The three candidates for the open seat on the Hastings School Board posed for a picture prior to a candidate forum held Thursday in the studio of Hastings Community TV. Photo by Bruce Karnick
Three compete for ISD 200 Board seat

Hastings ISD 200 voters will head to the polls on election day, Tuesday, Nov. 8, to fill a vacant seat on the board.

The winner will hold the seat vacated in July by first-year board member Mike Reis, who resigned the position two months after being censured by a 4-2 vote of the board, saying the rules set by the censure hampered his ability to serve as a board member. The successful candidate will be seated as soon as the ISD 200 Board accepts the election results and expires at the end of 2024.

Running for the seat are: Todd A. Kullman, 2421 Southview Ct., Hastings. Pamela J. Onnen, 18888 Portwood Way, Hastings. Mark A. Zuzek, 2470 Timber View Dr., Hastings. The Hastings Area Chamber of Commerce and Hastings Community TV held an in-studio candidate forum Thursday night, with John Hunt of Smead Manufacturing serving as moderator. Questions to the candidates were submitted by the public.

Here’s a look at what the candidates had to say:

Opening statements:

make a fair decision as a group. That spurred more conversation with the board, and now we're here at an election which I think is a really good idea.”

The board priorities should be to make sure students have what they need to be successful.

“Basically, it’s to have the buildings and the space and the materials that we need so that we can educate the kids and make sure we are paying attention to how much the kids are learning and that they have met their goal.”

Zuzek – “The reason I decided to run is I really believe in strong governance. I understand the role of the school board,” he said. “What matters most to me is solid, strong governance and good fiscal management.”

He said educating “all students” should be at the core of board priorities.

“I've got five things that are important to me. One is that the students are at the heart of everything, I think, feel and believe. The second thing is that we need to be fiscally responsible. The third thing is to have a broad vision and to be creative. The fourth thing is to support all students, staff and families. And the last one is that I intend to lead with both experience and compassion. I resonate more strongly with the district in regard to their beliefs about fiscal responsibility and teaching all children and celebrating our successes as a district.”

Kullman – Kullman said the district needs to do a better job focusing on academics.

“I have in front of me some data from the Minnesota Department of Education and proficiency in some of the core areas that we need to teach our children math, reading science. Hastings, from 2017 to 2021, is almost 25 percent less on meeting the minimum standards or exceeding them in math, about 15 percent on reading, and about 18 percent on science. We need to focus on academics. The priorities are right there in front of us. We need to use these proficiency numbers to say “Where are we at? How are we measuring the success of our students and moving them to the next level of education and then graduating?’ I see too many distractions coming into the system right now. Those are cell phone, disrespect from some students, and then I'm going to get right to it, political ideologies, gender, resexualization, critical race theory and systemic race theory. These are theories. We need to get back to educating our students” As a school board member, how would you address parent concerns regarding curriculum?

Zuzek – “Most of the concerns regarding curriculum come from parents that are well intended and care deeply about their children and want to protect their children. The problem is, when you're running a school of 1,500 students, it's hard to decide what each kiddo needs as an individual,” he said. “For instance, critical race theory is something that's talked about. I will tell you, it's not being taught in public schools. What bothers me most about the whole conversation about CRT is that there's a belief that we are indoctrinating our kids or making them fearful or making them feel bad about what happened. And I want to be clear that a 10th grade student sitting in a history class is no more responsible for the bad parts of American history than I am, or any of us are. What I think matters most is that we teach with compassion, we teach with understanding and empathy.”

Kullman – “Minnesota State Statutes…. point to parental curriculum review. All parents and you need to know this, have the right to know what the curriculum is and can request it. In addition to that we have (ISD 200 School Board) policy 603 Curriculum Development and 601 School District Core Curriculum Instruction Goals. The parents have the opportunity to become very involved in the process of curriculum and a selection, as well, of different textbooks. They need to become involved. I can't emphasize that more. I take a look at our proficiency numbers again that I presented, and looking at all this going on right now, we need to educate our kids not indoctrinate. I'm going to read something. I went to the ISD 200 page, and I pulled up “Equity-Commitment to Equity, “The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020 and subsequent events were a clear reminder that systemic racism is a potent and negative and divisive force that affects all of us, including our students.’” He said. “We need to focus on educating our kids.”

