| VailDaily.com

With book bans surging nationwide, Eagle County is not untouched

Correction: An earlier version of this story included a photo from the Vail Public Library that featured the book “Lawn Boy” by Gary Paulsen. Paulsen’s book is the story of a 12-year-0ld boy who starts a lawn mowing business. The “Lawn Boy” currently gaining traction on banned book lists is the semi-autobiographical novel by Jonathen Evison that is an entirely different book.

The start of the academic year is less than a week away for Eagle County Schools, which, for many students cues the end-of-summer scramble to finish up summer reading. But while students anxiously cram in what they’re required to read, school districts and legislatures across the country may be more concerned with the titles that are prohibited.

In recent years, book banning has been steadily on the rise nationwide, with 2021 marking a dramatic resurgence in the practice. The American Library Association tracked 729 challenges to library, school, and university materials last year — an all-time high in the organization’s 20 years of data, and more than double the 273 books challenged or banned in 2020.

Overwhelmingly, books targeted in the recent wave of bans engage with topics of race and LGBTQ content. According to the American Library Association, “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe was the single most-challenged book in 2021. “The Hate U Give,” by Angie Thomas, Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” and “This Book is Gay,” by Juno Dawson also make the top 10

Currently, there are no school districts with active book bans in Colorado. 

Katie Jarnot, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction for Eagle County Schools, confirmed that there have been no challenges to books or educational materials since she took on her current position four years ago. 

“I am not aware of any challenges that we have had in the 12 years I’ve been in the district,” she added in an email to the Vail Daily. 

The school district’s current policy requires administrators to review curricula (including books and other materials that will be taught) every five years. Its text specifically calls for considerations of “curriculum breadth,” “all student populations,” and “educational equity” in this process.

“It is important for school districts to have policies like these in place, so that there is a basis for the selection of curriculum and educational resources and so that any challenge can be addressed in an objective and fair manner,” Jarnot wrote.

In Eagle County, the culture war on book banning has not made classrooms a battleground. But according to Linda Tillson, director of Eagle Valley Library District, book challenges are not unheard of in the county. She reported that the library district typically receives one to two completed reconsideration request forms each year, usually reflecting concern about “sexual content, LGBTQ+ topics, and age-appropriateness.”

Tillson reported that the only challenge that has been approved in recent years removed a children’s book about Thanksgiving that contained an “outdated and inaccurate” portrayal of Native Americans.

Reconsideration forms are standard procedure in libraries across the U.S. as a means to gather input from a concerned patron about a particular resource. Forms generally request information about the contested item, including if the objector has examined the entire resource, what specific concerns the objector holds, and what action the objector suggests the library staff should take (e.g., a reclassification, restriction, or removal of the resource). 

Completed forms are reviewed by the library director who, with the counsel of other staff members, makes the ultimate decision on how to address the request. Decisions may be appealed and put to the citizen Board of Trustees for reconsideration.

While book bans are historically rare in the state (especially compared to bordering Kansas with 30 active bans, Oklahoma with 43, and Utah with 11), challenges and controversy are not. In 2001, the Denver Post reported on one parent’s crusade to ban Lois Lowry’s “The Giver” from school classrooms and curricula, arguing that the book’s discussion of suicide and euthanasia were unsuitable for young readers and promoted a disregard for human life that could motivate tragedies like the Columbine shooting. 

James LaRue, who worked as the director of the Douglas County Library from 1990-2014, reported that in that time he received 250 challenges to library materials — more than in any other library he’d heard of. The experience motivated him to write “The New Inquisition,” a book exploring modern challenges to intellectual freedom. 

In 2016, he left Douglas County to work for the Office of Intellectual Freedom for the American Library Association, where he addressed about one challenge a day. He believes that in this point in his career he’s dealt with over 1,000 challenges. 

LaRue, who returned to Colorado to serve as executive director of Garfield County Library District in May, has observed a “shift in the wind” with the practice of book banning: challenges that were once isolated events, brought forward by concerned parents, have been interspersed with more concerted, sometimes political, efforts. 

“It’s not just individual people complaining about one book, it’s somebody showing up with 380 books and so it’s far more coordinated and less individual,” he said, “Most of these challenges, you would have to describe as partisan.”

LaRue cited groups like Moms4Liberty and CatholicVote, which have launched campaigns to remove books of controversial subject matter. But the politicization of the issue has also been presented on a legislative scale.

