Q&A with the Rapid City Council and school board candidates

Q&A with the Rapid City Council and school board candidates


The campaign for Rapid City school board and city council seats is in the stretch run, with the Tuesday, June 6, municipal election less than two weeks away.

To give candidates a chance to share their views, and to educate the voting public, the Rapid City Journal sent all candidates a survey and gave them word limits on their answers.

Here is a look at the basic biographies of the candidates and their responses. It is the newspaper's hope that voters will use these mini-profiles to help them make informed decisions in the voting booth on June 6.

Rapid City Area Schools Board of Education

Below are the questions that were asked for both Rapid Area Schools board candidates in the one contested race in Area 5, which encompasses much of northwest Rapid City. The two candidates, Christine Stephenson and Toni E. “Tonchi” Weaver, are vying in the nonpartisan race to replace Ed McLaughlin, who is retiring from the board and not seeking re-election. Only one candidate — retired firefighter Mike Roesler — filed to replace School Board President Jim Hansen, who is not seeking re-election.

1. How can the school district battle its nagging truancy problem, and what solutions do you propose?  

2. What are your spending priorities for the district?  

3. How can the school district reduce the achievement gap between white students and students of color, and between wealthier students and those who are on free or reduced lunch?  

4. Should the arts and cultural opportunities for Rapid City students be expanded? And if so, how and in what areas?  

5. Do you support the Common Core version of academic standards now being used in South Dakota schools? If so, why, and if not, why not?

6. Summary, anything you want to say to voters.

Name: Christine Stephenson, 39, pediatric physical therapist, co-owner Dakota Angler and Outfitter

Highest degree: Doctor of Physical Therapy degree, University of South Dakota

Previous public service: Emerging Leader with Rapid City Collective Impact, Rapid City Area Schools Core Planning Committee member and Volunteer at Wilson Elementary

Previous elected offices: None

Family: Husband, Hans Stephenson, daughter, Elsa, 7

1. Truancy: Our district and our community partners need to be relentless in sending the message to families that attending school is important. And then the district needs to ensure that the education we’re providing is meaningful and relevant to the lives of kids in the 21st century.  

2. Spending: My first priority for spending is teacher training and professional development: Our teachers and administrators are passionate and committed to helping our children. They need to be trained in the best, most effective ways to teach students of all abilities and backgrounds.

3. Achievement gap: Every school employee, including board members, needs to believe that all children are capable of learning. And then we need to figure out how to reach every kid. We cannot write kids off because their background makes them harder to teach. If we do, the whole community suffers. 

4. Arts: Yes! Teaching art and music improves academic achievement and promotes social and emotional growth. Art classes also make students excited about school. The arts and music are one area in particular where there could be more collaboration between local entities and the schools.  

5. Common Core: On the whole, yes. The standards aren’t perfect, but they are reasonable and necessary to ensure that our children are learning the skills they need to be successful in a 21st century global economy.  

Summary: As a member of the district’s Core Planning Committee, I’ve gained an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of our district. I’m running for school board because I think we have all the resources we need to make our schools excellent, and we need a board that provides leadership to keep the district headed in the right direction. When we have excellent schools, we will improve the lives of all people in Rapid City. 

Toni E. “Tonchi” Weaver, 62, city mail carrier

Highest degree obtained: Attended college in Spearfish – did not complete degree

Previous public service: Appointed by the board of West Dakota Water Development District in 2016 to fill an open seat in Area 6.

Previous elected offices: None

Family: Married to Joel L. Weaver for 42 years. Two married daughters – Samantha McCully and Erica May.

1. Truancy: Relax the regimented learning schedule. Give teachers flexibility to choose methods that produce the best response from their students. Every child has a natural development curve that can’t be forced or rushed. Kids come to school if they can do the work and it brings them satisfaction. Consider closed campus.

2. Spending: My priority is to be prudent with public funds. We need a clear policy on the use of school resources, including penalties for violations thereof. All district contracts should be scrutinized so replacement of equipment and other assets is needs-based, not pre-scheduled.          

3. Achievement gap: We should ask if the current methods and content benefit underprivileged children. The mandated learning schedule may not be the best route to academic achievement; late bloomers still bloom. Public education is an opportunity for disadvantaged children to improve their lives, but only if they believe it is possible.   

4. Arts: The “arts” intertwine with culture through many forms of expression that enrich students' lives and expand their horizons. Our community is rich in art and cultural events and activities. Taking advantage of those opportunities could accomplish that goal without burdening school budgets. Private scholarships for that purpose may already exist.