Onnen – “If parents were just letting me know that they had a concern about the curriculum, first of all, I would be very happy that a parent was willing to have that conversation. I would want to have that conversation and find out what part of the curriculum do you think is good, what part isn't? And why do you think it needs to get better? And then once we have that conversation, then it would go to the department chair, and we would have that conversation; she said. “We really need to welcome any comments from the families. It's their kids that that are learning this, and I want our school to always do better for the kids. If we get that feedback from the family That's golden. I'd jump on that.”

What qualifications do you have that prepares you to set policies that will impact classroom corriculum?

Kullman – “I'm going to be very candid. There is no job description for this position. There really isn't. I bring a plethora background in the medical industry to managing people not only in the United States, but overseas, managing multi-level sales and products and etc. So, I have those skill sets. The main skill set that I bring to this table is I am a parent, and in all my door knocking and I'm sure the other candidates have found that too, in the discussions that I've had about 100 percent of the parents I talked to are concerned about their input on topics that they are not aware of. I've instructed them about their rights and what they can do,” he said. “The parents need to have more of a voice at these school board meetings. When I moved to Hastings, I could walk up to a podium like this and address the school board. That no longer happens as of August 2021. That needs to change.”

Onnen – Onnen said she has learned a lot in her career being a female in the mechanical engineering field. “I understand being a minority, “she said. “I stayed home to raise the kids, then when they got a little bit older, I went back to school, and I have a master's in education. So, I do have a good strong background in understanding education. I will listen to all of the comments. If somebody's having concerns as we're looking to set policies, I would hope we would get some public feedback I would welcome that and consider that.”

Zuzek – “I've been a professional educator and a leader for 34 years in public education. I've worked the entire time working with teacher teams and curriculum teams in developing the curriculum and agreeing on the curriculum and nothing will change from that,” he said. “Just an aside, a couple of other things -I have been teacher the year for Hastings Public Schools. I have gotten numerous year awards for volunteerism. I was Principal of the Year for the entire southern half of Minnesota, and then I also was the Outstanding Educator recognized by the chamber of commerce. Most proudly, I was Employee the Year from Hastings Public Schools, so I understand education. I'm good at it. It's all I've ever known. It's my it is my life's blood. And this is just a new way for me to lead.”

How will you work to support the administration and educators in meeting the needs of an increasingly diverse population of learners?

Zuzek -Leading with passion, I will comment that diversity, equity and inclusion have been a hallmark of my career, for all of my career. I've attended over 1,000 meetings with parents and families regarding their children and their child's individual needs. For the last three years, I supported the safety and unique needs of students from nine different districts that were all very unique kids, the highest needs kids in Dakota County. I am deeply concerned that there are groups that do not support the safety and belonging needs of all children. You cannot teach all children unless you can teach each child all means all. The three highest causes of death among children 14 to 21 are gun violence, suicide, and fentanyl poisoning. This is where we have to assert a lot of energy for mental health.”

Onnen – “Young people are having a hard time emotionally. I think the first thing is you establish a sense of belonging. You reaffirm to the student that they belong here. You are with us. We are here for you. This is where you should be. I would like us to make sure that everyone understands we're all different. Every single one of us,” she said. “We have to make sure that students get a person or a point of contact like a counselor or teacher that can help them navigate.”

Kullman – “We need to recognize individual student achievement. What I mean by that is we have to be careful how we identify groups and placing these kids in groups,” he said. “I think what we're seeing across the United States, not just in Hastings, but we're seeing identity politics peaking in. Identity politics, just so you know. is a political approach, wherein people of a particular race, nationality, religion, gender, sexual orientation, social background, social class, or other identifying factors, develop political agendas that are based upon these. There's no place for that type of equity in the school. Once again, our proficiency numbers are down that should be a priority. We need to get these kids educated again. If they're not up to par, not meeting that expectation, there's a gap. We need to look at each individual student and figure out why? One way to do that, I know this is something that's coming up all the time, is the class size. If the teachers had a manageable class size, they could address students with individual needs right there in the classroom. Once again, we need to focus on educating, math, reading and science in our schools.”

