This originally ran as a three-part series. All three parts are combined in their entirety here.
Simplified: Five people are vying for two open seats to lead the largest school district in the state. In this first part of the series, we'll meet the candidates and get their views on all things teachers.
Why it matters
- The school board oversees a more than $270 million budget – that's all tax money – in a district with about 24,000 students and more than 1,800 teachers.
- That's a lot of people impacted by the decisions of five publicly elected officials.
- Voting in the school board election is the community's way of having a say in who those decision-makers are.
Meet the candidates:
Candidates listed in alphabetical order.
Profession: Active duty military with South Dakota Army National Guard
Connection to Sioux Falls schools: Three children in the district, wife is a teacher
Profession: Retired, works part-time as school bus driver and part-time at Midco Aquatic Center as a lifeguard
Connection to Sioux Falls schools: Mother of six, foster parent, grandmother of 20, some of which go to Sioux Falls schools
Profession: retired teacher and coach
Connection to Sioux Falls schools: Taught at Washington High, still works as a substitute
Profession: Director of government programs at Avera Health Plans
Connection to Sioux Falls schools: Two boys in school, seeking fifth term on the board
Profession: Financial advisor with Thrivent Financial
Connection to Sioux Falls schools: Two children in school, serves on the Sioux Falls Education Foundation board
Let's talk about teachers
Question: When it comes to teachers, it's easy to jump right into a salary discussion, but what other forms of support do you think Sioux Falls teachers need right now?
"Teachers need to be able to use their voice and not feel like they're being silenced."
Begley also said parents need to do more to recognize teachers have a life outside school and be more understanding about not emailing or contacting them at home late at night.
"I believe they just really need the support of parents to be patient in these times of transition with COVID."
Ludens noted the importance of giving teachers additional support to deal with behavioral and disciplinary issues in the classroom. She said she sees some teachers start their day meeting kids at the bus to deal with them misbehaving.
"Right now, because of COVID, they need some relief from all the extra duties. It's been really hard on our staff."
Teachers are essentially teaching two classes, Murren said, noting the extra work of helping kids virtually and helping students catch up after time off to quarantine.
"I think ultimately they need to feel supported, and that can come in various ways."
Parker mentioned the role of instructional coaches in offering classroom support and the importance of teachers feeling like they're listened to by administrators.
Teachers need more opportunities for professional development and upward mobility, Pizer said.
"We can also do a great deal, I think, in terms of how we show appreciation for our teachers," he added, noting the work of the Education Foundation to create grant opportunities for teachers.
What about teacher diversity?
Question: Teachers in Sioux Falls don't match the population of students they're educating. How would you prioritize teacher diversity?
Begley stressed the importance of working with universities to recruit students as teachers and building personal relationships with those pursuing the profession. He said once the district has more teachers of color, students will be more apt to see it as a career for themselves, too.
"I think diversity's a great thing out there," he said. "I love being in a diverse environment in the military."
Ludens said the issue is more about language barriers than differences in skin color. She noted various children she hosted as a foster parent and that race was never an issue.
"I don't think a teacher sees color," she said.
Murren noted the existing "Grow Your Own" program working to recruit high schoolers looking to pursue teaching and encourage them to come back to Sioux Falls after college to teach.
"It's just nice for kids to see people that are other minorities," he said. "They can have someone that's a role model."
Parker also noted the "Grow Your Own" program for students. She added that it's also important to have mentoring available for existing teachers from diverse backgrounds and "just making sure we're giving them the supports they need."
Pizer said it's important to reach out and engage existing teachers and staff of color to understand what the district can do better. Moving forward, the hope is to be able to recruit teachers of color from students currently in the district.
"We have such rich diversity coming up through our school system, and those are folks who have lived here and grown up here," Pizer said.
Let's talk taxes
Question: What's your philosophy on balancing the needs of students with the burden on taxpayers?
The first step is making sure legislators in Pierre uphold their end of the deal when it comes to school funding, Begley said. He's not in favor of raising taxes, but he notes the community has supported Sioux Falls by voting for bond issues.
"That's giving the community members the say," he said.
"I think we're sitting very well," Ludens said.
She added that, of course, no one wants taxes to go up, but she's excited to see the two new schools – Ben Reifel Middle and Jefferson High – funded by the latest bond issue.
"It should be students first," Murren said. "At all levels, that's got to happen."
That said, Murren added, he thinks Sioux Falls is doing a good job involving the community, administrators, parents, and more in the budget process. The district, he said, has also done a good job living within the budget and not raising the opt out.
For Parker, it all comes down to stewardship.
"We've shown our community that we are conscientious of our tax rates and what we ask from our community and that we use the money we get from those taxes wisely," Parker said.
Pizer noted that the high approval rating of the latest bond issue shows the community trusts the school district. He'd like to continue down that path, while finding some efficiencies and relying more on philanthropy.
"Some of the gaps that we see in education, we can make up through philanthropy, and I think there's a lot of wealth and resources within our community," Pizer said.
What about growth, redistricting and a new elementary school on the horizon?
Question: What role should the school board play in managing growth and the continued rollout of the $190 million bond issue approved in 2018?
"We've got to stay on as a school board in monitoring our building levels to make sure we're not maxing out buildings," Begley said.
He also noted the importance of learning from lessons made in the middle and high school redistricting process when the district looks to redistrict at the elementary level in the near future when a new elementary school is added in the coming years.
"The growth is big, and I believe our teachers need help," Ludens said.
