Eight Hastings School Board candidates are vying for four open seats and with only one incumbent running to retain her seat, it ensures the board will see at least three new members.

It has been a high profile year for the district — with former wrestling coach Josh McLay facing criminal charges for inappropriately using district funds; Superintendent Tim Collins' off and then on retirement; and renovations to both Todd Field and the Hastings Middle School. Candidates almost universally agreed that its brought increased attention to the district.

Only eight of the nine original candidates are actively campaigning for the upcoming election. Former candidate and current board member Russ Rohloff instead applied for the district's director of buildings and maintenance job opening.

The Hastings Star Gazette interviewed the eight candidates. Each candidates was asked three identical questions and asked two to three questions based on a prior interview done with each. The interviews are running alphabetically, with four this week and four next week.

Becky Beissel

Becky Beissel. Photo submitted by Beissel
Becky Beissel. Photo submitted by Beissel

Age: 39

City: Hastings

Occupation: Registered cath lab nurse in St. Paul

Education: Bachelor of Science in Nursing, St. Catherine University, St. Paul

Becky Beissel grew up in Hastings. In a prior interview with the Star Gazette she said that district communication, enrollment figures and staff morale were some of the district's biggest issues.

What inspired you to run for school board?

I truly have a vested interest in our community. I was born and raised here, have three children currently enrolled in the Hasting school systems. I just truly want to give back to the community that I was born and raised in. I really value public education and I just thought what better way to get more involved with everything.

What sets you apart from other candidates?

I think I have a unique background. As a registered nurse I deal with thinking typically on your feet, critical thinking. I work well together with others. I’m a critical care [catheterization] lab nurse, so we deal with high-stress diversity issues, that I sometimes am working by myself making these decisions, while I’m waiting for the doctor or getting the doctor's input, talking with the families. So I see the big picture on things. Because I know one decision can affect you life or change it in an instant. I am a team player, passionate and dedicated.

What do you want to see in the next superintendent?

I want to see somebody that is visible in the community. I think that it shows true support to the Hastings community. It's actually showing the community that you care about the community, going to the band events, the show choir and the athletics. These tax payers truly care about our community very much and somebody that's visible and showing that they actually care about our community puts trust into somebody I believe. Somebody who was a strong leader, who is trustworthy, somebody, that works well with others. Somebody who's honest and dependable, a good communicator.

Staff morale is one issue you'd like to see improve. Why do you see that as something that needs to be improved and then how do you see the board going about doing that?

So just with me being more involved in the school board meetings and talking to teachers ... about how things have been going, the feel was that the morale goes down. That they weren't feeling heard, they weren't being seen. So what I want to do is I want to be more visible as well, because like I said, that's a good leader. So what I want to do is actually go into the classrooms too and I think that's really important for all the school board members ... show that we really do care and that we are listening. ... If somebody just asked a question and somebody just tells you, "no, we can't do that." If you just elaborate on [your answer] ... instead of no answers. I think sometimes that just builds trust and I think that really does build morale.

So you've mentioned that and other board candidates mentioned this too; that broad communication or district communication broadly is kind of an issue. How would you like to see the board address that?

So I think, you know, I understand [we've] ... had the rules that you get on the board agenda you have to have filed so many days [ahead of the meeting.] And if something comes up that day that they really feel like, 'you know we need to talk about this.' ... Maybe we should work together with city hall and kind of figure out something that we can do. They have a five- or 10-minute forum at the beginning, you bring up concerns and you don't have to answer the questions right then and there, [it’s] just something that people feel like they've been heard ... There’s [an event that could happen] once a month or once a quarter that is just dedicated to concerns on staff, citizens in the community, concerned parents. ... Something more welcoming, instead of only having 48 hours to get something … I understand you have to have structure, but even when you go to these rooms, it's a very small room, it's not very welcoming. So I would like to look more into making it more into a bigger place for our community, staff and parents to feel that they are being heard, feeling welcome.

Brian Davis

Brian Davis. Photo submitted by Davis
Brian Davis. Photo submitted by Davis

Age: 54

City: Hastings

Occupation: Senior sports director at Hastings YMCA

Education: Master of Business Administration in Finance, Bachelor of Arts in Economics, Bachelor of Arts in Political Science

Brian Davis moved to Hastings in 2001. In a prior interview with the Star Gazette he said the district's top issues were discipline, assessing curriculum and district transparency.

What inspired you to run for school board?