In 2021, 54 bills in 24 states were introduced to ban books on controversial issues such as race, gender, and sexuality. The Colorado House of Representatives considered the “Public Education Curriculum And Professional Development Information” bill last year, sponsored by Tim Geitner, an El Paso County Republican. The bill called for local education providers and school districts to publish a comprehensive list of educational materials used in classrooms PK-12, including the title, internet address, publisher, publication date, and international standard business number for each item. It also stipulated that education providers must provide a copy of any book or resource used in the classroom to parents upon request. The bill was introduced and did not pass.

“New legislation … represents a very concerted attack, not just on a couple books that people are upset about, but trying to suppress whole topics from a public institution,” LaRue said, “it’s a fight for the soul of the institution.”

LaRue reported that he has already received four challenges to Garfield County Library materials since taking on his post with the district in the spring.

“I think that the best route to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is literacy,” LaRue added. “This is an issue worth talking about.”

VMS head of school announces retirement

Vail Mountain School Head of School Mike Imperi will retire at the end of the academic year on June 30. Since his arrival at VMS in the fall of 2012, Imperi has navigated challenging economic times, partnered with the VMS and local community, and built a framework of dedicated and engaged faculty and staff.

With a dedication to scholarly thinking, a fresh approach, and abundant optimism, Imperi ushered in a time of unprecedented financial stability for VMS, helping to raise money for the endowment, VMS Fund, tuition assistance, and capital projects on campus, all while making sure the essence of VMS remains unchanged.

Imperi embodies the VMS mission: “Develop Character, Seek Knowledge, Build Community,” and made it the heartbeat of the school.

Imperi’s accomplishments are varied and many. He oversaw the expansion of faculty and staff positions, including hiring a student psychological support counselor, expanded the Student Support Services department and increased world language teacher positions. He added both the upper and middle school dean of students positions and created the school resource officer and school nurse roles at VMS. He enhanced the VMS student experience by expanding the outdoor education program, increased global travel opportunities, and expanded the Intraterm program so that every student in kindergarten through 12th grade became able to participate. He ushered in a new block schedule and expanded the full-time athlete program at VMS. Under his leadership, technology was upgraded and integrated into the classroom and throughout the curriculum.

On the facilities side, he oversaw the creation of a MakerSpace, a fitness room and a greenhouse. He redesigned the library and was responsible for the resurfacing of the Bob Bandoni Alumni Athletic Field. In addition to these facility additions, Imperi added environmental sustainability practices throughout the VMS campus.

“Mike has been visionary for VMS, in that he values and understands the importance of what experiencing the outside world can do for adolescent development,” said outdoor education coordinator Liana Sidelli in a news release. “Mike has made great strides in unlocking the ‘beyond the walls’ learning opportunities for our students across all grades, through the expansions of orientation trips, Intraterm experiences and international tours.”

“Mike brought fresh ideas to Student Support Services — he has struck a perfect balance of listening to faculty and providing the means to grow the two departments in which I work,” said Kelly Enright, student support services and faculty liaison for technology. “VMS is a school where teachers can put down roots and stay for their careers, and there is a culture of autonomy and trust between leadership and faculty. I can do my job, and I am supported. Mike’s door is always open. It makes you feel like you are part of the process,”

Long-time teacher and current science department chair Ross Sappenfield credits Imperi’s marketing philosophy in growing the school to what it is today.

“By suffusing the school’s presence and unique offerings into the greater Vail community, we are seeing an increased number of families considering a VMS education for their children,” Sappenfield said. “This interest in the school has allowed for expansion in various areas of curricular programming and technology upgrades across many disciplines. With this expansion of interest, Mike also moved the needle in broadening the demographic of students who attend VMS.”

Access to a variety of tuition assistance programs for all students is also a hallmark of Imperi’s leadership. Imperi worked to ensure each student who wants to attend VMS is able to do so. In Imperi’s tenure, access to financial aid has grown by almost 50%, ensuring access to a VMS education is available to more families in the Vail Valley. He was also influential in securing donations for the Taft Conlin Scholarship Fund, which selects a student based on their contributions to the community in service and academic excellence, and provides for a VMS education.

Maggie Pavlik, upper school division director, summed up Imperi’s leadership this way: “Mike is a leader who carefully balances focus and those things you have to let go of. A lesson I learned from Mike is that you have to carefully consider your priorities, focus on what matters most, and move ahead with confidence and clarity on those initiatives. Mike always sees problems and situations with a glass half-full point of view. He presents the optimistic side of a situation. I always appreciate Mike asking the difficult questions and his ability to listen to and consider solutions and possibilities.”

When Imperi was asked what guided his leadership throughout his career, he responded with a quote from Lao Tzu, 6th Century Chinese philosopher and the founder of Taoism, “When the best leader’s work is done the people say, ‘We did it ourselves.’”

