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Jeffco board candidates want better neighborhood schools, fiscal management

Seen from above, small groups of masked students walk in a wide school hallway.
Students walk the halls in small groups between classes during the first day of in-person learning at Jeffco’s Arvada West High School in January.
AAron Ontiveroz / The Denver Post

Despite protests and vocal backlash at school board meetings, Jeffco board candidates say they are focused on what comes after the COVID pandemic rather than current COVID-related issues.

Instead, the candidates are focused on improving academic performance, increasing mental health support, and hiring and retaining quality teachers. Some candidates, however, believe removing mask mandates is part of improving mental health for students.

Seven candidates are running for three open positions on the five-seat Jeffco school board. The district is the second largest in Colorado with about 80,000 students.

The election has the potential to change the direction of the district. The majority of the current board includes members supportive of and endorsed by the teachers union. If critics of the district and the union win two of the three open seats, they would have the majority.

Candidates Mary Parker, Paula Reed, and Danielle Varda have formed a slate, now endorsed by the teachers union, and are prioritizing staff hiring and retention, and improving what they refer to as “neighborhood schools.”

“We want candidates that trust the professionals and the experiences of teachers and support staff,” said Brooke Williams, president of the Jeffco teachers union. “Our committee was really impressed with their commitment to students. Also, I think it’s really important that they have deep roots in the community.”

Opponents Theresa Shelton, Kathy Miks, and Jeff Wilhite seek improved fiscal management of the district’s budget, as well as protection of school choice. Another candidate, David Johnson, also is interested in district finances but wants to ensure that all aspects get covered including facilities, as well as better focusing money on mental health staff in schools.

School board elections are nonpartisan but politics have never been too far away. In 2015, three conservative school board members were successfully recalled after attempting to create a system of performance pay, and calling for a revision of U.S. history curriculum to ensure it was patriotic.

“We’ve seen what happens to our district when it becomes ground zero for political issues,” Williams said. “We just really want our focus to be on our students.”

Maria Martinez believes as a parent of three Jeffco students that the school district and the board should be creating more opportunities for students to be physically active as a way to support mental and emotional health. She believes lunch times are too short and wants to make sure the district leadership works on ways to make the district’s activities more inclusive of students of all socioeconomic backgrounds.

But Martinez, who used to work as a paraprofessional in the district, also sees another priority: paying staff more.

She said that she’s seen staff stress affecting students and believes the low pay also contributes to staffing shortages that caused cuts to bus service in recent weeks.

“Everything gets absorbed by students,” Martinez said. “The stress of a person or teacher can be transferred to students if they come to class and are worried about whether or not they will be able to pay their electric bill or rent. On the other hand, a better paid person with less stress can come to school happy and can have better ideas.”

Bus issues are also a high priority for Rachel Crass, a mother of three. Her two elementary-age children are being home-schooled this year — temporarily, Crass said she hopes — and her 15-year-old son opted into a program at Wheat Ridge High School.

Crass said she’s glad Jeffco parents can choose the school that’s right for their kids, but she feels the district isn’t making choices easy for parents by not providing transportation or better start and end times.

Before her children were home-schooled, she was shuttling them to and from school an hour and a half daily and Crass didn’t like her kids being in the car for that long. Despite her high schooler being dismissed 10 minutes earlier than his siblings, he had to wait while his mother picked up the other kids first.

“Parents, especially moms, we’re in this really crappy situation,” Crass said. Now, she feels she’s having to choose between being a working parent to help provide for her family, or a parent who does what her kids need. “I don’t feel like I can do both.”

She said she’s not sure what the school board or the district needs to do to attract more bus staff, although she’s curious if the district isn’t paying enough; she wants school board candidates to address the issue.

Katy Winner, another district parent who’s been active in several district committees including one pushing to change start times, said she wants candidates to focus on issues that were present before the pandemic including making schools safe, providing equitable resources to schools, and finding ways to get marginalized communities more involved.

“All voices need to be heard,” Winner said.

The candidates are:

District 1:

Danielle Varda — is a mother of three current Jeffco students, as well as a university professor, researcher, and business owner. She is worried about teacher retention. “Teachers today are struggling,” Varda said. “We are losing teachers to other districts. We’re not as competitive maybe or creative in the way we are trying to recruit teachers.”

Jeffrey Wilhite — has been a member of the district’s accountability committee and on the board of two charter schools. His priorities include better stewardship of finances, improving academics and school choice. “People are really unhappy and that causes a great deal of polarization between people,” Wilhite said. “One of the things the new board has to deal with is to try to disarm that polarization that has taken place. There’s a real disharmony and we have to fix that.”

District 2:

David Johnson — is a former history teacher who wants to help represent the mountain communities of Jeffco. His priorities are to be a nonpartisan voice that can bring people together. He is the father of one Jeffco student and a business owner. “My main goal is to continue to build collaboration and teamwork,” Johnson said. “My goal is to ensure everyone’s heard and collaboration is part of the process.”

Paula Reed — is a former teacher at Columbine High School. She wants to advocate for improved school funding and believes the district should have a greater say in whether new charter schools are opened in Jeffco. “I was very active in the recall of the board majority in 2015 and putting in the clean slate so I’m very, very aware of how important a school board majority is and how much damage can be done,” Reed said. “Jeffco schools mean a lot to me.”

Theresa Shelton — is an accountant and mother of two Jeffco students. Shelton Elementary is named after her husband’s parents. She is concerned about a downward trend in student performance on state tests before COVID. She believes more evidence was necessary for parents before masking was required in schools. “We all expected it to get worse,” Shelton said of academic achievement after the pandemic. “Now what are we going to do about it? I felt like I couldn’t keep complaining anymore, I had to do something.”

District 5:

Kathy Miks — is a manager at an insulation company and former volleyball coach at Columbine High School. Her priorities include fiscal responsibility, protecting parent choices, and supporting mental health and the “whole child.” She decided to run after an encounter with a group of “high-functioning homeless” at a shelter in California. “They just don’t have the skills necessary to get a job that pays enough. It broke my heart, and I started to think about our kids in Jeffco,” Miks said. “Whether they’re going right into a career or military or college, we need to make sure they have the skills to be successful.”

Mary Parker — is a child advocate who has worked for many years with foster children and also is a member of Moms Demand Action. She believes the school board should respect employee associations and focus on hiring and retention of staff. “Funding is a big, big problem,” Parker said. “It impacts our ability to recruit and retain good teachers. Support staff too. I’ve seen so many signs for ‘bus drivers needed’. Jeffco is in a bad spot.”

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