Excerpts from closing statements:

Onnen -I have three really good qualities. I am practical, I'm passionate, and I am professional. I am practical. I'm not going to ask for the world. I know as I am a taxpayer, we cannot ask for more money than people can give us. We need to be practical. I am passionate about the kids,” she said. “I really want every student to be able to experience the joy of learning, and if there's something we can do for them I want us to do that. I am professional. I am an engineer and a math teacher. When it comes to numbers and making tough decisions, I look at the data. I look at the numbers. We look at the trends. I think I would be a very good person to be on the board. I can understand everybody else's point of view. I listen to anybody's point of view. And the consensus must come from a combination of all of those things.”

Zuzek – “Thank you to the citizens of this community that have entrusted me to teach their children to be a principal for their children and to be a superintendent that led multiple districts. I understand the relationship between federal regulations and state statutes and how they affect school policy procedures and operations. I am the only one that is running for this school board position that has operated a budget of $50 million for public education and served the needs of the kids with the greatest challenges throughout Dakota County. I have deep compassion for all children. It is with humility and confidence that I ask for your voice and ask for your vote.”

Kullman – “When I look at politics and what's going on across the nation, we hear a lot of rhetoric, and it's time to act on the rhetoric,” he said. “These are your children. They need to hear your voice. Parents need to become more involved. I don't have some of the experience that maybe the other candidates do, but I'll tell you this, I'm going to bring a fresh perspective to the school board. I'm going to listen. I'm going to be participating. At the same time, I'm going to stand up for what is right, what is truthful. We all want the best for the future of these kids. We need to focus on the academics like I've been saying throughout this whole forum. We need to recognize each individual student, all students, not just the high achievers. We need to educate. We need to take politics and ideologies and set them to the side. Let that be a discussion at home. In addition to that, I really think we need to do more with making the public aware and hear their voices at the meetings.”

Todd Kullman –Kullman is a 36-year resident of Hastings whose children graduated from Hastings schools. He said he’d “bring a new and fresh perspective” to the board. “I want to represent parents, and I want to represent students. I want only the best for their future as we probably all do. I’m going to remain politically neutral because I want to represent all parents and all students. We need to regain the parents’ trust in our school systems. And how we do that is just five short things. We need to refocus on academics. We need to recognize individual student’s achievements. We need to educate our kids, not indoctrinate. We need to look at policy of public meetings. Then lastly is school board transparency. Parents, these are your kids. They need to hear your voices.”

Pamela Onnen -Onnen is a 31-year Hastings resident and said she values the education offered at Hastings schools. Her youngest child is a senior in high school this year. “We love this town,” she said. “My story is education has always been important to me. In high school, I wanted to go to a school that had tuition and I couldn’t afford it. I worked after school to pay for the tuition for high school. And I learned that education is very important and with that I have a lot of passion.”

Mark Zuzek -Zuzek is a lifelong resident of Hastings. He is a former teacher, principal and coach in the district and was superintendent at Intermediate School District 917 that serves school districts in Dakota County. He said the experience gained in his career in education makes him the best candidate. “I have been a parent, I am a grandparent, and I am an active volunteer. I have been a teacher, a coach, a principal and a superintendent,” he said. “I’ve earned many awards and recognitions for my service. I have compassion for all children. I have the knowledge, training and experience in school operations, in school law and in school finance. Tonight, I urge you to listen closely to our answers and understand that these are uniquely challenging times and consider whom among us is the most well prepared.” Why did you decide to run, and what do you think the top priorities of the school district should be? Onnen -“Why I decided to run, I watched the school board meetings, and I know that we had Mike Reis resign and that there was an open seat. On July 25, I sent an email to the full school board saying I would be willing to fill that seat. I have a lot of board experience. I am professional. I am willing to look at information and understand what I need to in order to

November 2, 2022