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Jeffco Board candidates stress teacher quality, engagement

LAKEWOOD — Teacher quality and the coming wave of new standards, tests and regulations were on the minds of Jefferson County school board candidates Monday night, as candidates promised to engage constituents and monitor the implementation of new reforms with an eye on improving student achievement.

Three out of the five Jeffco board seats are up for grabs, and six candidates are vying for the spots. Five of those candidates — Tonya Aultman-Bettridge, Jeff LaMontagne, John Newkirk, Gordon “Spud” Van de Water and Ken Witt — gathered at Green Mountain High School to field questions prepared by Jeffco’s education professional associations and lobbed at them by Green Mountain students. EdNews’ Todd Engdahl moderated the discussion.

A sixth candidate, Julie Williams, did not attend the forum.

Most of the questions focused on how candidates perceive the role of school board members, with the contenders almost uniformly emphasizing the importance of goal-setting, accountability, and listening to stakeholders like students and parents.

All of the candidates emphasized the role that parents should play in the school district. They offered different methods for doing so, from simply encouraging parents to join parent organizations and security watchdog groups to advocating greater parent outreach.

“We need to reach out to parents in culturally appropriate ways that meet them where they are,” said Aultman-Bettridge.

And Van de Water argued that the district needs to make it easier for parents to participate in district decision-making and to understand what’s happening in their children’s schools. “Parents are very very busy these days and we don’t always make the time or make the time to do thee kinds of things that a parent would want to do,” he said.

Asked to name a state or federal mandate they believed would pose challenges to the district, all of the candidates except Newkirk named the state’s teacher evaluation law, which is being put fully in place statewide for the first time this year. (Newkirk named the state’s sex education law. “I don’t think that the state or federal government should mandate something that’s an affront to parents’ values,” he said.)

But the candidates also recognized that the district is entering a school year with a number of challenging charges beyond the new evaluations, including the introduction of new content standards and preparation for new, online testing.

“We have an amazing confluence of events happening right now in Jefferson County that really require thought, diligence and effort to understand the various complexities that aren’t just based at the district level,” said Aultman-Bettridge.

Candidates only obliquely discussed another of Jeffco’s hot-button issues, the use of a streamlined database called inBloom to store a variety of information on all of the district’s students. Critics and many parents worry that the consolidated information and off-site storage could leave information vulnerable to security risks and expose students to violations of privacy.

When asked what the most complex issues facing the district are, Newkirk cited the proliferation of new technology like Facebook and programs that facilitate data collection and explained that he worries about school safety. “Not just physical safety but also safety of our data, safety of our privacy,” he said.

Similarly, Witt cited “complexity of technology” as an issue that the board must carefully consider. “We have to make good choices,” he said. “What kind of information is available to whom and to whom should it not be available?”

Here’s where the candidates fell on other important issues they were asked about:

School finance reform and Amendment 66

“I’m in favor of putting that money back in schools,” said Van de Water. “I like some of the pieces of the bill. I’m not sure I’ve got all of the nuances yet.”

Van de Water’s response was typical of the three candidates who threw their support behind the proposed $950 million tax for education — their endorsement came with reservations about the information they haven’t yet seen about the measure’s details. Van de Water said that he wanted to see projections of how the measure might work farther down the line under a variety of economic scenarios; Aultman-Bettridge said she supported adding more funding for needy students but was seeking more information about how precisely the measure changes per-pupil funding for Jefferson County students.

LaMontagne said his thoughts fall somewhere in the middle. While some parts of the proposal, such as the innovation fund and increased funding for early childhood and kindergarten proposals, have his full support, he said he was concerned that Jeffco taxpayers just last year agreed to a bond measure for schools locally.

“How can taxpayers be asked to fund schools two years in a row?” he said. “But if it passes, I will make sure that the money is spent with accountability and transparency.”

And Newkirk and Witt both voiced direct opposition to the measure.

“Never have I seen a tax increase characterized as putting money back,” Witt said. He also said he was concerned that the greater per-pupil amounts being sent to Denver’s schools — due to the proposed formula’s emphasis on greater funding for districts with more high-needs students — would lead parents to abandon Jeffco schools for the city district.

And Newkirk characterized the proposal as government overreach. “Amendment 66 is the same logic that says, you work, you toil, you bake bread; but we’ll decide what to do with it,” he said.

Teacher evaluations

Senate Bill 10-191, the law that mandates the new teacher and leader evaluations, is “a tremendous opportunity to get things right,” Witt said, a sentiment echoed by many other candidates. But, he said, “we need to be careful to implement [the evaluations] so they’re not an overburden” on teachers and administrators.

Similarly, Van de Water said that the district needs to put the new evaluations in place “with optimism and caution.”

“I worry a little bit about it because there’s not a lot of support that I’ve seen for it,” he said. “So as a board member I really want this to be successful, but I want to make sure that its not interfering with what we’re doing in the classrooms.”

LaMontagne said that his concerns about the law stemmed from conversations with an estimated 150 teachers. Teachers want to be evaluated if it helps them improve their practice, he said, but they don’t want an overly burdensome, bureaucratic system.

“What they want is something that is in the middle, something that has a few important factors and, most importantly, that those factors are addressed and come from a lot of feedback from teachers,” he said. “I’m not convinced that SB-191 accomplishes that.”

Outsourcing school services to private contractors

The consensus among the candidates when asked if they would support the outsourcing of school services like meals and transportation to private contractors was essentially, “probably not, but maybe.”

Many of the candidates were skeptical that outsourcing even provides a more cost-effective alternative to district-run services, and expressed concern that by outsourcing, the district gives up control and oversight over how those services are provided to students and by whom. Candidates were especially skeptical of outsourcing services whose providers have significant contact with students, like bus drivers, food service workers and janitorial staff.

“That work is too important for us to take that step back and not be able to closely monitor the people who have that kind of contact and impact in our children’s lives,” said Aultman-Bettridge.

LaMontagne agreed. “You lose some degree of control when you outsource,” he said. “I don’t think its best for our county, I don’t think it’s best for our kids, and I don’t think it makes economic sense most of the time.”

But other candidates were reluctant to make a blanket pledge not to outsource, arguing the decisions are best made on a case by case basis. “You have to look at it individually for each service,” Witt said.

And Van de Water argued that the school board must evaluate not only if money would be saved through outsourcing, but also what educational services those savings might be used for.

“I come down on the side of, ‘we give preference to those thing stat have the first and foremost impact on the quality of education we deliver,’ so I have to wait and see, I guess,” he said.

Vouchers

No candidate at the forum fully supported vouchers or tax credits for private school tuition, arguing that Jeffco’s system of choice enrollment and charter school offerings provides families with choice to offer a quality education within the public school system.

Aultman-Bettridge said that even with vouchers or credits, there will always be barriers for the neediest students to attend private schools and so the public school system’s obligation is to make sure all students are properly served there.

“To me the priority of the school board member is to make sure that every neighborhood school is an excellent option,” she said.

And several candidates emphasized private schools’ lack of accountability to the local school board.

“My basic premise is that I don’t think that public tax dollars should be going into schools that don’t have the same standards,” LaMontagne said.

Newkirk came the closest to supporting vouchers, saying he believes “the jury is still out.”

“I do not want to take a position of saying, ‘absolutely not right now,'” he said. “I’d like to keep an open mind about that choice.”

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