Alter, Conlin, Peña, Stecher, Reynolds win seats on school board |

Alter, Conlin, Peña, Stecher, Reynolds win seats on school board

The Vote Smart x5 candidate slate cruised to victory on election night

Two factions of candidates emerged in the school board election — represented by two political committees.
Nate Peterson/Vail Daily File

Votes compiled by 9 p.m. on Tuesday night indicate that incumbents Kelly Alter and Michelle Stecher as well as newcomers Lelia Conlin, Juan Peña and Dan Reynolds will take over the five open seats on the Eagle County Board of Education.

Early results have District A candidate Alter taking 63% of the votes ahead of Andrew Keiser; District B candidate Conlin taking 68% of the votes against Kyla Sink; District E candidate Peña taking 64% of the votes against Heather Bergquist; and District G candidate Reynolds with 70% of the votes against Susan Cunningham.

District F candidate Stecher claimed 7,129 votes to write-in candidate Maribel Avila’s 1,221 votes. District B write-in candidate Bridget Russell received 40 votes.

A contentious campaign season

From left to right, Kelly Alter, Lelia Conlin, Juan Peña, Dan Reynolds and Michelle Stecher celebrate on election night.
Carolyn Paletta/Vail Daily

The school board election was highly contentious this year as 11 candidates competed for five open seats. The high participation in the race followed months of high-spirited school board meetings where local parents and community members brought mask debates, politics and more to the forefront of school discussions.

Two factions of candidates emerged in election season — represented by two political committees, the Community Coalition for Eagle County School Board and People for Eagle County School District. Each committee supported a slate of five candidates.

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The Community Coalition candidates, also known as the Vote Smart x5 campaign slate, will take the five seats.

Wendy Rimel, who served as the volunteer campaign coordinator for the committee, expressed pride on election night for the campaign’s success.

“We really want to represent 100% of the voices,” Rimel said. “I’m incredibly proud that we ran a nonpartisan campaign, because that’s what the school board represents, and that we had representatives from all parties who share common goals for a broad majority of our community.”

And as the campaigning heated up, the election also brought in a large amount of donations for individual campaigns and the two committees, as candidates spent money on campaign signs, door hangers, ads and more.

As of Nov. 1, the Community Coalition had received and spent the most out of any individual or committee campaign, bringing in $19,318.63 and spending $16, 353.31. The other committee, in comparison, received $825 in donations and spent $696.47.

However, the individual candidates represented by the People for Eagle County School District also had their own significant campaign contributions — whereas those represented by the Community Coalition funneled all donations through the committee.

Bergquist received the most donations ($15,012.10), and spent the most ($10,478.49) out of any individual candidate. These contributions and expenditures were followed by Keiser, who brought in $10,215 and spent $9,776.80; Sink, who brought in $2,772.81 and spent $1,528.66; and Cunningham, who brought in $2,580.40 and spent $2,131.30.

Throughout the campaign and through election night, Peña expressed gratitude for the support he has received, and that the campaigning paid off.

“I’m overwhelmed by the support that everyone has been giving, it’s just unreal. I’m kind of on Cloud Nine. It’s a great feeling, and it’s a lot of work that went into it,” he said.

Incumbent Alter said that this campaign season was very different than past school board elections.

“This is one of the first years, in all my years in Eagle County, where because we had so many candidates they were all really passionate and really wanted it, whereas in the past you’re often drawing people in as appointees,” she said. “We have really passionate, informed school board members that are excited to get to work.”

Getting to work

With three new directors joining the Board of Education, based on the current election results, there will be almost an entirely new board starting in December.

The board also will be sending off two long-serving members, Kate Cocchiarella and Shelly Jarnot, who served 11.5 years and eight years, respectively, as well as Fernando Almanza, who served one term on the board.

And with the new board will come new leadership. At the end of their terms, Cocchiarella served as board president and Jarnot as the vice president. One of the first duties of the new board will be to elect their new leadership.

Cocchiarella has mixed feelings coming to the end of her service.

“I am grateful for the experience: success and failure, heartbreak and joy, wicked problems and creative solutions; I am grateful for all of it. It has been an honor to be part of such a dynamic and dedicated team,” Cocchiarella wrote to the Vail Daily. “However, after 11 ½ years, I am ready to relinquish the responsibility of my role. Board work is a labor of love, and it demands commitment and sacrifice.”

And in passing on the torch of service, Cocchiarella is ready to see the “fresh perspective and renewed energy” that the new directors bring.

Incumbents Alter and Stecher will remain on the board — alongside directors Ted Long and Lucila Tvarkunas — to bring in the three new board members.

“Having fresh perspectives will be great. I’m really proud of the work that’s been done on the school board, while I’ve been on the board for three years, and really over the last five to 10 years, especially how we’ve navigated all of the challenges of the pandemic,” Stecher said. “But our work needs to continue on, and having folks with different backgrounds and fresh perspectives, who are comfortable with each other where we can challenge each other in order to make breakthroughs and decisions that are best for the kids is going to be amazing.”

As for her words of advice to the new members? “Ask questions,” Stecher said. “We do have a lot of business as usual processes, but we are also up against some really difficult choices where it seems like both ways are really going to be challenging or both ways could be really good, and we have to pick between them.”

Alter added that she hopes all the new members will jump right into their work.

“My encouragement to the new board members is to try and find your voice as soon as possible, because it seems intimidating when you first get into board meetings, but the people are all really friendly and open,” she said.

For many of the new candidates, jumping in will include bringing their own perspectives to the table and tackling challenges — like the district’s staffing shortage — head on.

“My goal is to keep good teachers in our valley. We have some great teachers, and we’ve lost some really great teachers, and it’s really hard when you get to know these people who come here and want to teach and they build these kids up, but then they have to leave because they can’t afford to live here,” Peña said.

Peña added that he would like to see an increased focus on Hispanic students and keeping their Spanish language skills alive.

“We have a lot of Hispanics, and I am a part of that, and I want to dig deeper into that to make it better and more efficient. I’ve seen some of the kids that say they are bilingual, and then if you hear them read Spanish they struggle because they focus so much on English that they’ve forgotten their first language,” he said. “They can speak it well, but they’ve forgotten how to read it. So I want to improve on that.”

For Conlin, helping teachers and achieving her goals will include working with the community as whole.

“Throughout the campaign, we’ve talked to a lot of constituents and teachers and what I’ve figured out is that we have to put an emphasis on taking care of each other and working together as a community and doing what we can to take care of our teachers, whether that’s monetary compensation or housing or childcare or wellness,” she said. “When they are taken care of, they are taking care of our kids, and that means better and brighter futures for all of our kids.”

Carolyn Paletta contributed reporting.

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