CMC to end mask requirement Feb. 28

Colorado Mountain College students, faculty and staff will no longer have to wear masks on campus starting Feb. 28, according to a news release.

College leadership decided to end the requirement after looking at immunity rates among faculty and staff, declining COVID-19 transmission and positivity rates, improving capacities at health care centers and public health plans within the communities the college system serves.

CMC has campuses across the High Country, including its Vail Valley campus in Edwards. The college plans to release more detailed information about COVID-19 protocols by Feb. 21.

Roaring Fork School District Superintendent announces resignation

Roaring Fork School District Superintendent Rob Stein speaks at the Issues and Answers Forum at Morgridge Commons on Oct. 11.
Rich Allen/Post Independent

Roaring Fork School District Superintendent Rob Stein announced his resignation Friday, effective at the end of the school year, saying he will take “a personal sabbatical” next year.

“I’m not leaving because the work has been completed or because I’m tired but because it’s time for me to find new ways to contribute to improving the lives of children,” Stein said in a letter to parents.

Stein was originally hired as the district’s superintendent in 2012 but was forced to step down due to a family emergency. He joined the district as chief academic officer in 2013 and was appointed superintendent in 2016. He’ll have completed nine years with the district before his departure.

He oversaw a 2015 bond campaign and, recently, the push to approve a mill levy override to increase local property taxes more than $7 million to increase district wages.

Stein is earning $167,228 this school year, after requesting no increase in his last salary negotiation in January 2021.

The district’s Board of Education was slated to act on Stein’s contract at its upcoming meeting, with a deadline set for Feb. 1 for either party to express intent to not renew the contract.

“Rob’s steadfast leadership, commitment to equity, and dedication to students have been a tremendous asset to the Roaring Fork School District,” former board president Natalie Torres said in a release. “I’m grateful for his focus on putting students first and leading the district with diligence and integrity.”

In a separate letter, the board announced its intent to “lead a robust and comprehensive search with the goal of selecting the most qualified candidate to lead our district.”

Interviews with consulting firms will begin in “the coming weeks” with a selection expected by May for a July 1 start date.

“I am grateful to have been part of an amazing team of teachers, staff members, school and district leaders, students, and parents and look forward to the important work we will do together over the next few months,” Stein’s letter read. “I hope, like any good traveler, that I am leaving things better than when I arrived.”

Swift Foundation grants available to local education nonprofits

The Bessie Minor Swift Foundation considers grants to organizations that provide direct service to help with the implementation or expansion of literacy programs for children who are below grade level or experiencing difficulty reading.

The Bessie Minor Swift Foundation announced recently that it is accepting grant applications from nonprofit organizations that promote literacy, reading and writing skills and programs in the languages, sciences and interdisciplinary areas and serve Pitkin, Garfield and Eagle counties.

Applications will be accepted through Feb. 15 and recipients will be announced by May 1. The Fund will consider applications requesting a minimum of $500 and a maximum of $3,000.

The foundation considers grants to organizations that provide direct service to help with the implementation or expansion of literacy programs for children who are below grade level or experiencing difficulty reading, and also to develop reading and writing skills at all age levels. The Foundation supports STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) as well. The Foundation also occasionally supports programs for adults.

More than $780,000 in grant money has been awarded since 2008. The Foundation prefers to consider support for programs rather than grants for the purchase of technology. The Foundation also favors organizations that do not have access to large fundraising budgets and are local in nature. Grants are made only to nonprofit organizations certified as tax exempt. More information is available BessieMinorSwift.org, and questions can be sent to grants@bessieminorswift.org.

The Bessie Minor Swift Foundation was formed by the owners and founder of Swift Communications. Bessie Minor Swift was mother of Philip Swift, the founder of Swift Communications. She was born in Onaga, Kansas, on June 29, 1887, and she later taught school in a one-room schoolhouse in Missouri.

Colorado’s school board races reflected state’s shifting political ground

When Sarah Fishering won her Montrose school board seat in 2017, the race was hard-fought but always collegial. She and her opponent jokingly referred to each other as running mates because they spent so much time together at forums and events.

Fishering spent $115 on her campaign. One of her more extravagant expenditures was two-sided printing, so she could put a children’s worksheet on a campaign flier.

This year felt much different. A GOP-sponsored candidate forum seemed designed to favor a conservative slate of challengers pledging to uphold traditional moral values, Fishering said. Her opponent from that slate raised more than $1,000, so Fishering overcame her discomfort and asked supporters for money, too.