I was raised in a family that was all about education. My grandfather was the first of any of us to ever go to a four-year college. Subsequently it was an expectation that all of us would follow educational pursuits ... I've had one child that's gone through the system and another that's a sophomore now. I am exposed to well over 600 children a year and their families. I've heard from them about some different challenges that they faced in the school system. Recognizing the fact that I had done so much work in youth development … I felt that now is a good time ... that I could give back to the community through this.

What separates you from the other candidates?

I think what separates me is that I've got a child that has already come through, another one that is almost done. I spent five years doing the school board-type of work on behalf of a St. Paul school, spending five years on Site Council for Highland Park Elementary... That [gave] me a unique perspective on how schools work, facilities, budgeting, curriculum discipline. In addition to the fact … that in the last five years [I worked with] the YMCA in all-around youth development and working with children.

What do you think the district should be looking for in its next superintendent?

They should be looking for an individual that is very collaborative first and foremost. I think they should have a sensitive side to them. I think you have to have that human side of understanding that these children and parents are not just numbers, but they are actual people. I think they should be prepared to be visible. I'd like to see the next superintendent at … a lot of community events, so that the community can get to know who this person is.

You want better transparency from the board and the district. Could you elaborate on why you think this is needed and how you might address it?

I think that the community has a right to know what's going on within the school board in quite some detail because at the end of the day, they're the taxpayers and [electorate] … they either have had children or do have children within the district, so they have a vested interest in what's going on. Currently we can see the board meetings each month … but a lot goes on outside of that … within working groups. Having committee reports that are available on the website, I'd like to see that. I'd also like to see us move the school board meetings to a more welcoming venue ... perhaps at the beginning of each [meeting], even have an open opportunity for anybody that's there to share a story or share a view that we can take in. ... People are [then] seeing how we're interacting, they're seeing what's going on and therefore they feel like they're a part of the process.

You think the district needs to take a hard look at its disciplinary practices. Why do you think this is needed and then how do you believe the district should go about doing that?

Well, my understanding from talking to parents and children is we still have situations with bullying at all levels of school, in particular the middle school, and I'd like to see this addressed. I think that right now a lot of those issues are addressed at the school level. What I'd like to see happen is for us to work with the administrators and teachers on a district-wide disciplinary process. You have a uniform fair and equitable system kindergarten through 12th grade that is being administered by the district ... That way I think that the children will feel safer and that we're safer within their school and where things like that are dealt with very specific ways.

Jessica Gelhar

Jessica Gelhar. Photo submitted by Gelhar
Jessica Gelhar. Photo submitted by Gelhar

Age: 32

City: Hastings

Occupation:Works at Thomson Reuters within their Commercial Excellence Organization

Education: Bachelor of Science in business administration

Jessica Gelhar grew up in Hastings. In a prior interview with the Star Gazette she emphasized that the district didn't have major issues, but had opportunities for improvement around transparency and "going back to the basics."

What inspired you to run for school board?

I am always one who looks to support those around me and really help drive forward positive change … But I've always been energized by that and I really am passionate about promoting people. So over the last several years I have sought out many volunteer opportunities in a variety of different forums … third parties like Feed My Starving Children or there's a women's shelter in Eagan as well that I have worked really closely with. I just wanted an opportunity to be able to take that passion and make a larger impact and this just felt like the right role.

What sets you apart from other candidates?

I think there's a lot of different things there. My desire to sit on this board is 100% fueled by my passion to help and support those around me. I absolutely love being able to look at a big-picture view, understand what our goals are towards the end, and then making a timeline and a plan to get there. … I think my experience relative to my career would help me be successful in this role. It has all of those facets that are going to be experienced within the school board as well. … I also think that I ... am able to make decisions based on the the data that we have at hand and what our ultimate outcome and end goal is. … Then too, I think my age, I'm that generation that grew up where you would bike halfway across town … and then I was also that same generation who learned what online bullying actually meant. … Our children are growing up in a very different world today than any of us have ever experienced before. It's having that experience in both of those spaces.

What do you want to see in the districts next superintendent?

I think everybody has said this. I'll continue to say it, Tim did a fabulous job with our finances, right? So I'd love to see us be able to maintain that space. I would love to see more engagement across the district and within the community. I mentioned before, it'd be wonderful to have somebody that lives here. I think that just offers a different dynamic in terms of the investment into that. … I would also want that person to come with more of those future looking items. … more forward progressive, career classes. Those are the big ones that I think of. Tim was a passionate guy, I know in talking to a lot of the staff and the teachers … So I would absolutely want somebody who is invested in that as well.

Last time we talked you didn't necessarily see a lot of big issues in the district — you broadly mentioned transparency within the community and you mentioned two opportunities for improvement — but I want to focus on the first part. I'm wondering if since we last talked if your assessment of the district’s “big issues” so to speak has shifted?

