Jeffco school board candidates face off at candidate forum

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By Sal Christ

Student achievement, school funding and teacher retention were among the near dozen topics that Jeffco school board candidates sparred over Oct. 17 at a candidate forum co-sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Jefferson County and Together Colorado at Jefferson Unitarian Church in Golden.

Moderated by LWV’s Margie Beal as a Q&A session with almost a dozen prepared questions, the candidate forum included two-minute introductions from all five candidates, and drew about 100 or so attendees, including Scott Kwasny, spokesman for the Jeffco Educators Association, Jeffco Superintendent Jason Glass, several teachers and at least one local elected official.

Incumbents Susan Harmon, Brad Rupert and Ron Mitchell all seemed willing to answer questions, but tended to stay on message — referencing past achievements as board members and rehashing responses familiar from past Jeffco school board meetings. Challengers Erica Shields and Matt Van Gieson, too, seemed open to every questions posed, but frequently pivoted the conversation to the topic at hand to a hot button issue such as school choice or the sixth-grade transition.

In particular, Harmon and Rupert occasionally responded to Shields’ and Van Gieson’s answers instead of answering the question asked while Mitchell frequently asked Beal to repeat the question before he responded.

Top issues in the school district

All five candidates offered slightly different responses when asked what the two most important issues currently facing the school district were that need to addressing over the next couple of years. Rupert cited school funding and the achievement gap among children living in poverty, while Van Gieson tied student achievement to “setting good, long-term achievement goals for the superintendent.” Van Gieson also cited bringing more balance to the school board in order to ensure that all community voices were being heard.
Harmon, too, touched on student achievement through “creating equity among the programs in our schools,” while Shields brought up school closures and Mitchell cited school funding, which he called “an overarching issue,” and retention of quality teachers.

District policy

Asked about how they would ensure that policy decisions were made in the best interest of students, Van Gieson specifically referenced school choice and scrutiny of charter schools — specifically stating that he wanted all schools to be held to the same standards. Shields directed her answer toward creating achievement goals for Superintendent Glass.

By contrast, Harmon said the school board members needed to make difficult policy decisions and “apply our policies to our ends.” Rupert stressed that the board’s role is to “ensure our system provides individualized, quality education for each student,” as well as ensure the safety and security of every school and student.
Mitchell took a different angle, insofar as he said it was important for board members not to bring partisan agendas into the board room — or into their decision-making. “We don’t have a politically-partisan agenda. We are going to serve all of our students. … I think we listen to all stakeholders and we serve all 86,000 kids in our school district,” he said.

Teacher retention

All five school board candidates voiced support for having qualified, quality teachers in the classroom, and all also voiced support for increasing wages with Harmon calling the current salary levels “unacceptable.” Mitchell and Van Gieson supported Harmon’s assertion with Van Gieson saying that “a respectful conversation about wages is important.”

Budget difficulties

Questioned about the methods they would employ to deal with budget challenges, all five candidates stressed fiscal responsibility — but with a twist. While Shields and Van Gieson stressed being transparent about financial decisions, and aligning budget priorities with community wants and needs, Rupert called the school district’s budget issues an ongoing issue without an easy answer.

“How do you rearrange your budget every year to continue to serve the students in the schools? It’s getting more and more difficult,” he said.

Both Mitchell and Harmon supported Rupert’s assertion, suggesting that the school district needs to better communicate with the public about its needs. Harmon also stressed a need for more resources, but didn’t specify where the district might source more funding from.