Teacher retention, school safety, class sizes and cutting taxes were among the topics Lincoln Board of Education candidates pondered during a virtual forum Wednesday evening.
Leadership Lincoln and the League of Women Voters of Lincoln/Lancaster County hosted the forum on Zoom, with all six school board candidates participating.
Districts 2, 4 and 6 are on the ballot this spring, and each race features two candidates. Incumbents Annie Mumgaard and Bob Rauner are running for reelection while one seat is up for grabs with Connie Duncan declining to seek another term. The race is officially nonpartisan.
Mumgaard, a Democrat representing north Lincoln's District 4, faces Republican Alaina Brouillette. Rauner, an independent, will square off against Republican Richard Aldag in east Lincoln's District 6.
Meanwhile, Democrat Piyush Srivastav and Emmy Pollen, a Republican, are vying for Duncan's vacated seat in south-central Lincoln's District 2.
Former City Attorney Jeff Kirkpatrick, who ran for mayor in 2019, moderated the forum. Each candidate gave a brief introduction and then answered a set of questions sent to them beforehand that ran the gamut from teacher retainment to private school scholarships.
Mumgaard, who is seeking her third four-year term, said she can bring experience at a time when public education is being tested.
"The one thing I can offer is steady leadership," said Mumgaard, a virtual learning coordinator for the University of Nebraska State Museum of Natural History at Morrill Hall.
A vocal advocate of educational equity, Mumgaard said there is more work to be done to implement the district's equity action plan that aims to address disparities in areas like suspensions and honors-course enrollment.
Brouillette, on the other hand, said teachers do not need training in diversity, equity and inclusion and called for a return to the basics. "Race" should be removed from discussions of academic achievement, she added.
"I want to keep our education focused on education that matters," she said.
Brouillette, who does billing for CHI Health, also called for greater transparency and keeping taxes lower.
Rauner, the chief medical officer of OneHealth Nebraska and the president of Partnership for a Healthy Lincoln, said his background in health care could be helpful if he's elected to a second term.
LPS could save millions in tax money by reducing health care costs, said Rauner, who added that the district will have to grapple with issues like school funding and students' mental health.
His opponent Aldag, a retired Nebraska State Patrol trooper who owns a logistics company, said he is "a business, budget and facilities guy" who wants to cut wasteful spending and ensure teachers have the environment they need to succeed.
"I don't think pay solves all your issues," Aldag said. "It's about environment."
Aldag said class sizes are a big part of that, and added if elected he would also focus on special education to make sure students' Individualized Education Plans are met.
Srivastav said workforce shortages are one of the biggest issues facing LPS. Growing the district's focus program offerings would be a "great tool" to address that issue from the inside.
Students must also be engaged in the classroom, said Srivastav, who pointed to the pandemic's impacts on schools.
"Students are struggling academically and behaviorally," said Srivastav, who owns an environmental consulting business. "We need to reengage those students."
His challenger Pollen, an LPS substitute, said her priorities are safety and student proficiency in math and reading. More supports like school resources officers, therapists and behavioral interventionists would be helpful, she said. Compensating teachers is also necessary for retaining quality staff, Pollen added.
"What we value, we need to pay," Pollen said.
The candidates also leaned into discussions over school choice and funding, supporting LGBTQ students, parental control and the responsibilities of the school board. One of the forum's questions even concerned the "Opportunity Scholarships" bill the Legislature is mulling. The proposal would provide tax credits to those who donate to private school scholarships.
In many cases, candidates landed on partisan lines. Srivastav, for example, said he does not support scholarship tax credits while Pollen said "competition is good."
The top two vote-getters in each school board race advance from the April 4 primary to the May 2 general election.
Zach Hammack, a 2018 UNL graduate, has always called Lincoln home. He previously worked as a copy editor at the Journal Star and was a reporting intern in 2017. Now, he covers students, teachers and schools as the newspaper’s K-12 reporter.