School board candidates trade views

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Overhaul of school funding, tax increase spur disagreements

By Daniel Laverty

The races for three open seats on the Jeffco Board of Education officially started at Monday’s candidate forum at Green Mountain High School.

More than 100 people packed the school’s auditorium to listen to school board candidates and their plans for Colorado’s largest school district.

“I’m really glad I came out tonight,” Jeffco parent Connie Potter said after the forum. “I heard some really good things on some key issues.”

Six candidates are vying for three positions on the Jeffco school board. Participating in the forum were: Tonya Aultman-Bettridge from District 1; Jeff Lamontagne and John Newkirk from District 2; and Gordon “Spud” Van de Water and Ken Witt from District 5.

Julie Williams, who also is running in District 1, did not attend due to a scheduling conflict. Ami Prichard, president of the Jefferson County Education Association, said Williams knew about the forum but canceled hours before.

After opening statements, the candidates answered questions read by Green Mountain High School students. Todd Engdahl, Capitol editor for EdNews Colorado, moderated the forum.

The election is Nov. 5.

Opening questions

“We must act as a team,” Newkirk said when asked what makes a good school board member. “We have to listen to students, teachers, staff and parents. The board has to make decisions based on what’s best for students.”

Opening questions focused on effectiveness, what each candidate would focus on and what role parents should play in decision-making.

“Parent partnerships work,” Aultman-Bettridge said. “A parent is a student’s first teacher in life. Parents are the best link to stay connected with what’s going on at schools.”

“(A board member) must respect the position,” Witt said. “It’s important to listen and be open to new opinions and not get stuck in old ones.”

The candidates shared many views early on and many times referred back to or agreed with what their counterparts previously said.

“The board is tasked with seeing that every student in Jeffco is college and career ready,” Van de Water said.

“We need to focus on student achievement,” Lamontagne said. “How can we teach to each child?”

Initiative 22

Differences of opinion surfaced when candidates were asked about Initiative 22, which would revamp how Colorado’s public schools are funded and would require a nearly $1 billion income tax increase to be approved by voters in November.

“It completely rewrites how education is funded,” Aultman-Bettridge said. “What I like about it is the funding of preschool and full-day kindergarten.”

Initiative 22 would address how “schools in Colorado have been underfunded for some time now,” Lamontagne said. “I like that it would restore some of that funding.”

Van de Water said he liked the provisions in Initiative 22 regarding special education and gifted-and-talented students.

But Witt took issue with the tax increase and the way more affluent districts would subsidize poorer ones.

“It’s not fair to Jeffco, and it’s certainly not fair to Jeffco students,” Witt said. “(Initiative 22) is bad for Jeffco, and I oppose it.”

Opponents of the initiative point out that Jeffco tax dollars would be sent out of the county and used in other districts.

“It’s not the answer for Jeffco,” Newkirk said. “Jeffco dollars need to stay in Jeffco.”

What’s at stake

The Jeffco school board has five members who represent five districts. County voters cast ballots in all of the races. Board members are not paid and serve four-year terms.

Robin Johnson resigned her District 1 seat recently after moving out of the county; board members Paula Noonan (District 5) and Laura Boggs (District 2) are not seeking re-election. The terms of board President Lesley Dahlkemper and board member Jill Fellman end in November 2015.

Jeffco Public Schools is the largest district in the state and has more than 150 schools, with nearly 86,000 students and approximately 13,000 employees.

The next school board candidate forum is from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Sept. 17 at Compass Montessori School at 10399 W. 44th Ave. in Wheat Ridge.

Contact Daniel Laverty at Daniel@evergreenco.comor at 303-350-1043. Follow him on Twitter at @LavertyReports.