5. Common Core: Common Core is a federal education plan funded by wealthy and unaccountable private foundations. It has reduced academic achievement, frustrated parents, confounded teachers and costs too much. We now have empirical evidence to prove each of these points. The real question should be: why would anyone be for it? 

Summary: I’m running because your children and my grandchildren deserve a future, not a fate. I’m running because I know “local control” of education is important. That means we must decide locally what education is and how best to deliver it. There is a clear realization that top-down education and central planning do not work. Local decisions should govern local schools and I will strive to make that happen. I’m asking for your vote June 6.                          

Rapid City Common Council

Below are the questions that were asked for each Rapid City Council candidate in the four contested races for an open seat, in Wards 1, 2, 4 and 5. Chad Lewis, the incumbent in Ward 3, is running unopposed, and Mayor Steve Allender is also running unopposed.

1. How should Rapid City approach street and infrastructure repairs? 

2. What can or should be done to spur economic development, and what type of development is needed in the city? 

3. How can the city create more access to quality affordable housing? 

4. What should be done with the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center and the Barnett Arena? 

5. How do you view the current state of race relations, and can things be improved?

6. Summary, anything you want to say to voters.

Ward 1

Two candidates vying to replace council member Charity Doyle, who is not seeking re-election. The district is generally in the south and southwest portions of Rapid City.

Name: Becky Drury, 58, retired from telecommunications company

Highest degree obtained: Master's in Administration, University of South Dakota

Previous public service: Current Chair the Rapid City Library Board of Trustees, served on the American Advertising Federation (local chapter), Leadership Rapid City.

Previous elected offices: Served three years on the Wall School Board.

Family: Husband, Neal, and two adult daughters.

1. Infrastructure: Our $25 million shortfall is like only paying the minimum balance on a credit card. If we continue to pay only the minimum, we will never pay down the shortfall. However, if we make payments above the minimum balance we start to make a dent in the needed improvements. We could use a percentage of the Vision Funds and/or find a way to use the Capital Improvement Funds to upgrade more of our infrastructure.

2. Economic development: Healthy communities stem from healthy economics. Rapid City and Black Hills Economic Partnership have worked to increase our tax base, ensure job development and retain businesses. Universities and technical schools provide engineering, technical and business sources to employers. Our strong work ethic is a bonus for companies that do business here. I will promote economic diversification, productive use of property and quality of life.

3. Affordable housing: Having a safe, livable home is central to having a healthy, functioning family. Our city's hardworking families deserve quality, affordable housing. The Mayor’s office, Community Development Division, Rapid City Collective Impact and the City Council are working towards affordable and workforce housing. I will work with them to find local solutions.

4. Civic center: The Mayor’s Civic Center Task Force hosted their last public forum in September of 2016. The mayor plans to present two options, from the Task Forces findings, at several town hall meetings. Once complete, the citizens will be polled. My understanding is that it will be up to you the voters to decide how to proceed.

5. Race relations: Rapid City is home to all of us. Progress has been made recently through good-hearted, open-minded people from various perspectives on this issue. We need to continue those at times emotionally challenging but practically productive talks. Mutual respect, sincere desire for improvement and a willingness to consider others' experiences make for the best approach.

Summary: I love Rapid City. Serving the residents of Rapid City would be an honor and a pleasure. Now that I’m retired I have the time to serve and the desire to ensure a safe, vibrant place for not just my grandchildren, but your children and grandchildren as well. When I tackle a job I am hardworking and tenacious. We have so many wonderful things in Rapid City, our green spaces, our strong work ethic and the willingness of people to dig in and solve issues.

Name: Vince Vidal, 59, U.S. Air Force Finance Center auditor

Highest degree obtained: Some college 

Previous public service: U.S. Navy, Habitat for Humanity

Previous elected offices: None

Family: Wife, Peggy; children, Lee, Monique, Aaron and Matthew

1. Infrastructure: When I ran in 2014 my point was clear that we were not moving on the issue of needed street and infrastructure repairs and how we pay for it. My approach is to keep all ideas and solutions on the table and not let it go until we resolve it. 

2. Economic development: Businesses need incentives to start, and we must make sure that economic development is fruitful and carefully managed so we don’t lose our city’s unique identity. The revitalization of downtown is an excellent example of this growth. We need to attract businesses that will see dollars from tourists and residents.

3. Affordable housing: We need to look at several options for affordable housing. One program that interests me is the Dakota Land Trust that takes the cost of land out of the purchase price and the land is placed into the stewardship of a trust. There is pride in ownership with reduced cost.

