ROCHESTER – As the election approaches, a trio of candidates for the Rochester School Board met on Monday to debate a range of district-related issues.
The candidates included Justin Cook, Rae Parker and Abdullahi Yusuf, each competing for the position held by outgoing councilor Melissa Amundsen. The forum, hosted at the Rochester Public Library, is sponsored by the League of Women Voters, The Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce and the Rochester Post Bulletin.
The candidates answered questions on topics ranging from the school district’s budget to issues of diversity, to what qualifies them as individuals for the role in the first place. They were also allowed an opening and closing statement.
Should the school district seek a referendum from voters to improve its financial position? Cook said it would be irresponsible not to give voters a say in the situation. Yusuf said a referendum should be a last resort. Parker said the district needs to learn to function more efficiently within its existing budget.
One of the most controversial questions was how the candidates would respond to parental concerns about what is being taught in the classroom. Parker said her concerns are the same as those of her parents – that teaching on topics such as oppressors and the oppressed is “divisive”.
Cook said although he was open to hearing from parents’ concerns, he had “little appetite” for attempts to politicize the school system.
“I care about centering around the students,” Cook said. “How do we develop critical thinking skills in our students? Provide them with facts … that’s the role of schools.”
Yusuf said what is learned in school is important, but that it is up to the parents to learn character, which ultimately creates a partnership between students’ homes and the school system.
Parker, herself a graduate of RPS, said she is eligible for the council to address issues such as violence and declining enrollments, as well as poor academic performance.
“I was involved with the schools. “My children were in schools, and my grandchildren are still in schools,” Parker said. “So I have reason to make sure they are doing well.”
Cook also talked about the fact that children are in the school system and that he wants to make sure it works well for them. He was a lawyer and described himself as a strong negotiator and how that would be a benefit to the school board.
Although he commented on a range of issues, Cook continued to return to the issue of improving third-degree literacy levels as something he considered important. He further said that addressing that issue would further benefit students.
“I will focus on achieving reading skills by the end of grade three for every single student in our school system,” Cook said. “Science is in. The tools are available. We need to deploy them aggressively. It will be a game changer. This will change the amount of behavioral support needed by middle school students. It will be such a worthy investment. ”
Yusuf is also a product of Rochester Public Schools. He talked about the knowledge of the value of education as an immigrant. He also talked about his work as a doctoral candidate and how it would benefit the school district.
“What I want to do is make sure our education system has the model of students coming first,” Yusuf said. “When it happens, it changes the culture and the way of thinking and addresses the issues with the student.”