Around the country, school board elections saw a surge of interest and spending, much of it tied to hot-button issues like masks in schools and the teaching of race and American history — and Colorado was no exception. Political observers and education advocates watched to see if a conservative parent backlash would upset the status quo across the state.

Looking at election results, it is clear that did not happen. While conservative slates dominated in districts that already leaned conservative and Republican, teachers union-backed candidates advocating for progressive values won not only in Democratic strongholds but also in many politically mixed areas that swing back and forth along partisan lines.

More moderate candidates even came out ahead in heavily Republican Montrose County, where Fishering won re-election alongside a like-minded ally. Another incumbent narrowly led in initial results but may be headed to a recount.

“It’s a mixed set of results, and that makes sense given that these are by definition really local political races,” said Anand Sokhey, an associate professor of political science at the University of Colorado Boulder. “In the places where you see more conservative politics emerge anyway, you saw a more conservative trend. In other places, you saw contentious school board meetings and energized races, but the teacher-supported candidates still prevailed.”

School board races are technically nonpartisan, but this year local Republican and Democratic parties endorsed candidates and steered money their way, something not seen in past years to the same degree. In the aftermath, each party declared victory.

How people feel about the risk of COVID-19 and how hard schools should work to prevent transmission largely breaks down along partisan lines. The same is true for ideas about curriculum and how race and history should be taught, often lumped under the umbrella of critical race theory, an approach developed by legal scholars that looks at how laws and institutions perpetuate systemic racism.

Those factors largely explain this year’s school election results, said Ryan Winger, director of data analysis and campaign strategy at Magellan Strategies, a Republican polling firm.

“The nature of these school board races became incredibly partisan, and that’s largely due to how the school boards handled COVID, as well as these pockets where you have conversations about critical race theory or curriculum,” Winger said. “In Republican areas, it’s easier for them to tap into that sentiment because, guess what, there are a lot of Republicans anyway. In places like Jefferson County, it’s a completely different political atmosphere, and it’s not as easy for that conservative slate to tap into that anger.”

Union-backed candidates prevailed in many suburban districts

Conservative slates — candidates who ran on parents having more say in education, against mask and vaccine requirements, and against critical race theory — dominated in parts of the state that already were conservative. Such candidates won in Douglas County, Mesa County, Colorado Springs, and Greeley, and picked up seats in Adams 12 in the Denver suburbs and in the Brighton-based 27J district.

But in more Democratic-leaning and politically mixed areas — Jefferson County, Cherry Creek, Aurora, Poudre, Littleton, and St. Vrain — teachers union-backed candidates who favor stricter COVID safety protocols and a focus on diversity and equity prevailed in hard-fought races.

Statewide, an independent expenditure committee associated with the teachers union spent at least $350,000 to help elect candidates aligned with their views.

In Jefferson County, where conservatives controlled the school board as recently as 2015, union-backed candidates won easy victories over three challengers who wanted better fiscal management and suggested masks harm children’s mental health. The challengers were significantly outspent and may also have struggled under the legacy of the previous conservative board, which made the district the subject of national controversy for efforts to rewrite the history curriculum.

Voters “remember the recalled board,” said Evie Hudak, a longtime education advocate and former Democratic lawmaker, who also noted the county has become significantly more Democratic. “I’m glad to see that Jefferson County voters have a longer memory and remember where we’ve been.”

In Cherry Creek, candidates backed by the teachers union won their races against more conservative challengers. In Littleton, an incumbent secured the most votes while the candidate who made opposing critical race theory his top issue came in last of five candidates.

In the Fort Collins-based Poudre School District, National Education Association President Becky Pringle knocked doors in support of the union-endorsed candidates who went on to win over GOP-endorsed challengers who opposed the district’s mask mandate and wanted more focus on academics rather than equity. And in the Thompson school district, union-endorsed candidates won three open seats, though a fourth went to an anti-mandate candidate.

Republican strongholds elected conservative school boards

The school district in Douglas County southeast of Denver previously had been controlled by a conservative board that implemented a voucher policy that led to years of litigation. In 2017, in an election that drew national interest and significant outside money, a union-supported board took control of the district.

But that board faced significant parent pushback over the past two years over COVID-19 restrictions, hybrid school schedules, and a new equity policy. Students and staff of color have long reported poor treatment in a district where 70% of students identify as white. Most recently, parents railed against the district’s legal fight to enforce its mask order after county commissioners passed a policy allowing anyone to opt out.

On Election Day, a slate of challengers who ran against mask mandates, critical race theory, and aspects of the district’s sexual education curriculum won handily over two incumbents and their allies.

