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Jeffco candidates spark lively debate

LAKEWOOD – Candidates to run the state’s largest school district got the chance Monday to question each other, an opportunity they used to highlight potential weaknesses.

Attorney Preston Branaugh honed in on former administrator Jill Fellman’s role in selecting the district’s math curriculum, after he criticized some Jefferson County high school math proficiency rates.

Felllman pointed out the program he questioned is an elementary math program that was “decided upon, not by me, by a group of people – citizens, teachers – across our district.”

Then involved mom and PR pro Lesley Dahlkemper tried to show architect Jim Powers lacked education expertise by peppering him with specific questions about how he would address the district’s achievement gap.

“I have not looked into that in great detail,” Powers acknowledged. “I would collect information from places like Denver, I would collect information from places even outside the state where we could see those measurements are being changed for the better.”

Two of five Jefferson County school board seats are open Nov. 1, and the campaigns have drawn rapt attention from those who believe the sprawling county’s Republican Party is trying to engender a takeover.

The audience at Monday’s debate at Colorado Christian University watched the candidates’ back-and-forth volleying, an unusual format, and then they jotted down plenty of their own questions.

“There’s no apathy problem when it comes to interest in this audience for these two important school board contests,” said moderator and former state lawmaker John Andrews, as he held up a thick sheaf of submissions.

Republican Party, teachers union endorsements

Branaugh and Fellman are vying for the District 3 seat being vacated by School Board President Dave Thomas, who is not seeking another term. That district includes central and northeast parts of Jefferson County, including Arvada and Wheat Ridge.

Dahlkemper and Powers want the District 4 seat, including parts of Lakewood and Edgewater, which is being vacated by Janes Barnes, who is term-limited.

Their departure leaves three board members, including lone conservative Laura Boggs, who has often been at odds with her colleagues and Superintendent Cindy Stevenson. If the Republican Party can elect two more conservatives, the board could flip.

And though the school board races are non-partisan, the Republican Party has made no secret about who it’s backing – Branaugh and Powers, sometimes called “the dads.”

Branaugh described the focus on the Republican Party “ironic” and read aloud a blog post stating “these elections have always been run” by the Jefferson County Education Association, the teachers’ union.

“That’s enough said,” he quipped, drawing applause from a crowd that seemed to lean conservative.

Branaugh also pointed out that Fellman and Dahlkemper are Democrats and that Fellman, as a teacher, was a union member.

“I believe it’s important to consider we have 4,700 teachers in our district,” Fellman said. “To ignore that many people, I think, would be a real mistake.”

Both Fellman and Dahlkemper, in their separate debates, emphasized their ability to collaborate – something Boggs has been criticized for failing to do.

“A school board member who cannot work as a part of a team is not contributing to the good of the school board,” Fellman said.

Vouchers, status quo and “fresh”

Some political observers have drawn comparisons between the current Jeffco board race and the Douglas County board elections in 2009, when a Republican Party-backed slate was swept into office.

Eighteen months later, the Douglas County school board approved the state’s first district-run voucher pilot.

Monday, Branaugh and Powers dismissed questions about vouchers in Jeffco as irrelevant or moot.

Branaugh pointed out the pilot, which was halted by a Denver judge, is likely to be stuck in legal appeals for years.

“Right now, it’s a waste of time to be talking about it,” Powers told Education News Colorado after the debate. “We have too many other big issues to deal with.”

Instead, Powers focused on Dahlkemper’s “political family” – her husband is former Democratic lawmaker Mike Feeley – while Dahlkemper pointed out that former Republican lawmaker Norma Anderson of Lakewood, known for her education expertise, is co-chairing her campaign.

And the two tangled over education statistics, with Powers accusing Dahlkemper of “spinning” data about Jeffco’s performance to paint a too-rosy picture.

“I will bring fresh ideas, I am not the status quo,” he said. “I will bring you, the voter, back to the table.”

Dahlkemper said the district, which is facing $70 million in budget cuts over the next two years, needs a knowledgeable board member who can bring people together to make tough decisions.

“I think you should expect more of your school board,” she told the audience. “Jeffco voters, you have a clear choice this election.”

Jefferson County school board candidates and key positions

Candidates to run the state’s largest school districts must live in a particular geographic area but they are elected by voters across the sprawling suburban county.

District 3, Central and Northwest

  • Preston Branaugh, 42, is an attorney in private practice who lives in Arvada. He has two daughters in the district.On raising state sales and income taxes for education, Prop 103 – Oppose
  • On implementing vouchers such as Douglas County’s pilot – Not relevant
  • Quote on vouchers – “This issue is now in litigation (referring to Douglas County’s voucher pilot) and it’s going to be there, I would hazard to guess, probably throughout the entire term that we’re elected for this board. I think it’s a moot discussion.”
  • Campaign website
  • Jill Fellman, 53, a retired teacher and school district administrator, lives in northwest Arvada. Her children graduated from Jeffco schools.On raising state sales and income taxes for education, Prop 103 – Support
  • On implementing vouchers such as Douglas County’s pilot – Voters should decide
  • Quote on vouchers – “I believe the voters of our county deserve and want to be able to chime in when it comes to taking tax dollars and putting them to another use.”
  • Campaign website

District 4, Central

  • Lesley Dahlkemper, 44, of Lakewood, owns a public relations firm. She has a daughter in the district.On raising state sales and income taxes for education, Prop 103 – Undecided
  • On implementing vouchers such as Douglas County’s pilot – Oppose
  • Quote on Prop 103 – “I’m still wrestling with that one … I think it could be a band-aid solution, a short-term fix to a bigger issue.”
  • Campaign website
  • Jim Powers, 44, an architect with his own practice, lives in Lakewood. His four children are home-schooled.On raising state sales and income taxes for education, Prop 103 – Oppose
  • On implementing vouchers such as Douglas County’s pilot – Not relevant
  • Quote on vouchers – “Right now, it’s a waste of time to be talking about it. We have too many other big issues to deal with.”
  • Campaign website

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