Not necessarily. I think a big area of opportunity is transparency. That goes with the online forums that are available. I just don't think there's a lot of information there. … when you look at just the agenda … it doesn't really give me a lot to go off of. So how can we keep the community informed of what's happening and what discussions are taking place? I don't think there's true challenges. I think mental health is a very important thing that we need to look into, but that's not just an issue within our district. ... that's absolutely something that's important to me.

When you mentioned some opportunities for improvement, one of the things you brought up a couple of times was going back to the basics for students. Could elaborate on what that means and how do you think that looks?

That kind of ties back into that mental health space. There's so much pressure on kids these days, whether it's through grade school or all the way up through high school. There's just so much pressure from socioeconomics and everything going on in the environment around us. So how can we teach the basics of, you think of self care ... how do you teach self-confidence? How can you teach people that being themselves is OK. ... Then too, when you think about elementary education I absolutely understand that test scores are important, whether it be reading or math, but we need to let kids be kids and let them learn through play. … I don't want to downplay what's been done. I just think we need to have the extra focus on how can we make it more fun and less stressful.

Robert Halberg

Robert Halberg. Photo submitted by Halberg
Robert Halberg. Photo submitted by Halberg

Age: 39

City: Hastings

Occupation: Realtor with Edina Realty in Hastings

Education: 1998 Hastings High School graduate with a bachelor's degree in business administration from Capella University

Robert Halberg went to high school in Hastings. In a prior interview with the Star Gazette he stressed that the district's next superintendent be community focused and the need for the district to communicate and be more transparent on its function.

What inspired you to run for school board?

What really inspired me to run was my father. My father passed away July of last year and he was so involved in the community and loved Hastings like no one else. When I was growing up, he was involved in different activities. I spent many years in the restaurant business working 14-, 16-hour days. Since I went into real estate, I've had a lot more time to get involved with my kids and I really wanted to have that voice for the community. It's real easy for someone to sit in their living room … and talk about how they would do things, but I really wanted to put myself out there and hopefully help create conversations. I think that we need some more transparency on the school board when decisions are made, how they're made and explain that to the community.

What separates you from the other candidates?

I think the biggest thing is just some of the real world experience I've had. I ran restaurants and did restaurant development for almost 20 years. I've worked with a wide range of social-economic sectors. [I saw] how to blend that into a team. I'm used to working with budgets, I ran multi-million dollar restaurants. I oversaw 10 of them. I've worked in construction and seen the development of restaurants … So I think some of that background helps me and I know some of the other candidates have that as well. But I think for me, the biggest thing is I really want to push for community involvement more so than it is.

What do you want to see in the district’s next superintendent?

I would love to see someone that is a lot more accessible and visible at different events. … Someone that is financially sound and carries on what Superintendent Collins has done in terms of budgeting, but also really tries to be a lot more in terms of working together with different groups and really reaching out to access different funds or grants. … I know that Superintendent Collins does his radio address, I would like to see some more of that. You know, I've heard from a lot of teachers that they don't see the superintendent … I think that superintendents should be visible and should have a lot of open forums with teachers, with community members and really putting themselves out there. Do they have to live in town? Not necessarily, but I think it goes a long way … And it's fantastic for the kids to be able to see the superintendent and hear from them, “Hey, fantastic job.”

You want to see improved communication on a variety of things. Could elaborate why you think it needs to be better and what you would like to see happen to make it better?

I've been looking at other school board meeting minutes and [they] have a block of time where it's just for the community members to talk ... Whereas we have it, you have to fill out a form ahead of time … and it seems like it's more of a process than it really should be. We're in this small conference room, where we had the school board meetings. I think that they should be held in a venue … that allows for more community involvement. … [Also] just including in the minutes that these were the dissenting arguments so people know what they are. ... I think there's room for us to improve the transparency … of topics that are discussed behind closed doors. Obviously for some, those can't be discussed, but say that as well.

Can you elaborate on why you think it's important for our next superintendent to have community engagement be one of the main attributes?

We're depending more and more on our teachers to help raise our kids, because parents are working two to three jobs. ... But to see another adult that's in a position of authority, in a position of power, really take an interest in the things that they're interested in and hearing from them, "Hey, fantastic job." That might be reassurance that those kids don't get at home. So it's really a mentorship and it's a, "I want to strive to be like that person that's so engaged, you know, he's out in the community or she is out in the community." It's just a real confidence builder to know that someone at their level really appreciates who they are and what they bring to the table as an individual.