Mike Peterson, a member of the winning Kids First slate, said he first got involved in school board politics after overhearing his daughter’s lessons during remote learning. He thought the lessons divided people into victims and oppressors and taught students from marginalized groups they couldn’t succeed.

Peterson acknowledges the Kids First slate is more conservative than the outgoing board, but he is uncomfortable with describing their win as a backlash. He describes his slate’s focus as restoring the proper place of parent voice and perspective in the educational system, a common framing used by school board challengers this year.

“We just want to get back to academic recovery, academic achievement, get teachers back in their proper place as educators and back in partnership with parents,” he said.

Conservative groups poured money into the Douglas County race and hailed it as a victory, along with another sweep in Mesa County, which saw some of the most contentious school board meetings in the state, with police even escorting members to their cars after one meeting at which some parents called for the superintendent to resign or be arrested.

In Colorado Springs, a political committee with ties to the Republican Party, the Springs Opportunity Fund, spent big to support nine candidates in the three largest districts: Academy 20, District 11, and District 49. All nine candidates were successful, and two incumbents lost their seats. Unlike other conservative slates around the state, this one included incumbents. Ivy Liu, who won re-election in District 49, has been a vocal opponent of critical race theory, and earlier this year, the district became the first in Colorado to explicitly ban its teaching.

Republicans also saw school board victories in Woodland Park, Greeley, and the Huerfano district in southern Colorado.

There was a conservative parent backlash — but it was limited

The pattern in Colorado seems similar to those in school board races in other parts of the country, said Doug Kronaizl, a staff writer with Ballotpedia, an election information site tracking the results from 96 school board races that took place this November. Ballotpedia isn’t analyzing results by partisan makeup of school districts, but in many districts, candidates running in opposition to mask mandates or critical race theory either won multiple seats — or none.

“It does not appear as if opposing critical race theory [or mask mandates] is a magic wand to win a school board seat anywhere in the country,” he said. “Where they win, they win big. That suggests the district was politically primed for these candidacies.”

In races tracked by Ballotpedia, from 60% to 70% of incumbents won re-election, less than in past years but still a majority. And candidates who supported stricter COVID-19 protocols or a progressive approach to teaching American history were winning about 2 to 1 over candidates who opposed those issues.

A poll by Magellan Strategies of Colorado parents found more than half of respondents thought their school and their children’s teachers had done a pretty good job navigating the pandemic so far. This year, Colorado schools have provided more in-person learning, with full-time rather than hybrid schedules and fewer quarantines due to more relaxed state guidelines. That may have eased some of the frustration associated with pandemic education in the lead up to the election.

“I think a lot of the concern came from people who were already going to vote Republican,” Winger said.

Mask politics and CRT didn’t drive every school board race

In Denver Public Schools and in Aurora Public Schools, the races turned more on long-standing disagreements among Democrats and progressives about education reform, the role of charter schools, and the best way to support students, rather than on COVID protocols or the teaching of race.

And some Colorado school districts saw almost no interest in their board races.

The Adams 14 district, which serves a largely working-class Hispanic community in Commerce City, spent more time in remote learning than any other Colorado district, and is under a state order to improve academic performance. The district canceled its election due to lack of candidates, as did other diverse, working-class suburban districts like Westminster, Mapleton, and Sheridan.

Carrie Sampson, an assistant professor at Arizona State University who studies school boards and educational leadership, said communities of color experienced the pandemic differently and that led to different attitudes about masking and other COVID protocols — and in turn different political behavior.

Remote learning “was really hard on those communities, but there was also disproportionate impact of COVID,” she said. “There were more multigenerational families, and people saw family members pass. There was a sense that our communities were at risk.”

The parent backlash “is a phenomenon of white suburban communities,” Winger said.

The school districts where COVID-19 became an election issue were not necessarily those with the strictest policies or where students were most affected by prolonged school closures. Montrose, for example, doesn’t have a mask requirement for students or most staff, but candidates were pressed to say what they would do if the state issued a mandate.

Fishering, the winning Montrose school board candidate, said she ran for re-election in part to protect her district from overheated national rhetoric that was making its way into local education politics.

She credits her victory to a number of factors, including the school district being the largest employer in the county and the conservative slate skipping a key election forum. Fishering said she’s keenly aware that thousands of people voted for her opponent. More than anything, she said she wants parents who felt like they didn’t have a voice to stay involved and see that they do have the power to create change in the school system.

“This part of the population that has fallen out of love with our public education system; we have to get them to fall in love again,” she said.

