School board candidates discuss student success, teachers and politics at forum
A large crowd attended Thursday’s forum to hear the candidates discuss policy, agendas and more
AVON — On Nov. 2, Eagle County voters will determine which of the 11 candidates running for the Eagle County Schools’ Board of Education will fill its five open seats.
As the campaigning for the election heats up, Eagle County Schools hosted a forum at Homestake Peak on Thursday night. The forum offered those in attendance a chance to get to know the candidates vying for the five open seats. The event was filmed and will be available within the next few days on the district’s website and via High Five Media.
Candidates answered several rounds of questions — two of which were given by the evening’s moderator, Rohn Robbins, and one round of audience questions.
Both of the ballot’s write-in candidates, Bridget Russell and Maribel Avila, were invited but absent from the forum.
While the candidates expressed their differing views and agendas in their responses, every candidate expressed a desire to do what was best for the county’s students.
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Academic, student success
One of the main areas that many candidates agreed on was that ensuring the academic success of students was vital to the success not only of the district, but of the community as a whole.
“We are tasked by the community to graduate proficient reading, writing and arithmetic children so that they can survive and thrive in the community that we hope they stay in,” said Andrew Keiser, a candidate for District A.
Multiple candidates expressed that they felt academic achievement in the district had slipped in recent years.
“I have witnessed the systematic degradation of our academic system over the past 10 years,” said District G candidate Susan Cunningham, speaking at first about her experiences with her three sons in the Cherry Creek School District where her two eldest sons graduated. “We decided to move here to Eagle County where we found a more inclusive and compassionate environment. Unfortunately, however, I’m starting to witness the same surge of academic assault in our beloved county.”
Others felt that the path the district is on is one that will increase academic success going forward.
“We have a new strategic plan, which I think when implemented will help with student achievement,” said Kelly Alter, an incumbent candidate for District A. “We have finally some consistency in leadership and actually, pre-COVID our test scores were improving and we were on the right path.”
However, some candidates expressed their own views and ideas on how exactly they wish to improve this success.
“Over the years we’ve seen increasing numbers of kids who are not meeting proficiency,” said Kyla Sink, a candidate in District B. “Each child enters school with different levels of knowledge, and if we can identify early on the children who have learning disabilities or continually test poorly, we can make adjustments and tailor the education to best suit their needs.”
Cunningham said that the “crisis” of low proficiency in math and science could be solved by implementing SMART goals — specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely — getting “extraordinary” pay for teachers, training for teachers, concentrating on core subjects and increasing student discourse “without teacher’s personal opinions.”
In its strategic plan, the district defines equity as creating “inclusive and respectful classroom environments to promote equity in access, opportunity, and outcomes for all students regardless of race, gender, economic status, gender identity, sexual orientation and exceptional needs.”
Michelle Stecher, an incumbent board member running for District F, added that equity and academic achievement are greatly intertwined.
“I know there’s a big focus on encouraging academic achievement, and in order to do that well for all of our students, we know that so many young people show up through our doors without their basic needs met,” Stecher said. “We need to make sure that in order for a learning environment to be productive for anyone in the classroom that those basic needs are met.”
Both of District E’s candidates, Heather Bergquist and Juan Peña, expressed being open to the new grading system but needing more information to understand its total impact.
“It’s new and it’s scary for a lot of people because they don’t understand it,” Peña said. “My goal is to make sure that I understand it, make sure that it runs smoothly and it doesn’t affect our kids in the way that people are assuming it will affect our kids.”
Bergquist added that she supported the district’s intent behind the new practice and added that “there needs to be a lot of scrutiny of this system as it’s new, and [of] its actual, not theoretical impact on students.”
Keiser expressed that he felt that equity was being misconstrued — not only in this grading practice but also in the district’s priority of equity.
“I think there’s a definition for equity and it is in contrast to equality,” he said. “I frankly don’t care about any of the stuff that we’re born with, the school district should be focused on giving each child the equal opportunity to thrive. Some kids shouldn’t get a lesser classroom because he’s white or brown — everybody treated the same. These are the founding principals of our nation, and if it’s good enough for the Founding Fathers, it should be good enough for Eagle County and our children.”
While COVID-19 has impacted many areas of education, one of the more visual impacts has been the politicization of school board meetings. Over the past several months, these meetings across the country have become embroiled in debates around masks, vaccines, politics, religion and more.
Eagle County has not been exempt from this. While debates here — primarily centered on mask mandates, equity and curriculum — remain relatively civil in comparison to other places, the board room has seen its share of protest posters and politics in recent months.
Multiple candidates on the school board slate have been actively engaged in these meetings and mask debates.
Several of the forum’s questions — and responses — pointed to the contentious nature of education and the school board in recent months. And even though the school board election is a nonpartisan race, politics and personal beliefs were a topic at the forum.
The discussion of these topics kicked off on how board members would work “across the aisle” to make the best decisions. In this, many candidates expressed the value of listening to differing opinions.
“As a community, we need to really focus on listening to each other and having empathy for each other’s situations,” said District B candidate Lelia Conlin.
Sink reiterated this, stating that even though many board decisions won’t be unanimous, that respect and empathy are important. “That’s kind of the point of this whole thing. We all have different views, but we all want the focus on our kids,” she said.
Dan Reynolds, District G candidate, expressed that having these differing opinions would strengthen the district as a whole.
“Although these are interesting and sometimes crazy times, I think at the end of the day this communication is going to open up some avenues and we’re going to be able to work together, reach across the aisle and come up with some solutions that at the end of the day benefit our students,” he said.