She also noted the different languages students speak in schools, and she said she'd like to see more opportunities for volunteers in schools.
Murren said the district has done a great job rolling out the bond and managing growth so far because they've been so involved in the community.
"They met on the (middle and high school) boundaries for nine months," Murren said. "It made it a very successful program. They involve the community, community leaders, parents, all who have a stake in it, and I think that's huge."
Parker noted the uncertainty in enrollment at the elementary level this fall, especially as the district lost hundreds of elementary-aged students during the pandemic. She also said the district has done a good job managing growth and engaging community members in the discussion over the years she's been on the board.
"I still see a lot of growth here in the next five years," Parker said.
Pizer said Sioux Falls should take a look at school boundaries more frequently than every 20+ years, especially when it comes to the goal of ensuring schools have a balanced mix of students from all backgrounds.
He also mentioned the importance of keeping the business community close as Sioux Falls addresses growth.
"I see that symbiotic relationship ... with the growth of the population, there's also going to be growth in the business community," Pizer said.
Let's talk life post-pandemic
Question: The coronavirus pandemic brought many changes to schools. Which of those changes do you think should continue? And, conversely, what's something that's changed in schools that you think needs to go "back to normal?"
One change worth keeping is the virtual academy, Begley said. Having an option for online learning is a good thing, especially for middle and high schoolers.
Something to get rid of?
"Hopefully our new normal in the very near future is we don't have to worry about the masks," Begley said.
"I think South Dakota has done a great job about getting (students) back to school with the option (of online learning)," Ludens said.
Something she'd like to see go "back to normal? No more masks.
It's hard to say online learning should go away, Murren said, because it's shown to be beneficial for some kids, especially those who like more flexibility.
"I don't believe there's a better way to educate than having kids in the classroom with the teacher," Murren said.
He also added that one thing he'd like to see go "back to normal" is attendance rates. He observed poor attendance during the pandemic, and he's ready to see kids back in classrooms.
It's too soon to say whether kids will wear masks in the fall, Parker said, but she's glad to see the virtual academy giving students another option for those who can be successful with online learning.
She also noted the addition of sound amplification, which helps students better hear the teacher wherever they're sitting in a classroom.
"I'm pretty proud that we've been able to stay open all year," Parker added.
By and large, in-person learning has been successful, Pizer said, and something worth keeping is the updated HVAC and air filtration systems added to schools.
The goal, he added, would be to "move us beyond the pandemic and get things back to normal as quickly as possible."
He also supports rolling the COVID-19 vaccine into whatever existing vaccination policies exist in Sioux Falls schools.
Let's talk students
Question: What is your biggest concern or focus area when it comes to student achievement?
"We've got to trust and listen to our teachers when they tell us what these students need," he said.
Begley also mentioned a desire to increase reading and math interventions in elementary school to make sure kids are prepared for middle and high school.
Ludens noted the importance of meeting kids where they're at academically. Maybe a fourth grader needs second-grade level math assignments to help catch them up, for example.
"Put them in the grade they're academically ready for," she said, instead of "pushing them through."
Murren's main focus is ensuring all students get an equal, equitable education.
"The district has to try and have every kid learn to the best of their ability ... not everybody's going to be an A student, but we want people to learn as much as they can," Murren said.
Graduation rates and students' ability to read by third grade are always top of mind, Parker said.
"Our reading at the third grade level was still a challenge, especially with last year," Parker said. "We probably didn't make the gains we would've liked to."
But it's also a good time to look at what other priorities in student achievement are, especially as the district works on its strategic plan moving forward.
Pizer aims to look at achievement at the youngest grades first and making sure the district is laying a strong foundation with K-3 students.
"If you have a system where kids are falling through cracks already in that K-3 block and also that they're not coming to kindergarten prepared ... you've already lost them," Pizer said.
His goal is to bolster success in the younger grades so kids are more likely to be successful in middle and high school.
What about workforce development?
Question: It's no secret that Sioux Falls businesses need workers. What role do you see the Sioux Falls School District playing in developing the workforce of tomorrow?
Finding what students are interested in can help them develop the skills they need for future jobs, Begley said.
He also sees programs like New Technology High School and the Career and Technical Education Academy as setting students up for success with practical technical skills.
"We've got to look more at what's best for our students," he said.
Ludens recognizes some kids go straight into the workforce after high school graduation, and she's seen the success that can bring firsthand in her family. One of her sons now owns a construction company in town.
"There's so many more options than just college, and those are a lot of things I like stressing to children," Ludens said. "I really strive to get them work-oriented starting out at Hy-Vee or the fast-food places."
"Educated kids make good workers," Murren said.
What schools can do to help the workforce is provide every kid with a quality education, and he sees preparing students to go out and get gainful employment as one of the district's jobs.
He also noted the career-focused class options available to students now, from welding to health care to media production and more.
Parker says in her tenure on the board, whenever the business community has expressed a need, the district has stepped up both with K-12 offerings and programs at Southeast Technical Institute, which is also overseen by the Sioux Falls school board.
"We heard there was a need for vet techs in the community, so we got some business partners to help build that program (at Southeast Tech), and we'll be getting that going," Parker said.
Pizer sees the relationship going both ways. Schools can help the business community in Sioux Falls, and the business community can help support the schools through philanthropy.
"The business community and the school district should be walking down the sidewalk hand-in-hand because they are very interconnected," Pizer said.
Election Day is May 18.
Early voting starts Monday, May 3, the same day as the voter registration deadline.
Two candidates will be selected to sit on the five-member board.