School board candidates meet at student-organized forum

Candidates discuss school funding, security and most pressing issues in district

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The six Douglas County School Board candidates talked fiscal plans, school security and what they believe are the most pressing issues facing the school district at a recent forum.

The event was planned and moderated by students from Highlands Ranch High School and Ponderosa High School. Ponderosa’s speech and debate team joined forces with Highland Ranch High’s AP government class to organize the Oct. 21 forum.

All candidates were in attendance. Running in District A are candidates Andy Jones and Susan Meek. In District C are Elizabeth Hanson and Franceen Thompson. And in District F, Kory Nelson is challenging incumbent David Ray.

Candidates dug into school funding at the forum when asked to outline their fiscal plan for the next several years.

Jones said the community can only be persuaded to increase taxes if it trusts local leadership. He believes in keeping tax dollars in the community, he said.

“I’m a firm believer in local control,” he said.

Meek said Colorado is in a school funding crisis and is one of the lowest-funded states for schools. Since the Great Recession, Douglas County has lost nearly $600 million in state funding, she said.

“That impacts what we can pay teachers. That impacts hiring bus drivers and paying for buses,” she said. “If the state were fully funding Douglas County School District through the School Finance Act, this year alone Douglas County schools would have $41 million more.”

Thompson also stated the district was underfunded by $41 million. She encouraged finding a district lobbyist to advocate at the Capitol rather than leaning on the Colorado Association of School Boards.

Hanson urged voters to listen closely and be wary of candidates who made promises they couldn’t keep. The board needs to capitalize on the economies of scale in a district its size, she said.

“I think it’s really important to understand that our budget is a fixed number. As a board we have a responsibility to make sure that fixed number, those dollars are being used as efficiently as possible,” Hanson said.

Nelson criticized his opponent Ray, the school board president, for the school district’s response to a $3 million offer from Douglas County commissioners earlier this year to help fund school resource officers.

Commissioners required the funds to be matched. Initially, district board directors and administrators said the match couldn’t be found within the district budget but later added more school resource officers in local schools.

Nelson said he would have found the $3 million match as a director. He also urged the district to join a mass tort litigation against the vaping company JUUL to try to recover any taxpayer dollars now being spent on addressing teen addiction.

Ray said the passage of a bond and mill levy override in November showed there is local trust in district leaders. He also said the district has prepared for a recession “because we know that that potentially is looming in our world right now.”

The board sets budget priorities but also relies on the expertise of its staff in budgeting, he said.

Candidates also discussed the issues they felt were most pressing in the district, to which answers varied.

Nelson said school safety is the most pressing, but the health of students is also critical.

Ray said anxiety and stress among students needs to be better addressed, scrutinizing the media for “just doing a horrific thing to our students” by making students wonder if they will need to serve as first responders when at school.

Jones said the No. 1 issue for all parents is safety, but he also said students need more mental health resources and urged improving resilience among youths to deal with “modern day pressures.”

Meek also said mental health is the most pressing issue for her, noting that Colorado has the highest suicide rate for adolescents in the nation.

Thompson, whose daughter was a senior a STEM School Highlands Ranch during the fatal May shooting at the school, said the community needs to have tough discussions about security and leave all options on the table.

Hanson said safety and mental health were key issues in the district but also globally. She urged people to embrace each other’s differences and strive for more than tolerance.

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