Summit Middle School student kayaks to school instead of taking the bus

Josh Smith kayaks Sept. 8 to Summit Middle School on Dillon Reservoir.
Jason Smith/Courtesy photo

A shortage of bus drivers at Summit School District has some students getting creative about getting to class.

Josh Smith, 12, is a Summit Middle School student and Boy Scout who got a kayak for his birthday a few years back. Given difficulties with busing this year, Josh decided he would take matters into his own hands and kayak to school.

“I’m always looking for new adventures, and I’m always trying to do cool stuff that I’ll remember,” Josh said. “I haven’t really used my kayak this summer, so I was thinking it’s pretty warm weather, and tomorrow I should kayak to school, because then I can tell everyone about it.”

On Sept. 8, Josh did just that. He and his father, Jason Smith, were up at 6 a.m. to load the kayak onto the car, and then the pair drove over to Heaton Bay on Dillon Dam Road. Josh set off for school on Dillon Reservoir at around 7 a.m.

“We put the kayak in, and it was really pretty,” Josh said. “And I turned on my GoPro, and just then the sun started to rise. So I took off, and the water was super reflective like a mirror, and then the sun started to rise, so it’s really pretty.”

Jason’s car said the temperature at the time was 34 degrees — which worried him — but he said he wasn’t about to change his mind.

“I didn’t like it when I dropped him in the water, and it was 34 degrees. If he falls, it’s going to be hypothermia,” Jason said. “I can easily say ‘no,’ but I think the consequences of ‘no’ are greater than the risk of falling in the water or being late to class.”

On his way over to school, Josh stopped to explore a small island. He said the whole trip took about 35-40 minutes and that he got to school a bit late. He walked into class still wearing his life jacket.

Josh Smith captured a picture from his GoPro as he kayaked to Summit Middle School on Dillon Reservoir the morning of Sept. 8.
Josh Smith/Courtesy photo

Josh pulled his kayak onto the beach next to the football field at the middle school and parked it there for the day before kayaking back to Heaton Bay to meet his dad after school. Josh left his cellphone and computer at school the night before so they would be safe should anything happen during the trip.

Jason made sure to keep an eye on Josh during his trip and was reassured when he saw Josh’s kayak on the school’s shore. Jason said letting Josh paddle his kayak to school was a no-brainer and said he was impressed by his son’s initiative.

“He’s got an adventurous spirit, and as a dad, you want to protect your son,” Jason said. “But you don’t want to hinder that adventurous spirit, so I encouraged him. … I want to reward somebody for getting out of their comfort zone, especially at age 12, and being willing to be daring and take some risks.”

Josh hopes to one day earn Eagle Scout recognition, and he is currently working to earn his kayaking merit badge.

“I’m going to earn my kayaking merit badge soon, so I thought for one of my requirements I would kayak to school,” Josh said. “I’m looking to get my Eagle Scout so that way I can go to the Air Force Academy.”

Josh said he would totally kayak to school again, and Jason said he would let him once the weather starts warming up. Jason enjoyed seeing his son accomplish something he set out to do himself and said it was a confidence builder for Josh.

“He was out there on his own. He wasn’t overcome by fear. He wasn’t overcome by negative thoughts,” Jason said. “He was thinking good thoughts (about) accomplishing something, and to me that’s something that I want to reward and encourage.”

New CMC programs help meet rising need for addiction technicians and specialists

Luke Lubchenco, a student of CMC's new certified addiction technician program, is pictured Tuesday, Aug. 31, outside Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs, where he is a mental health advocate at the Youth Recovery Center.
Rich Allen/Post Independent

GLENWOOD SPRINGS — A pair of new Colorado Mountain College programs are turning around certified addiction technicians and specialists at a high rate as the need continues to grow.

The new programs launched Aug. 24 for a cohort of six individuals, the first of 15 weeks of coursework, which CMC officials said is the fastest in the state to fulfill classroom qualifications to apply for the two certifications. It also allows students to receive college credit as they train to begin or further careers in addiction treatment. They open the door to higher qualifications, which means higher wages, and further education like a master’s degree in an essential field that is only seeing demand increase.

“The more I learn about addictions, the more I see that it’s undervalued, underserved and extremely stigmatized,” said Luke Lubchenco, a student of the new program.

Lubchenco is a mental health advocate at the Youth Recovery Center at Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs. He’s been there for nine months providing support for the kids and families going through the program. He was driven to be part of the solution after seeing addiction impact those around him growing up.

To Lubchenco, the new programs allow him to turn his desire to help into a legitimate career.

“In the short term, it will certainly open doors to greater compensation,” Lubchenco said about the certification. “It also sets up for the long term, applying for grad school. It opens a lot of doors to anywhere you want to go with addictions.”

