Douglas County

School board candidates tackle issues at forum

Seven of eight hopefuls participate in discussion led by Highlands Ranch High School students

Posted 9/28/17

Dozens of community members gathered in the Highlands Ranch High School auditorium on Sept. 26 to listen to seven of the eight Douglas County School Board candidates talk about their stances on issues guiding this year's election.

Students from …

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Douglas County

School board candidates tackle issues at forum

Seven of eight hopefuls participate in discussion led by Highlands Ranch High School students

Posted

Dozens of community members gathered in the Highlands Ranch High School auditorium on Sept. 26 to listen to seven of the eight Douglas County School Board candidates talk about their stances on issues guiding this year's election.

Students from the high school's AP government class moderated the forum, incorporating some questions from the audience. Three of the four members of the Elevate Douglas County slate — Randy Mills, Ryan Abresch and Grant Nelson — sat on the left side of the stage. Debora Scheffel was absent from the event due to work-related travel.

Their opponents, Anthony Graziano, Krista Holtzmann, Kevin Leung and Chris Schor, occupied the right side. The students moderating the forum referred to these candidates as "Community."

The audience — a mix of current board members, parents, students, teachers and adults without kids in the district — was engaged in the conversation, often applauding after a side made their point.

The forum was another step toward an election that could play a major role in the future of the district. Reform-minded board members were voted into office in 2009 and have been the majority since then — but after the 2015 election, only by a 4-3 margin. With four seats up for grabs in November, the balance of power could change.

On teacher challenges

Candidates were asked questions about teacher retention, new teacher training, a pay-for-performance salary structure and candidates' personal experience working with children. Some critics say evaluations and salary systems implemented in the 2012-13 school year led to an exodus of quality educators.

An educator for 40 years, Schor emphasized the importance of including kids, teachers and the community in decision-making.

"Academic achievement increases when teachers understand and have great knowledge about what kids are supposed to be learning," Schor said.

On the topics of teacher turnover and teacher training, candidates on the Elevate side pointed to Scheffel and her background in education, which includes having served on the Colorado State Board of Education for six years and currently serving as the dean of Colorado Christian University's School of Education.

"She has been a lifelong educator," Nelson said. "She is an incredible asset to our community and team."

Elevate slate candidates view pay-for-performance — which was recently suspended by the board for a year — as a work in progress. The problem wasn't the system, Abresch said, but rather how the system was implemented.

"It's our job to take a look at that process," he said, "to try to figure out a way to improve it for the teachers."

At least one of the candidates on the other side views the pay-for-performance system as failing.

"That is not working and that is the reason why teachers are leaving," Leung said.

On school funding

Forum moderators addressed funding issues, including tax measures and school choice vouchers.

“Community” candidates agreed that a mill levy override — used to hire new employees and provide pay raises — and a bond — used for capital needs in schools — are needed.

“The time is now,” Holtzmann said. “We aren't able to provide our teachers with competitive wages. They can cross the line and earn $17,000 more in Cherry Creek or $12,000 more in Littleton, and that's just not acceptable.”

Elevate candidates pointed out that the community voted down a bond and mill levy override in 2008 and 2011.

“Before we get to the issue of a mill levy being brought to the taxpayers,” Abresch said, “trust is the most important topic that needs to be restored within the community.”

When asked where candidates stand on school choice vouchers, Abresch referred to the history of the district's choice scholarship, or voucher, program, which has been tied up in the legal system for six years.

The program — which allowed public money to be used for students to attend private schools, including those that are religiously affiliated — was briefly implemented in 2011 before a lawsuit was filed by a local group and a Denver judge halted it. But in 2013, a state appeals court reversed that decision. Then in 2015, the Colorado Supreme Court issued a ruling saying using public funds for religious schooling was illegal. The district filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court later in 2015. The case was brought back to the state's top court earlier this year, following a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court on a similar case in Missouri.

As a board member, Abresch said he would support continuing the case and getting a decision, which he foresees happening next year.

"Our ruling here, stemming from Douglas County, could affect other states and districts around the country," he said.

“Community” candidates had a different stance on the topic, which garnered audible support from the crowd.

“I believe in public funds supporting public schools,” Schor said. “I oppose any program that uses public money for private education.”

Reaction

Attendees had mixed feelings on the forum.

The forum went well in the eyes of parent Allison Rausch, who supports the Elevate slate. She attended to hear all candidates speak.

“They've got to get in there and create stability to get stuff done on all fronts,” Rausch said.

Tom Yondorf, a parent whose kids went through the district, remembers a time when there was no tension in the district, more than nine years ago. He's looking for candidates who will take a leadership role — which he sees possible in the “Community” side.

“I want to see the community reunited in support of our kids,” Yondorf said.

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