4. Civic center: Voters have spoken on the complete rebuild. The Barnett Arena must be brought up to ADA guidelines in a way that is cost effective and inclusive to visitors of all abilities. Other updates should be made only after careful, expert consideration — with a positive return on investment providing increased city revenue.

5. Race relations: It is not easy for me to realize that some of our citizens may have views that it is OK to pre-judge others by the color of their skin or the way they speak. The first step in fixing this is to acknowledge it and not accept it.

Summary: I offer the city years of management experience, which I will use to work with city leaders for real solutions to protect our city’s safety, growth and future with well-thought-out decisions. As the son of a city clerk, grandson of a city truck driver and father of a Rapid City firefighter/paramedic, my family believes in service to our community. I have the time, motivation and compromising spirit to get this job done.

Ward 2

Three candidates are vying for the seat now held by incumbent Ritchie Nordstrom, who is seeking re-election. Ward 2 encompasses much of the eastern and northeastern parts of Rapid City. Ward 2 candidate Daniel Petersen did not respond to the survey request.

Name: Charles Henrie, 54, cashier at Family Thrift Center

Highest degree obtained: Attended National University for business administration and medical assistant

Previous public service: Appointed to the Governor’s Developmental Disability Council, volunteer Logistic Leader for the Red Cross and Pennington County Volunteer CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) member.

Previous elected offices: Rapid City People 1st president and was S.D. Advocates for Change state coordinator

Family: One brother

1. Infrastructure: I have driven on the roads in Rapid City, and a lot have been halfway done. As a council, we need to make sure we pick local contractors and make sure they finish the whole street.

2. Economic development: Rapid City is growing to the south, to the east and to the north. We need to start seeing economical growth where the citizens of Rapid City, it is convent for them and the locations for them.

3. Affordable housing: I am person that needs affordable housing, and we as a council need to find ways we can get people that need it and the homeless out of the shelters so that can have protective lives and be contributing members to the community.

4. Civic center: The only part of the civic center that is not ADA compliant is the Barnett Arena. Something needs to be started by August of this year or the city will be paying daily fines or it must be closed, done.

5. Race relations: I believe we are equal in my eyes and need to help each other, not to fight with each other. What is going on with the community relations group, I would love to be a part of it.

Summary: I am running to represent those put at the bottom of the pile. Those with disabilities, those with mental health problems and the elderly. They are valuable to the city and are citizens of the Gateway to the Black Hills.

Name: Ritchie Nordstom, 68, retired, incumbent council member

Highest degree obtained: High school

Previous public service: Employee of city of Rapid City, dance teacher for Community Education of the Black Hills, and several volunteer organizations

Previous elected offices: Rapid City alderman

Family: One daughter

1. Infrastructure: We must keep improving the CIP so there’s a plan for prioritizing construction to keep up with our growth while making sure the Street Dept is able to meet demand for repairs. We must encourage growth that reduces urban sprawl and work with legislators to find tools beyond TIFs.

2. Economic development: We’ve built some great plans, but we need to keep developing public-private partnerships, support strategic use of Vision Fund program, and support South Dakota School of Mines graduates to stay in our community. We must include a focus on a safe, clean community that invites people and businesses to Rapid City. 

3. Affordable housing: We need an actual housing strategy and to bring our existing resources under one director in order to improve efficiency of managing vacant lots, abandoned and substandard housing, and current housing projects. And we need to articulate the different levels of “affordable” to fit various income levels in our community.

4. Civic center: First off, we need to hear the report from the Civic Center Task Force. I appreciate all the community input and involvement that’s gone into creating a proposal. Obviously we need to balance the future needs of our community and the ADA compliance issues with a realistic budget. 

5. Race relations: We’ve made improvements to race relations but we absolutely need to do more. I’m proud of the various groups in our community that are tackling this issue and finding resolutions by understanding, listening, and teaching each other. These community conversations are critical to informing any policy discussions

Summary: I’m running for city council because I care about this community and I want Rapid City to continue being better. I would appreciate your vote. My first focus was fixing potholes and addressing substandard housing, which is as important now as it’s ever been for families in our community. We can accomplish a lot with strategic development planning, more public-private partnerships and listening to the needs of people who live and work in Rapid City.

Ward 4

Incumbent John Roberts is seeking re-election and faces one challenger in Ward 4, which encompasses most of north-central Rapid City.

Name: John Roberts, 51, Realtor with Real Estate Group

Highest degree obtained: Baking sciences degree from American Institute of Baking

Family: Wife, Brenda; sons, Mark, Nicholas, Eli, Gabe Roberts and stepson Justin Ohlrogge.

