SAUK RAPIDS — Four seats on the Sauk Rapids-Rice school board are up for election Nov. 3.

Board members Ryan Butkowski, Tracy Morse, Jan Solarz and Mark Hauck are all running for reelection. Sauk Rapids-Rice Youth Basketball Organization Treasurer Olivia Kolbe will be the only newcomer on the ballot.

It has been a productive two years for the district. Last November, voters passed a referendum to fund a rebuild of Pleasantview Elementary after two years of failed building referendums. 

In February, the district held its first Business and Industry Summit, giving teachers and local companies a job fair-like day to strengthen ties and discuss what skills graduates should have to join the 21st century workforce.

The COVID-19 pandemic has required the board to work on short deadlines, closing out the previous school year with distance learning and preparing a plan to reopen for the next.

In July, new Superintendent Brad Bergstrom officially started, taking over for Aaron Sinclair after his two years in the position.

Work on these initiatives and commitment to quality public education earned the board recognition from the Minnesota School Board Association and earned the district a place among the Star Tribune’s top 150 workforces in 2019. 

In the coming years, board members hope to be able to move forward with programs like the Portrait of a Graduate, beginning construction of the new Pleasantview Elementary and continuing to grow the connections made at the Business and Industry Summit.

Here’s what the candidates had to say about why they’re running, their accomplishments and what they hope to do on the board if elected:

Ryan Butkowski

Ryan Butkowski was first elected to the board in 2016 and made board chair in 2019.

A graduate of the district, he returned to Sauk Rapids in 2010 so his son could attend school there.

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Ryan Butkowski is pictured Friday, Sept. 4, 2020, in Sauk Rapids (Photo: Dave Schwarz, [email protected])

Before his election, he was involved in parent-teacher associations and the original buildings task force, a group of over 100 community members charged with creating a plan of what facilities changes or additions the district needs.

He brought that experience to the board in 2016 when the district’s buildings were at or above capacity.

“There were a lot of unanswered questions from the district surrounding open enrollment,” he said. “That was a burning question for me, to try to figure out how we were overcapacity and still taking in open enrollment kids.”

In his first years on the board, he fought against the hiring of part-time teachers to meet a class size problem and instead vouched for enrollment caps and facilities upgrades like the Pleasantview Elementary referendum that passed in 2019.

“That was a huge undertaking,” he said. “We’re in a much better spot” after upgrades were made to every school building.

If reelected, he said he would help the district keep an eye on facilities as growth in resident students continues. “We have to be mindful of that. … because buildings don’t just pop up out of the ground,” he said.

Butkowski was awarded the Minnesota School Boards Association Rising Star Award in 2020, given to one school board member each year, for his work during his first term.

He’s looking forward to stability after the COVID-19 pandemic, and “focusing on the fundamentals,” he said.

He will also continue to help develop the Portrait of a Graduate program, connections with business and industry, and post-secondary offerings in the coming years if reelected, he said.

“All of that is just great for our kids and setting our kids up” for learning what paths are available after graduation, Butkowski said. “Those questions are finally being asked and answered within the high school.”

He sees the current pandemic as a learning experience for the district to improve.

“I think the shutdown … has really opened up the eyes of parents, community members and students when it comes to e-learning days or distance learning,” he said. “That’s going to change and evolve over the next four years, and I think it’s going to have a long-lasting positive effect on public education.”

Mark Hauck

Mark Hauck has served on the Sauk Rapids-Rice school board since 2008. He came to Sauk Rapids in 1993 as he was beginning a family, and entered his oldest daughter into the district’s early childhood program.

“We liked it so much,” Hauck said. “They did a fantastic job of teaching us … we got hooked on Sauk Rapids-Rice public education.”

On the board, “early childhood … continues to be a focus of mine,” he said.

As a parent in the program he volunteered on early childhood advisory councils and volunteered in classrooms, he said. Early childhood education is as much about teaching adults how to be involved with their kids’ development as it is about educating kids, and can have a major impact on their success later in life.

“The older I get, the more I appreciate getting people the tools to succeed,” Hauck said.

On the board, he has advocated for programs that help the district reach its goal for all third-grade students to score at or above their grade level in math and reading.

“If we’re not providing for that stepping stone or that foothold by third grade, their journey becomes a lot more difficult,” he said.

Outside of his work on the board, Hauck is an employee of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources working on groundwater sustainability and was previously a Benton County water conservation district manager and a earth and physical science teacher.

“I had the opportunity as the manager in the water conservation district to work with elected officials,” Hauck said. “It helped me to understand the dynamics of public service and local government.”

On the board, he continues to be a public servant, Hauck said.

If reelected, he said he would continue his work with implementing the results of a Minnesota Department of Transportation Safe Routes to School study to improve biking and waking access to Rice Elementary.

He continues to work with administration on the energy efficiency of buildings after a district survey showed many residents were interested in energy conservation.

“I’m happy to report that … Sauk Rapids-Rice is participating in a solar garden,” he said.

First and foremost, though, he hopes the board’s decisions in the COVID-19 pandemic will help protect the rest of the community, he said.

