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Late-entry school board candidate Branaugh critical of transparency, spending policies

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By Emile Hallez

Staff Writer

Jeffco Board of Education candidate Preston Branaugh slipped into the previously uncontested race in District 3 just hours before filing deadlines, registering with the secretary of state on the last possible day.

But for Branaugh, a father of two daughters who attend Jeffco schools, the decision to run against candidate Jill Fellman came after months of deliberation, he said.

“I’ve always had an interest in the school board and monitored it … more from afar. The idea of running kind of developed as I was kind of learning more about who was running,” Branaugh said. “I’ve got a vested stake with two daughters, and I want to see that they, and frankly all kids in the district, have an opportunity to have a great education like I did when I went through the district.”

Branaugh, a Jeffco native who himself went through the state’s largest school system, said he further became motivated after hearing about one of his nephew’s experiences at a Jeffco school. After Branaugh’s brother’s family recently relocated to the district, an apparent problem arose in the nephew’s classroom — a teacher would sometimes show up late for work, leaving students with an unattended class, until a principal or other teacher would step in, he said.

“One of them was placed in a classroom where there was a teacher who was a so-called ‘involuntary transfer’ and was not probably an ideal experience for my nephew. As my sister-in-law describes it, there were occasions were the teacher was even late to school, and the principal would have to step in and cover the classroom. … As it turns out this teacher … was in the last year or two of their career prior to retirement,” he said, explaining that, though concerning, the incident was likely an isolated one. “I think it’s rather rare. And our teachers in the district, the vast, vast majority strive to do an excellent job every day.”

Nonetheless, Branaugh said he wants to see a number of changes in the way the district operates, specifically regarding transparency, innovation and spending.

Like District 4 candidate Jim Powers, who also registered as a candidate on the last possible day and has a website with a nearly identical format, Branaugh said the district’s recent budget summit, at which two school board members met in private with representatives from the district and teachers’ union to strike an employee-pay deal, was unacceptable.

“I still believe that this is the Jefferson County Public Schools, and the public needs to be afforded an opportunity and presence in that discussion,” he said. “I can appreciate that there are times where some of the discussion — some of the strategy, some of the planning, needs to be done in working sessions … or in an executive session, even. But the vast majority of discussions that deal with the budget should be available to the public.”

Additionally, the district should be leading the state in providing different education options, he said.

“Denver County, which is a smaller county than Jeffco, has approximately twice as many charter schools,” he said. “As the largest district in the state, we should be the ones leading the way in some of these kind of innovation and options. We don’t have any innovation schools, and Denver County does.”

Regarding the district’s perpetually shrinking budget, Branaugh said serious consideration needs to be given for cuts that are as far away from the classroom as possible — though he was unable to provide any specifics.

“We need to examine all the contracts we deal with, whether it’s the food contracts, the trash services. All of those are categories where we need to make some adjustment in level of service or negotiation of pricing. … Everything in the budget needs to be on the table,” he said, noting that the board’s decision earlier this year to cut funding to the Outdoor Labs program was an egregious error. “The decision to close the program, I think, was misplaced. And I think it was a sign that the board was out of touch with what the community interests and desires are.”

And despite the district cutting 212 jobs this year through attrition and layoffs, Branaugh said far too many non-teaching positions were added in recent years.

“Over the last approximately five-year period, the district has added approximately 259 … staff. And of those, just nine of them were teachers,” he said. “All those positions were added during a period when our overall enrollment declined by an aggregate of about 1,000 students.”

He was critical, too, of the district’s decisions on building use, explaining that old schools should not necessarily be closed and that a proposed facilities-use plan designed to maximize space and save money has too many up-front costs. However, the plan about which Branaugh appeared to be speaking was tabled indefinitely by the board in January.

“Right now the plan includes a proposal to close approximately 10 elementary schools and to consolidate into five new facilities. … Closing these schools results in fewer choices for students, and I think we should be considering avenues to offer more choices for students,” he said. “Right now the (facilities) plan includes the proposal of closing approximately 10 elementary schools and consolidating that into five new facilities. … It comes at a price tag of a half a billion dollars, which I have substantial concern as to the wisdom in submitting bond request to help fund that kind of project at this point.”

Regarding vouchers for private schools, Branaugh did not disclose an opinion, though he said the matter is far from being settled in Douglas County.

“I don’t think it’s happening for quite a long time,” he said of the state court’s decision. “It would likely be beyond the term of when I’m on the school board.”

Branaugh, who holds a law degree from the University of Denver, lives in Arvada with his wife, Jessica, and daughters Grace, 9, and Amara, 12.

 

Contact Emile Hallez at emile@evergreenco.com or 303-933-2233, ext. 22. For updates, check www.ColumbineCourier.com.