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Late-entry school board candidate Powers concerned with closings, need for options

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By Emile Hallez

Staff Writer

Lakewood architect Jim Powers opted to run against District 4 school board candidate Lesley Dahlkemper at virtually the last possible minute, filing an affidavit with the state on Aug. 29, the day such documents were due.

Though Powers wasn’t sure months ago about his desire to run, he said he began paying attention to school issues this year, and that led to some serious concerns.

“My interest started to get piqued about the education system, and I started to become more aware of it early this year. I just started kind of following what was going on in the school board, and I was dissatisfied with what was going on. … It just didn’t seem like students were being put first,” Powers said. “I did make this decision late. It’s a big deal, and I don’t want to just jump into it without giving it a lot of thought. … There appeared to be nobody else stepping up to the plate, and I just thought I’d do it.”

If Powers was not a regular fixture at school board meetings, it should not be surprising. Unlike any of the candidates in the District 3 or District 4 races, Powers’ four young children are home-schooled. Though his family lives in Jeffco and he has no plans to register them for public school, the decision to home-school his kids was made when he and his wife, Kathy, were living in Denver.

“We lived near Manual High School in Five Points. … We heard about weapons in the schools and fights breaking out,” he said. “We figured out there has to be a better way to educate our children. … It’s worked very well for our family.”

Among Powers’ concerns with Jeffco Public Schools are transparency, spending and a perceived lack of educational options.

Regarding the district’s recent budget summit, a district and union negotiation session that was closed to the public, Powers said such practices should no longer be permitted.

“These are public schools. The public needs to be involved in these things. It is ridiculous that it’s not transparent. Those negotiations should be open to the public,” he said. “That’s one of the big things that I have a problem with the current board. They’re not transparent.”

Further, if the school board decides again to enforce a policy that prohibits individual members from speaking candidly to the media about their opinions in some instances, Powers said he would not respect such an embargo.

“I would not honor that. I would not vote for that. I believe that takes away the First Amendment right of a school board member to express their opinion,” he said.

Like District 3 candidate Preston Branaugh, who filed documents with the secretary of state on the same days and has a campaign website with a nearly identical format, Powers said more nontraditional educational options need to be emphasized in the state’s largest school district.

“We have half the number of charter schools in Jefferson County that Denver does, even though we’re a bigger district. … I think we need to be more open to those other opportunities to offer options for parents,” Powers said, noting that in witnessing the differences in his children’s learning styles, he has a unique perspective.

“My son learned his alphabet and learned how to pronounce his words and eventually learned how to read by jumping on a rebounder. He’s kinetic. He has to be moving,” Powers said. “I personally have seen how students learn differently. My oldest daughter, she can sit down for four hours and be just fine. My son can’t do that. I think that we need to recognize that every student learns differently, and we need to have some kind of mechanism in the system that recognizes that early on. … I don’t think we do anything like that right now that I’m aware of.”

In relation to how the current Board of Education is addressing tens of millions of dollars in budget reductions, Powers said the focus should move away from closing schools. Reductions that affect each classroom should be spared above all else, though he did not provide concrete examples of preferred cuts.

“Those cuts should be touching the classroom last. They should not be touching things like Outdoor Lab last, if at all. I think it’s somewhat cynical for a school board to make decisions about things that parents and students really care about, like Outdoor Lab, and at the same time doing little to address the potential other areas in the budget that could be cut,” he said. “There should be no sacred cows in that budget, and we need to stop spending money that we don’t have. I don’t know exactly what gets cut at this moment, but I know everything needs to be looked at.”

Powers also took issue with a proposed facilities plan the district is considering that would eventually replace some of its older buildings. The massive plan, however, was postponed indefinitely by the school board in January. 

“It’s a half-a-billion-dollar cost to implement that. No. 1, we don’t have the money. ... Even if I agreed with it, which I don’t … right now in these economic times, spending a half a billion dollars to supposedly save money doesn’t make sense,” he said. “Education is changing. We need to start embracing that technology that’s out there and start looking at all these other ways that school districts across the nation are educating their kids. We don’t know what education is going to look like 10 years from now.”

Though the district announced cuts of 212 full-time positions this year through attrition and layoffs, Powers said the district has been hiring employees in recent years, even though enrollment has been shrinking slightly.

“In 2010 we had 245 more employees than we did in 2004. We had 1,500 less students, approximately. Of those 245 employees, only nine of them are teachers,” he said. “The dots don’t connect to me when we have that many more employees, we have that many fewer students, and we’re suddenly facing a budget crisis. … I haven’t seen jobs being cut.”

Though he has lived in Colorado since 1994, Powers grew up in Santa Fe, N.M. He earned a degree in architecture from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, and he owns the PowerSquare Design & Architecture firm. He currently lives in Lakewood with his wife and children; Solomon, 2, Abigail, 4, Rachel, 8, and Aaron, 10.

 

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