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Spearfish school candidates discuss what’s working, challenges faced, and more

April 7, 2018 GMT

SPEARFISH — For the first time in five years, the Spearfish School Board will have an election. Recent races have only featured one unopposed individual, but this time, three candidates are seeking two open, three-year terms.

Incumbent Scott Odenbach, who was appointed in September, faces Ellen Plocek and Erik Skavang in Tuesday’s election. The three discussed their views at a candidate forum Tuesday at Creekside Elementary School.

Odenbach grew up in Eureka, S.D., before attending South Dakota State University for his undergraduate degree and then law school at the University of South Dakota. He worked for the Florida Department of Education for several years before moving to Spearfish in 2006, opening a law firm with a partner, and a real estate company. His wife, Laura, is a teacher, and they have three children, two boys who attend school in the Spearfish School District, and a daughter who graduated last year from Spearfish High School.

He said running for school board is his way to give back to the community.

Plocek is a retired teacher and a near lifelong resident of Spearfish. She graduated from Spearfish High School, as did her two grown children.

She holds teaching degrees in music, English and elementary education.

“I believe in lifelong education,” Plocek said. “I’m here to do the service that I can. I’m also here to do a quality job because I believe in a quality education.”

Skavang is also a graduate of Spearfish High School. After moving away for a year, he’s back with his wife, Aleshia, who happens to be his high school sweetheart, and three children, two of whom are students in the district, and another who sure wants to be but is too young.

Skavang said it is important to him to ensure the district “continues to improve curriculums and keep the outstanding staff that we have here to keep them in our community and teaching our kids.”

When asked what is the district doing well, Skavang said the district is above the state average on test scores.

“I think our staff in the school system is doing an extra good job teaching,” he said. “… having two children in the district, I think they do a good job catering to each individual’s learning style.

“We need to give our teachers the tools to keep up with education,” he added.

Odenbach said he has been impressed by all the staff members he has met.

“That a real testament to the leadership that we’ve had in the past,” Odenbach said.

He related a story of watching his daughter study, describing the rigorous study expectations are far beyond what he experienced in high school.

“She got a good education, and if I stay on the board, I’d like to not mess that up,” he joked.

Plocek said the district and teachers do a very good job communicating with parents using the variety of tools at hand.

All three said the biggest challenges districts face are balancing budgets with needs. But they also expanded their thoughts about the topic.

“We always want to keep the teachers we have. We want the good teachers,” Plocek said. “We want to keep our classroom sizes down so they can do their job. It’s very difficult, when you get too many kids, to do an excellent job.”

Skvang said that when he graduated, in 2004, his class was one of the largest the district has seen. Student enrollment then fell off sharply with changes to the local economic environment, but has since seen steady growth, now reaching the point where a new school may be necessary.

“We need to keep an eye on it and prepare for expansion in the future,” he said.

Odenbach said in addition to balancing revenue with enrollment needs, he would like the community and parents to get more involved in the distict.

“To get the public to not just drive by the school and say, ‘They’re doing a good job there.’ But to say, ‘That’s my school,’” he said. Getting the community and parents to volunteer their time and get involved in the school would be an asset to the district.

The candidates were asked what the district needs to do to keep schools safe.

Skvang said much has changed since the time when he was a student in the district. When he was a student doors were kept unlocked. Now they are all locked.

“Possible improvements we could make, the team at from door, they are more or less our front line, they need to be aware of the situation we put them in, and we can better arm them, not so much with a weapon, but give them the tools necessary if someone does walk in the front door,” he said.

Odenbach said the district needs to do something to ensure people determined to cause chaos would do it elsewhere before a school.

“Gun-free zones are areas where we have (nationally) seen the most gun violence,” he said. “We just hired a second school resource officer, and that is a good thing. If it were up to me, we would probably have one per building.”

He suggested partnering with local law enforcement to put an office for a law enforcement officer in each of the buildings and said he generally supports the school sentinel program.

Plocek said she has experienced lockdowns in schools while she was a teacher.

“We want them to feel safe,” she said. But she cautioned that studies have shown adding too much security measures actually can be worse for students.

Registered voters in the Spearfish School District will have the opportunity to vote for two of the candidates Tuesday. Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

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