Certified addiction technicians and specialists offer support and treatment for people who have substance use disorders and their families. A technician works at the entry level, including collecting screening data and providing education, while a specialist is a higher-level qualification that deals more directly with treatment. Both require classroom learning and field work.

The state of Colorado renamed the certificates last year and added a bachelor’s degree requirement in the areas of addiction, behavioral analysis or mental health for the specialist role. According to Colorado Mountain College Dean Anne Moll, the state wants people in these roles to be educated to a certain level, specifically on a trajectory for a master’s degree.

CMC, already laying the foundation for the program, had to adapt its programming some but ultimately found the changes to be “exactly what we want,” Moll said.

“We had planned it, but we had to adjust a little bit to build it out with the bachelor’s,” she added. “We wanted to support what the community needed, and now we get the opportunity to do that even more so because we were planning this bachelor’s all along.”

The idea is that earning a degree and putting students on a path to more education will help elevate them above minimum-wage support jobs, earn higher pay and increase quality of care for patients in recovery.

CMC began exploring the idea of creating a college program several years ago. Community members reached out looking for ways for their employees to be compensated through college credit for undergoing the training to be certified. Now, with the program underway, Moll said the program hasn’t had to advertise as more groups have approached the school with interest in sending employees or even duplicating the cohort model for their workers as demand in the field increases.

There are up to 250 open positions for addiction counselors in Colorado, Moll estimated. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the field will add up to 80,000 jobs nationally by 2029, a 25% growth from 2019.

In the wake of the pandemic, the need became immediately apparent. CMC counselor Chris Harnden said that following a huge flatline in counseling referrals during the shutdown, those referrals spiked once society started opening back up.

Many of those cases had a substance use aspect.

“People had sought comfort, in a time of uncertainty, in drugs and alcohol because that’s what they could get their hands on,” Harnden said. “Now they’re coming out of this, and they have no coping skills. They haven’t practiced them in over a year.”

In the coursework, the students are learning about ethics, counseling skills, culturally informed treatment and motivational interviewing. They are being taught to treat with compassion and understanding.

Harnden said other schools offer college credit for training to be certified, but CMC is the first to allow students to complete the coursework in a semester, shrinking the curriculum from two years down to four months. The students still have to complete 1,000 hours of clinical work before they can apply for the certification but can have the in-class aspect done at an accelerated pace.

He said no material was cut — students just meet for extended classes twice a week. Curricula for each certification have 11 courses, adding up to 12 to 15 credit hours.

Lubchenco lives in Carbondale and said two of his classmates are from Rifle and one is from Leadville. Moll said much of the interest came from the Silt-to-Rifle region. And through community outreach, she learned there is a demand for these solutions at the local level. The program incentives locals to pursue these higher levels of qualification and stay in the field.

“We need people who are from our communities, who will stay in our communities,” Moll said. “I think it gives us a great opportunity to really help and significantly put a dent in the needs of our communities.”

Steamboat grad wins $50k scholarship for getting vaccinated, turns it down

When the Morse family got a call on their home phone about the Colorado Comeback Scholarship program, Toby Morse said he wasn’t quite sure what it was about.

But when the recent Steamboat Mountain School graduate returned the call, he learned he was one of the first students to be randomly chosen for the $50,000 scholarship eligible to vaccinated students in Colorado. After discussing it with his mom, Morse opted to turn down the cash.

“I already have an amazing academic scholarship to go to Clarkson University, and with some generosity from my grandparents, I’ll be graduating from college debt free,” said Morse, who plans to study engineering. “We decided it would be best for me to turn it down and, hopefully, find someone else out there who needs it more than I do.”

The scholarships are one of many ways — including three more million-dollar drawings — that state leaders are trying to entice Coloradans to roll up their sleeves and get a COVID-19 jab. Five $50,000 Scholarships were awarded Thursday to teens 12 to 17 years old who have gotten their COVID-19 vaccine, and 20 more will go to students who get their first dose before June 30.

Routt County recently reached the 75% mark of residents above the age of 16 to have started the vaccine series. When about 1,200 people get their second dose of the vaccine, the 75% of residents 16-plus will be fully vaccinated.

Morse said the high vaccination rates in Routt County, which still rank in the top 10 in the state, is the reason his grandparents felt comfortable enough to visit from the East Coast this spring.

“I hadn’t seen then for a year and a half, and it was really amazing for me to see them again,” Morse said while on a Facebook Live announcement with Gov. Jared Polis last Thursday. “Even though I am deathly afraid of shots, I knew I had to get out there and do my civic duty and get vaccinated.”