1. Infrastructure: We can’t continue to be mired in the potholes of today instead of building the road to tomorrow. We need a strong vision to pave our way to a better future. That starts with conducting an entire inventory of our infrastructure network and prioritizing our needs from the wants.

2. Economic development: We need to find the opportunities to succeed, instead of the barriers that impede, and that starts by cutting red tape and regulations in Rapid City. We need to grow jobs, not government, and to work with the ones we have in a responsive and consistent manner. That’s why I will continue to work hard to bring better jobs with better wages and benefits to Rapid City.

3. Affordable housing: By working together, with our community partners through public-private partnerships, there are some exciting opportunities ahead of us. Because we’re better together and we can clear the way for meaningful change by cutting red tape and working to make it easier to build people up to a home — one step at a time.

4. Civic center: I believe, just as I did two years ago, it is up to the citizens. The mayor should bring forward these proposals the task force will be recommending, which must be vetted by the citizens, because it is ultimately the people’s decision.

5. Race relations: The current issues we face in Rapid City are issues with the way we relate to all people, not just some. We are too often color focused, instead being color blind, and focusing on what matters, the people. We will overcome our challenges, but we must do so together. 

Summary: Thank you. For the last six years you've blessed me with the opportunity to be your voice on the City Council. I'm running for re-election to keep Ward 4 moving forward in a positive direction; I believe we can do more without raising taxes and using your money more efficiently by prioritizing what are our true needs and fixing them and only spending money on our wants when we have it.

Name: Helen Usera, 46, self-employed business and leadership consultant

Highest degree obtained: Doctorate, University of Kansas

Previous public service: U.S. Army Reserves, Air Force Global Strike Command Civic Leader, city of Rapid City Strategic Planning Committee member

Previous elected offices: Meade County School Board

Family: Two adult children

1. Infrastructure: The mechanisms are in place, however, often there is not enough money to address all the issues at a given time. A comprehensive five-year plan has been developed and should be followed. It should also be communicated regularly to the citizens so they understand the status of their neighborhood.

2. Economic development: Economic gardening is a progressive approach I can promote and share with our businesses. It’s a working strategy to help them grow and provide increased employment opportunities at all levels, but it’s also an approach that requires the kind of active leadership that I will deliver.

3. Affordable housing: Collaboration and discussions with developers need to continue, but the city should expand the opportunities for developers. Yes, costs are increasing, but I will help ensure that city regulatory roles do not inhibit the growth potential or have negative financial impacts on the developers. 

4. Civic center: I am actively participating in the arena discussions because the civic center is vital to our economy as well as the entertainment and arts community. Efficient use of the Vision Funds will lessen the taxpayer burden. I will help identify innovative solutions to the critical ADA and structural issues.

5. Race relations: Cultural diversity is the lens through which I focus my decisions. I support grass-roots efforts that involve my neighbors in Ward 4 who are impacted by race issues. They can help identify solutions and are a resource we should not ignore while moving towards a positive culture.

Summary: I’ve spent my life bringing people together to solve issues and create opportunities. I will encourage the many wonderful projects in Rapid City and confront the difficult challenges as your representative on city council. I will focus on children so we can create a stronger city for the future. I am a voice for my neighbors in Ward 4, and I will focus on building community, culture and commerce.

Ward 5

Three candidates are seeking the seat made vacant when incumbent City Council President Brad Estes did not seek another term. The district generally encompasses much of the west side of Rapid City.

Name: Laura Armstrong, 47, speech language pathologist

Highest degree obtained: Master's degree in speech language pathology

Previous public service: Lobbied/volunteer for State Association SLP licensure, educational funding for Early Intervention, schools, and persons with disabilities; volunteer at public library and Humane Society of the Black Hills

Previous elected offices: None

Family: Husband, Scott, daughters, Abbie and Olivia

1. Infrastructure: While the pothole hotline is a good idea, adequate funding will always be the threshold concern. In the long term, we also need to focus on building stronger roads, including materials that can better withstand the extreme temperature changes, frequent plowing and increased vehicular traffic. 

2. Economic development: While growing our city economically is important, it can be done in a manner that maintains the quality of life and green areas that make Rapid City unique. In addition I think it is important to encourage and incentivize entrepreneurship, technical innovation, and business partnerships between the public and private sectors. 

3. Affordable housing: The current shortage of housing in all price ranges is an illustration of a potentially larger problem developing that will require some innovative thinking. More projects like the old Garfield School building renovation and the Habitat For Humanity home ownership program should be considered and implemented.  

