BISMARCK — As the coronavirus pandemic continues to show no signs of abating in North Dakota, the state's schools are adapting to make sure every child receives a quality education, and North Dakota voters will have the opportunity to elect the state's top K-12 official on Nov. 3.
The nonpartisan superintendent position oversees the state's Department of Public Instruction and 174 school districts. The job also includes an additional burden this year — determining the best ways to keep North Dakota's students, educators and staff safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Incumbent Kirsten Baesler is running for a third term to continue the work her department has done for the past seven years, including advocating for state funding without raising property taxes.
Baesler said during her time in office she has made the Department of Public Instruction more efficient and decreased its operating budget, saving almost $1 million collectively.
"We have consolidated and made our operations more efficient so we can make sure that more of the dollars that are dedicated to K-12 education can be delivered on to our local school districts and the local teachers that are in our classrooms each and every day," Baesler said.
She highlighted the partnerships she has garnered with local legislators and said the relationships she has made will benefit the department in the 2021 legislative session.
With COVID-19, Baesler said it is important to make sure each district has local control over decisions for reopening and programming during the pandemic, and the department will continue to provide resources to schools. Keeping schools open and having face-to-face learning is important, she said, as education is best done in person.
Baesler received 54% of the vote in the June 9 primary election, and she is endorsed by Gov. Doug Burgum and the North Dakota Republican Party. Prior to her election to the position in 2012, she served as president of the Mandan School Board and held various teaching, supplementary and administrative roles within Bismarck Public Schools.
Brandt Dick is the district superintendent and athletic director for Underwood (N.D.) Public Schools — a district that has about 230 students. He said he is running for state superintendent because he has more than 26 years in education and has been an active participant in the legislative process. He also said advocating for small, rural schools is a priority.
"I want every student, regardless of whether they graduate in a class of five or 500, to be successful in their future endeavors and that's what I would like to bring to the Department of Public Instruction."
Like Baesler, Dick said it is important to get students back to full-time in-person learning during the COVID-19 pandemic because not only do they learn better, but it greatly helps their mental health as well. Dick also emphasized the importance of giving school districts local control over reopening decisions that come with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dick highlighted his years of experience in education both as a principal and superintendent, and said Baesler has not had as many years of experience in education as she claims.
He said he feels it is time for a change within the Department of Public Instruction, and he has the experience and knowledge about the "North Dakota spirit" to bring fresh perspectives to the department.
In June, Dick received about 26% of the primary election vote.
Earlier this year, Baesler was arrested on drunken driving charges, but she said she is "on the road of recovery," and is facing the same struggle with alcohol addiction that many in North Dakota deal with everyday.