While the mask debate has been a prevalent topic at board meetings since May, there was little discussion of the current mask mandate for schools at the forum, even though several candidates have publicly opposed them at board meetings. Masks will continue to be required for all students, teachers, staff and visitors at all buildings where students in preschool through eighth grade are present through Friday, Oct. 29.
Reynolds was one to bring up the elephant in the room when asked about the district making decisions with public health, saying he did not support the mandate, posing instead that the decision be left to parents that “do their research” about what’s best for their kids.
“At the end of the day, we need our students in school, in person, and we need our teachers to do that,” he said.
An audience member asked Stecher about how decisions around masks, COVID-19 and vaccines were made. She replied that they were made with local and state level public health “to make decisions that are best for keeping our kids in school.”
Additionally, an audience member asked the candidates from District E whether they would be able to uphold the separation of church and state. Presumably, this question was directed at Bergquist who serves as the director of the children’s ministry at The Vail Church. Keiser currently serves as a volunteer at the same church.
Bergquist said there are clear boundaries for public schools around providing excellent education in reading, writing, math and critical thinking.
“Issues of faith, of values and of worldview, no matter what that is, are things that belong to parents at home,” she said. “I think that the school can make every single effort to stay in their lane and focus on education and free up parents to guide their family in the way that they best see fit at home.”
Community, parent engagement
Through the school board meetings, many of the parents have been asking for more parent and community involvement in decision making. Several candidates are using it as part of their platform. At the forum, candidates discussed the importance of this engagement as well as how they will seek to make it happen.
Conlin expressed the importance of involvement and added that getting parents in the classrooms because schools need help was a good place to start. “They are begging for people to come in and help in whatever way they can,” she said.
Conlin added that leveraging community organizations and nonprofits is important as well, something that Stecher agreed with.
“We need each other to lean on, because one organization and one system can’t do it all alone. Together, we’re able to leverage our resources and make sure that all our families have all the supports they need,” Stecher said. “It takes a village. I’m glad we had ours.”
Most candidates agreed that having as many voices as possible was a positive.
“I think the role for a school board member is to exercise oversight and respect the voices of the parents, teachers, the staff and the students in a way that paves the students’ path to success,” Reynolds said.
The importance of schools, loyalty
The majority of the candidates shared that their connection to Eagle County Schools was through their students; identifying which schools their students had attended or currently attend.
At the forum, there were also several inquiries about overlooking school loyalty and whether board members should have students that attend the district.
“I take pride in knowing that I have kids in the district that I tend to support,” Peña said. He had previously noted that he attended school in the district — Red Sandstone and Battle Mountain — and “I know I can represent this valley and all the kids.”
Within the same district, Bergquist said that as a homeschool teacher for her four children, she didn’t think it was important to have students in the district.
“I think that anyone who is a taxpayer should have a vested interest in the financial investment they’re making into the public school system,” she said. “Personally, as a homeschool mom, I look forward to the day that I can re-enroll my four students in school.”
She added that her decision to homeschool was made after her oldest student attended kindergarten at Gypsum Elementary and “was not prepared to move on to first grade academically.”
Bergquist previously stated that her ability to serve the students in the district came from her experience as a teacher in “a number of different school settings: private schools, public schools, homeschool, low-socio economic status and wealthy children.”
To this question around whether board members should have students in the district, Cunningham and Reynolds expressed the value of having options and allowing parents to make that decision.
“As a public school system, we should want that and we should be OK with that because that’s competition, and if we want to do well and have a good school and educate our kids, then we’re going to beat out the private school, we’re going to beat out homeschool,” Reynolds said.
Part of this discussion around schools included a question, addressed by Robbins to Stecher, about whether students and families should be able to determine where they attend school.
“We have schools with all sorts of special focuses, and so I believe there is a great benefit to families being able to have some choice in where they attend,” Stecher said. “I think there’s value in neighborhood schools to keep kids together that are growing up together. But I do think there’s value in having the opportunity to try out other public schools.
Outside of student success, all candidates agreed on the value of teachers and the need for higher teacher pay. This is something facing not only Eagle County School District, but districts across the state as they battle staffing shortages and insufficient state funding. Across the country, Colorado is currently No. 39 in per-pupil funding and No. 50 in teacher pay.
Keiser expressed two options, re-evaluating where money is spent now, and improving enrollment.
“One of the things that drives our funding is kids showing up early fall, Oct. 2(ish) was last year. The way we get kids to our institutions is great academics, to be known as a great academic institution,” Keiser said. “We definitely need to continue to focus, with laser focus, on academic excellence, starting from the top.”
In seeking solutions, Alter expressed a need for state-level advocacy.
“Teacher pay is incredibly important. We’re realizing this right now as we are short-staffed,” she said. “We need to fight for state legislation. We need to rally together and storm the Capitol, because we can’t do it locally, the funds aren’t there. 85% of our budget goes toward teachers.”
Conlin said that outside of salaries, the district needs to support teachers and staff with “housing support, wellness initiatives and child care programs.”
There are five school board director seats up for election at the November election, one each for districts A, B, E, F and G, with 11 candidates running.
Ted Long and Lucila Tvarkunas currently hold director seats for districts C and D, respectively, and their terms do not expire this year.
The school board election is being held as part of the Nov. 2 election. Ballots are being mailed to registered voters Oct. 8 and must be received by 7 p.m. Nov. 2.
All school directors are voted on at-large, meaning eligible electors of the school district vote for one candidate from each director district.
For more information about the election and how to vote, visit EagleCounty.us