Only the Pfizer vaccine is currently approved for those under the age of 18, but Moderna asked the Food and Drug Administration last week for emergency use approval for those ages 12 to 17. Late last month, Moderna released results from a trial of 3,700 12- to 17-year-olds that showed the vaccine to be 100% effective, similar to results Pfizer used to bolster its case for approval for children in May.

Children make up about 20% of the nation’s population and are seen as a crucial group to vaccinate for schools to bring students back next fall without the many precautions taken because of the pandemic.

“This last year has been a tough one for students across this state,” Polis said. “This year in school was just a small shell of what it should have been.”

Because of the vaccine, Polis said, “our classrooms are going to be safer than ever before,” with many of the precautions schools needed to take because of the pandemic no longer necessary.

The Hayden and South Routt school districts finished the year with full-time, in-person learning at all levels, and the Steamboat Springs School Board has made it clear their intention is for school to be full-time, in-person and without masks this fall.

Natalie M., of Centennial; Arianna Garcia, 14, of Longmont; Liam Atkins, 15, of Boulde;, Brett Cheney, 16, of Mesa County; and Gabriella Sleight, 14, of Littleton, are the first five students to get the scholarship last week, with 20 more to be announced in the coming weeks.

Polis also announced the second vaccinated Coloradan to win $1 million in cash last Friday, with three more announcements coming each Friday through the beginning of July.

“If you have been waiting, now is the time to do it. We want to end this pandemic, we want you to protect yourself,” Polis said, pointing to the rewards the state is dangling in front of the unvaccinated. “There is a good reason to do it sooner rather than later.”

Former Summit School District superintendent’s severance package totals $100,000

Former Summit School District Superintendent Marion Smith Jr. stands outside the school district administration building July 22, 2020, in Frisco. Smith received $100,000 from the district in his mutual separation agreement and release.
Photo by Libby Stanford / Summit Daily archives

The Summit School District paid former superintendent Marion Smith Jr. $100,000 in severance to cover salary for his remaining contract, unused leave, claims of damages and attorney fees.

The severance package will be paid out in three installments, the first of which includes his salary for the remaining month of his contract and unused leave for a total of $25,613. Smith’s annual salary was $179,000, amounting to $14,916 for the month of June. His unused leave totaled $10,696.80.

The second payment of $50,000 is a settlement of claims of noneconomic damages for “emotional pain, suffering, inconvenience, mental anguish, loss of enjoyment of life, and other nonpecuniary losses,” according to a copy of Smith’s mutual separation agreement and release obtained by the Summit Daily.

The third payment of $24,387 is made out to Killmer, Lane & Newman to cover Smith’s legal fees.

District spokesperson Mikki Grebetz said the agreement was a product of negotiations between the district’s legal counsel and Smith’s attorney.

The agreement said neither party involved admits to any liability or wrongdoing and that Smith has permanently severed employment relations with the district. It also said that while the agreement is public record, Smith agreed not to discuss the terms of the agreement with anyone other than his legal counsel or immediate family.

Summit Daily reporters and editors attempted to reach Smith by phone Monday but discovered their numbers had been blocked.

A seven-point release section of the document said Smith was given 21 days to consider the terms of the agreement, which he signed May 28, his last day with the district. The document said that he releases the district, its board, directors, administrators, agents and employees from all past and present legal claims and that he will not file a claim, charge or lawsuit against the district concerning his employment.

The document also said the agreement should be construed in the “broadest possible manner” and that all disputes between Smith and the district are “forever resolved” with few exceptions, releasing any and all claims past, present or future, meaning Smith cannot take action against the district for any future claims or damages.

“The Board of Education thanks Dr. Smith for his contributions to the students and district throughout this last year,” school board President Kate Hudnut said in a statement from the district. “We wish Dr. Smith well in his future endeavors.”

The district did not provide any additional information on why the settlement was paid or answer questions about the nondisclosure agreement with Smith.

The separation agreement is the culmination of months of disagreement among school board members about whether Smith’s contract should have been renewed.

On April 15, the board voted 3-3 on whether to enter negotiations to renew Smith’s contract. Less than two weeks later, board member Gloria Quintero voted with the majority in a 4-2 decision to hire a search firm to find an interim superintendent for the 2021-22 school year.

At its meeting May 24, the board identified three finalists from 21 applications for the interim superintendent job. Interviews with the finalists will take place at a special board meeting Monday, June 14, with a public meet and greet with the selected candidate June 22. The interim superintendent will begin work July 1.