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Primary election to narrow field for ND state superintendent

Primary election to narrow field for state superintendent

North Dakota voters will have three distinct choices in the nonpartisan race for state superintendent of public instruction June 9.

Three candidates are vying for two spots on the November general election ballot. Incumbent Kirsten Baesler is seeking a third four-year term. Challenging her are Brandt Dick, superintendent of Underwood Public School, and Charles Tuttle, a Minot businessman.

Tuttle, who has been politically active in supporting various initiated measures in the past, is an opponent of Common Core and similar education programs. He said he would work for the school boards and not the other way around.

“They are my boss. I will make recommendations,” he said. “We’re going to bring the parents, the school boards, back in control of our schools.”

Dick said he will bring a different leadership style to the office.

“I would be much more out front, working and listening to school boards and school administrators and teachers,” he said.

If elected, his leadership style would be to listen to the education community about what it needs to be successful, which is a strategy he sees lacking in the current superintendent.

“I don’t see that engagement with the educational leaders of North Dakota,” he said.

Baesler said she is proud of the accomplishments of the department in the past eight years.

“We have become a customer service-oriented agency that is providing guidance, a place that our school districts, that our constituents, that our students or teachers or parents or administrators can turn to for support and a place to receive some assistance when they need it,” Baesler said. “We have transformed into a customer service agency that doesn’t meet the needs of just one constituency group, but we are listeners of a broad range of people that public education was designed and created to serve.”

Baesler spent 22 years working for Bismarck Public Schools as an instructional assistant to students with intellectual disabilities, a classroom teacher, library media specialist, technology integration specialist and vice principal. She was elected to the Mandan Public Schools Board in 2004 and served as its president from 2006 until stepping down after her election as state superintendent. She holds a master’s degree in education and library information technology from Valley City State University.

Dick is a life-long educator with 25 years of experience in education, in both private and public education. He has been a track, cross-country and basketball coach, math teacher, principal, athletic director, superintendent and college adjunct profession in teaching dual credit math.

He received his master’s degree in teaching mathematics from Minot State University and has taken additional coursework in education leadership to earn his superintendent’s credential.

Tuttle attended Ohio State University, studying political science and history. He has worked in a variety of occupations but spent much of his career working in financial fields, including setting up a credit department for a major company and operating a collections company for a time. His current company sells political novelty items.

“I’ve always been passionate about education and teaching our children the constitution – all the things that are necessary to keep our government,” Tuttle said.

Tuttle said his goal will be to raise student proficiency scores, which have dropped to a state average of 49% in reading and 39% in math in the past eight years.

“That is not acceptable. We were at 80% when we started this Common Core experiment, and this is the result of it,” he said. “Common Core has no history. It has no proven ability that it works.”

Common Core has been rebranded to North Dakota Standards but they are identical, said Tuttle, who had initiated a lawsuit against the state over its handling of education. The lawsuit challenged the state’s compact with other states without permission of Congress. The lawsuit was dismissed in district court, and Tuttle said plaintiffs lacked funding to appeal.

“We need to go back to the basics – the three Rs: reading, writing, arithmetic,” Tuttle said. “We have to teach children to think. It’s the most important thing of all. Once you get to a level where children are actually engaged and learning on their own, they’re excited.”

Baesler said the tests being administered have changed, leading to the difference in scores. The more rigorous test shows lower proficiency rates but it provides a more accurate look at student performance, she said.

“Our students were testing really, really high, and yet we had about 40% of our students graduating and needing remediation in college,” Baesler said. “Right now, remediation rate at a state level is at one of the lowest that it’s ever been, at just under 24%.”

Baesler noted Underwood’s remediation rate is twice the state average, while Tuttle was critical of the Underwood’s proficiency scores, which include math scores of 14% in high school and 35% in the elementary.

Dick responded the scores are a snapshot in time.

“We are aware of the scores and it is something that we’re working on,” he said. “If you come to Underwood School, the very first thing when you walk in, you’ll see something that says ‘The Underwood Way.’ The Underwood Way is what we are focusing on – which is: we want kids and staff and everyone in our community to be responsible, be respectful, be ready.”

Those are qualities that employers look for and that carry students through their lives, he said.

Dick has cited a poor work culture and climate at DPI under Baesler, saying continually adjusting staff duties makes it difficult for school districts to build a trusting relationship with the department.

Baesler counters that her department has been responsive to the educational community. The department created a student cabinet during her first term as a means of getting feedback.

“I wanted to make sure that I was staying connected to my students. I had other vehicles of communication with other constituency groups,” she said, “but I was missing that student element, and so we developed a student cabinet, and it was probably one of the best sources of information that I still have to this day.”

Baesler said her department also created a family cabinet, has advisory cabinets with administrators and connects regularly with teachers.

“What I’m the most proud of is making sure that I am a representative, elected leader of all constituency groups, and then sharing the information and the insight and the recommendations that I get from multiple constituencies and working with the Legislature and our governor to make sure that we’re creating good policy and appropriating the sufficient funding and revenue for our schools,” she said.

If re-elected, Baesler wants to bring 21st Century education to the schools.

“Our parents, our families and our students themselves are saying that they want to have the elements of computer science, coding and cybersecurity brought to every one of their school buildings. So I’ll work with our local school districts and legislative leaders to make sure that we have the credentialed people in each and every one of our school buildings,” she said.

In addition, she wants the department to partner with the private sector on job training, internships and school-to-work programs. She said she would work with civic leaders, veterans organizations and the Legislature to increase education on citizenship, patriotism and civic responsibility among young people.

If elected, the office would not be about himself as superintendent, Dick said.

“It’s about the schools and school districts. I’m going to do all I can to help those districts be successful,” he said. A member of DPI’s K-12 Coordination Council, Dick sees too much expertise among council members going untapped by the current administration.

He would utilize input from counselors, teachers and others in bringing schools back into full operation once re-opened following the coronavirus pandemic.

“Because despite what we’re hearing from the state superintendent, it hasn’t been all roses. There’s been some challenges for kids’ learning. There’s been some challenges in this distance learning,” he said.

Mental health challenges have been increasing as well, Dick said. He said addressing mental health issues and the suicide rate among young people would be among his efforts if elected.

He also said he would prioritize attendance at meetings of boards that the superintendent is mandated to serve on, such as the High School Activities Association and teacher’s retirement fund. He cites attendance rates of 25% to 50% by Baesler.

Tuttle would work to reduce the reliance on property taxes.

“We’re going to make sure the property tax is not used to fund schools. The schools will get what they need. We will take over the maintenance of all the schools, which is what it says in the constitution. If we have to, there’s about $400 million outstanding in school bonds. We will take title to all the schools, the school lands, and we’ll pay off the bonds,” Tuttle said.

He also objects to fees charged at schools for any education-related expenses for required classes, saying those costs must be covered by the state under free education.

“If those parents pay anything out of pocket, it violates the constitution,” he said.

Dick said the current school funding formula isn’t perfect. There may be adjustments to make the formula better, but there will be challenges with the current decline in state revenue, he said.

However, he added, knowledge about education funding is one of the strengths he would bring to the office. He has conducted finance workshops for school boards and educators.

“I’ve been very active in the legislative process,” he said, “and I just really felt anew that there’s an opportunity there for better leadership at the Department of Public Instruction – by example and by word and by deed.”

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