What a different two years makes.

The first forum for the five candidates vying for three seats on the Jefferson County Board of Education took place Wednesday night. Everyone was polite and civil and agreed more than they disagreed. But the lines were clearly drawn on several issues, most notably transparency around the district’s budget, school choice and accountability for charter schools.

One of the candidates, Matt Van Gieson, who lives in Arvada and is challenging incumbent Brad Rupert, pointed out that he had brought two of his children to watch the event, something he said he would not have done two years ago. Van Gieson was referring to the previous Jeffco board that was sharply divided between conservative education reformers and pro-teacher members, and prior to the 2015 election those board meetings sometimes turned into shouting matches among board members and between board members and the public.

A coalition of parent and teacher groups, backed with funding from local, state and national teachers’ unions,  launched a recall of the three conservatives. With the other two members choosing not to run for re-election, it meant the five-member board had five new members after the November 2015 election to run the state’s second largest school district.

The three who replaced the recalled board members are now running for their first full four-year terms. That includes board President Ron Mitchell, who is running unopposed. Incumbent Susan Harmon is running against Erica Shields. Even though candidates represent specific areas, the election is district-wide, meaning voters will vote for candidates for all three seats. Both Van Gieson and Shields got into the race at the last possible moment, filing candidacy paperwork on September 1.

Van Gieson and Shields both said they are running to provide balance to the board and to be the voice for those who they said are not being heard. Harmon, Rupert and Mitchell pointed to the transition of the board from one that is “drama-riven” to a more civil group, hiring a new superintendent and improving teacher compensation that they said cut back on the hemorrhaging of teachers to districts where they were better paid.

The Wednesday night forum, held at Wheat Ridge High School, allowed candidates to express their views on everything from post-high school career pathways, the budget, policies to prevent suicide and bullying, personal definitions of school choice, and whether the candidates support the Dreamers, undocumented minors who are facing deportation under the Trump administration’s decision to cancel the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program instituted by the Obama administration in 2012. All five said they supported DACA students.

There was much to agree on, according to the candidates, including the importance of arts and humanities education in the public schools and the need for as much community engagement as possible.

Where they were most divided is on the issue of school choice. Van Gieson is affiliated with the Golden View Classical Academy, which he didn’t mention during the evening. Academy teachers receive training from Hillsdale College, a conservative Christian college in Michigan that has ties to billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who visited Denver earlier in the day.

Among the questions: how do you define school choice? Van Gieson referred to the Douglas County School District Choice Scholarship program, which has been declared unconstitutional by the Colorado Supreme Court. However, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered another review of that decision, which is pending in the trial court. Van Gieson said Jeffco students have many choices, such as STEM schools, Montessori and “core knowledge” schools, and that he didn’t support vouchers because they have been declared unconstitutional. Shields echoed Van Gieson’s views on vouchers, saying that Colorado voters had rejected them and she supported the voters. But “parents know what’s best for their children. I advocate for school choice because it gives opportunities for all children.”

The incumbents responded that they did not support privatization of public schools or vouchers. “We live in a ‘choice’ district” that allows parents to choose which schools their children attend, said Harmon. “School choice is making sure the choices out there are sustainable and providing a quality education for all students.”

“I’m absolutely opposed to vouchers,” said Mitchell, which he called a “tax break for the wealthy.” He added that recent studies have shown that school choice doesn’t necessarily equal quality. “I’m more interested in making sure the choices we have are quality choices,” he said.

Another question touched on the topic of charter schools and the waivers they obtain from the state board of education and the district, and whether the candidates supported accountability for all schools.

Van Gieson didn’t address the accountability question, saying only that waivers are available for both traditional public and charter schools, and that “we should be okay” if that’s what the parents and community want for their schools. Last year, The Colorado Independent reported on a lack of oversight by both school districts and the State Board of Education on charter school waivers; Golden View Classical was among the examples cited.

Shields said that all charter schools should be held accountable, and that those that are not high performing shouldn’t be funded. Rupert added that parents are not the only stakeholders when it comes to charter schools, that charters should be accountable to the entire community, including businesses and taxpayers. “We need to treat them more like public schools,” he added.

Waivers granted by the state are “unfortunate because I believe in local control,” added Mitchell. It is the board’s responsibility to make sure all schools are accountable, and if charter schools receive equal funding they should provide equal services.

The Colorado General Assembly in May approved a bill, signed into law by Gov. John Hickenlooper, that would equalize funding for charter schools around the state, ensuring for the first time in some districts that charters receive a share of property tax revenues.

The budget, and a claim that the budget process is not as transparent as it should be, also came up. Van Gieson said the district should have a line item budget so that everyone can see how the money is spent. Shields compared the district budget to her own family’s budget, stating that her husband wants to know line by line how the money is being spent. “As taxpayers, it’s not that different. Don’t you want to know exactly where [the money] is going?”

Rupert pointed out that the board has tried for the past two years to engage the public as much as possible, with public forums, call-ins and questionnaires. But the budget is very complicated, he said. Presenting it as a line item is “unrealistic.” Mitchell noted the budget book is about two inches thick, and that 80 percent of the district’s funding goes to personnel. How those dollars are allocated once it reaches a school is a school’s decision, he added.

“The transparency is there,” said Harmon. “The difference is communication and you can never communicate enough so that people know we are being transparent.” She pledged to work with the district’s new superintendent, Jason Glass, to do a better job.

The forum was sponsored by the pro-teacher Support Jeffco Kids and Arvadans for Progressive Action.  

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