the Ely district as an elementary instructor.
“While I feel these things are valuable topics for learning, at the same time as a parent I respect a parent’s choice,” said Brophy, who works for the Ely Chamber of Commerce.
Giving leeway both to teachers and administrators was also a common theme.
Answering a question about hypothetical budget reductions, Omerza said “I would not be one to start digging into that, that’s tasked to the principals and superintendent.”
Coombe had a similar response to a question about the board’s role in determining curriculum.
“While the school board provides oversight, I don’t think it’s the school board’s job to micromanage,” said Coombe.
The candidates spoke of ensuring students had access to more resources, including for mental health.
“Kids are going through a lot right now, whether it’s the COVID thing or scariness,” said Coombe. “I think it’s important to use the resources we have help give the students what they need.”
Omerza added “we have teachers that care - they recognize the needs of the kids and can alert the principal, alert the administration to try and channel resources.”
The candidates noted the approval of a $10 million bond referendum in August, with Visser noting it’s part of a long history of community support for education.
“It shows people from the outside that when they come here, it’s going to be supported,” said Visser.
Coombe agreed and called the new building project and Ely voter support, including a 65-35 percent margin in the referendum, “is an important piece in attracting new people and shows how much the community cares about our school.”
Brophy noted her support for an assortment of curriculum offerings ranging from the sciences to the humanities, calling them “all intertwined... I feel our students should get a little bit of everything.”
Visser said that Ely benefits by being a small district, currently with roughly 550 students in grades K-12, contending that students get the opportunity to try an assortment of courses and activities “and maybe find talents hidden to them even.”
Brophy said she was impressed by Ely’s course offerings and said the district should take advantage of making college classes available to high school students in part to counter “the soaring cost of college.” She also endorsed classes that provide students with marketable skills that make them eligible for jobs upon graduation.
The top three vote-getters in the Nov. 3 election will win four-year terms on the board.
Omerza is the only incumbent in the race as board members James Pointer and Heidi Mann are not seeking re-election
The winners will join Ray Marsnik, Rochelle Sjoberg and Tony Colarich on the six-member board.
Tuesday’s forum was shown live on local public access channel 11 and on Facebook and was recorded for playback on YouTube.