“I feel incredibly fortunate to be on such an effective team,” he said.

Olivia Kolbe

The sole newcomer on the ballot in November, Olivia Kolbe is the treasurer for the Sauk Rapids-Rice Youth Basketball Organization and has been a resident of the district for four years.

Kolbe has one daughter in middle school. “I’m committed, I’m a parent who has an open mind and a willingness to listen and learn from the students, the parents and teachers,” she said.

If elected, it would be her first time on an elected board, she said. “I’m not a politician. I’m running for school board because I’m concerned with the educational achievement of students in the district.”

She would like to see more community building in the district, especially to involve parents who might not feel comfortable speaking in front of the school board.

Inequities uncovered by the COVID-19 pandemic have only made the need for community engagement more important, Kolbe said.

“Not all the students are at the same level,” she said. “Distance learning does not work for everyone.”

Creating more and different opportunities for parents to get engaged in the community could make them more comfortable voicing and eventually working to solve those issues, she said.

Getting students more opportunities to get involved in the school district, the community and local associations would help make those connections as well.

Kolbe’s experience on the basketball organization would help her to bring those groups together, she said.

If elected, she’d like to use that experience to help connect the athletic program with other community groups, she said.

“I’d like to … bring the high school and the middle school and all the other associations together to work together, for the benefit of the students.”

She’s willing to listen and learn from the experts, who she said are the teachers, the families and the students themselves.

“I feel like it is time for me to step up and offer my experience to help my community wherever I can,” Kolbe said.

Tracy Morse

Tracy Morse has served on the board for 22 years. Like several other board members, she began her involvement with the district as a PTA member.

“I followed my kids for a while through the school system in whatever capacity I could to help with their learning,” she said.

Once her children were in middle school, she said, “I was really getting the sense that there were some serious funding issues, that it wasn’t equitable from one district to the next. Ours, unfortunately, was a district doing without.”

To tackle those issues, Morse volunteered to help with district levy campaigns to secure more funding for facility upgrades before being elected to the board.

Morse has served on the early childhood advisory council for 29 years, for seven years as a parent, and on the Sauk Rapids Recreation Advisory Board for 18 years.

She’s operated a childcare center in Sauk Rapids for 35 years and brings that experience to the board by focusing on improving kindergarten readiness programs.

“Studies show that children that come into kindergarten having a good foundation excel in not just academics but social, emotional … they are just ready for everything,” Morse said.

She’s proud of her work on the communication committee, especially in the outreach to the community needed to pass the Pleasantview Elementary referendum.

“We have stuck by and honored those sentiments of the community,” Morse said. “I think that’s a source of pride … we continue to hear what the community is saying.”

If reelected, Morse said she would like to reevaluate the district’s offering of mental health resources, especially during and after the COVID-19 pandemic, “to make sure that we’re offering all the services that we can to not let anybody or anybody’s family fall through the cracks.”

Morse said she has made decisions on the board that weren’t the best for her, but were what the community wanted and what was best for students.

“I would really appreciate the support of the community,” she said, “I’ve worked hard to continue to empower all of our children, and bring to them what they need in order to be a leader, not a follower, as they go off into the world.”

Jan Solarz

Jan Solarz, a lifelong resident of Rice, was first elected to the board in 1996. Since then, she’s been involved in the career and technical committee, certified negotiations and other committees.

She helped start the Sauk Rapids-Rice Education Foundation, which raises funds to offer extracurricular opportunities to students.

Outside of the board, she continues her work in education as chair of the Benton-Stearns Education District board, which staffs area districts with special education teachers and other paraprofessionals.

“I’m passionate about a lot of things,” Solarz said, “Early Childhood, special ed, food service, transportation…”

Solarz began her long involvement in education while her kids were in the district. She was involved with the Boy Scouts of America, the Girl Scouts of America, parent-teacher associations and fundraising, she said.

That passion earned her recognition from the Minnesota School Board Association in 2019 when she was awarded a place on the all-state school board — an honor only given to six school board members in the entire state each year.

If reelected, Solarz said she would like to see an updated early childhood center now that the district has completed many other needed facility upgrades.

“Right now, they’re at Hillside,” she said. “I went to school there in eighth grade. It is our oldest building in the district, and it would be nice to see a newer facility.”

Once the state can begin to recover from the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, she said her future initiatives could include getting the district their own buses and reopening the swimming pool in the middle school.

Especially in uncertain economic times, she said, funding quality education comes before facilities. The middle school swimming pool was shut down after the 2008 recession caused budget cuts. “So, it was keep the pool or keep the teachers,” she said. “It wasn’t even a choice.”

Solarz said her decades of experience speaks for itself. “I campaign every day, because I’m out and about every day,” she said. “I care about all students and families, I’m concerned about them and committed to them.”

School board members are elected to 4-year terms. The current terms expire December 31, according to the district website.

Voters in the district will be able to select four of the five candidates on their ballot in the upcoming Nov. 3 general election. Early and absentee voting begins on Sept. 18. 

Erik Newland is the suburbs reporter for the St. Cloud Times. Reach him at 320-255-8761 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @SCTimesErik.

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