4. Civic center: There is no question that both the civic center and Barnett Arena must be brought into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Whether, or to what extent, additional expansion should take place will require a careful consideration of the potential benefits versus the projected cost expenditures.  

5. Race relations: I would characterize the current state of race relations in Rapid City as stable but somewhat strained. Uniting city leaders and law enforcement officials with citizens in community forums, educational seminars and town halls that include a healthy, respectful dialogue about cultural diversity is a good starting place. 

Summary: I am running for city council because I sincerely believe in Rapid City’s potential and have no hidden purpose or agenda. A history of community involvement and service, which is illustrated by long-term, active involvement with the humane society, library, local parks, the Brain Injury Center and various state associations, has given me the broad experience and diverse perspective to make Rapid City a stronger, healthier place to live.

Name: Tony DeMaro, 36, managing partner, Murphy's, Blind Lion Speakeasy, (kol) and Press Start

Highest degree obtained: Bachelor's in business administration, Northeastern University, Boston

1. Infrastructure: First, we need to focus on economic development so there is more money for infrastructure. Second, we need to be innovative. For example, in Boston there is a smart phone app that helps speed pothole reporting. The mayor has a dashboard in his office that shows how many potholes were reported and repaired each day.

2. Economic development: Economic development is my No. 1 priority. We need to focus on efforts to raise the average salary in order to stimulate spending. This will generate more tax dollars without increasing taxes and, in turn, allow us to do more as a city.

3. Affordable housing: Demand for homes is currently far outpacing supply. We need to increase our use of Tax Increment Financing in order to incentivize more building and bring down the cost to build each home. It's also critical to cut the red tape at city hall, as this is a major impediment to growth.

4. Civic center: We need to invest in a new civic center because it is one of the main drivers of sales tax revenue. Investing in a new civic center increases the capacity to host more events, which, in turn, increases our dwindling tax revenue.  

5. Race relations: We need to do more. Little things like when the convention and visitors bureau created a red carpet for the Lakota Nation Invitational athletes can have a meaningful impact. Over 400 community leaders lined both sides to greet and give athletes high fives on their way into a dinner we sponsored. Simultaneously, we need to focus on bigger initiatives like a cultural center for Native Americans.

Summary: I'm running because I want to give back to the community that's given me so much. We face many challenges as a city, and we need to look for "out of the box" solutions to these issues. As a entrepreneur, I will apply innovation and creativity to help solve issues that have vexed us for years. I have a proven track record of getting things done, and that's what we desperately need right now.

Name: Ron Sasso, 52, Realtor, professional counselor

Highest education obtained: Master’s degree in counseling, South Dakota State University

Previous public service: Humane Society of the Black Hills (board member 2014-present); Brain Injury Alliance of South Dakota (board member 2006-present); Rapid City Public Library Board Member 2011-2013)

Past elected offices: Rapid City alderman, Ward 5 (2011-2013)

Family: Wife, Sue Sasso. Children: Soren, 20, Seger, 17, and Story, 14.

1. Infrastructure: Patching potholes is not a long-term solution to failing infrastructure. Rapid City is approximately $25 million behind in street repairs. More money needs to be allocated to address that need. Also, minimizing out-of-state consultants and unnecessary studies will help free up more money for our roads. 

2. Economic development: Reduce barriers to development. Implementation of improvements to city planning is lagging. Cities of similar size to Rapid City have approximately 10 items going to their planning commission monthly. Rapid City averages nearly 40 items requiring approval each month. Better paying technical jobs that tap into South Dakota School of Mines resources are critical.

3. Affordable housing: Reducing barriers to building would be a great start. Some regulation is important, but Rapid City has too much regulation, and that stifles development. Development of affordable housing must be near public transportation, close to employment opportunities, and recreation. The community must be on board.

4. Civic center: ADA requirements need to be addressed. We need to have more public input via a cost-effective survey to understand the objections to the project and at what point it would be deemed feasible by the public. Any proposal from the council will likely be brought to a public vote.

5. Race relations: Race relations are improving. When we reach the point that people treat each other based on what lies beneath the surface, then we will not have race issues. I would like to see privately funded statues of Native American leaders placed on some corners downtown. This would start building bridges.

Summary: Sales tax revenue is down, but we’re spending money on consultants and studies. We need to prioritize better and improve our infrastructure while protecting existing services. The city needs council members who are familiar with government and can rise above the system to make changes. I have a track record of proven leadership and hard work while on city council. I brought forward positive changes, kept taxes down, and kept my campaign promises. Please vote!

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