Anyone who listens to Denver talk radio has heard that our two Jeffco school board races represent an apocalyptic face-off between radical union-backed leftists and far-right free-market fanatics who will stop at nothing to reduce district spending.
At the final election forum Oct. 18 in Evergreen, the candidates sounded more like a gaggle of elderly British ladies disagreeing about whether the shade of the curtains matched the colors in the divan.
All four candidates — Preston Branaugh and Jill Fellman in District 3 and Lesley Dahlkemper and Jim Powers in District 4 — consistently responded with affable enthusiasm and determined vagueness to questions from the League of Women Voters and members of the audience.
Nary a glove was landed, except when Powers chided Dahlkemper for a wishy-washy response to a question concerning Proposition 103, the statewide ballot measure that would boost state funding for education by raising property and sales taxes.
Yet Dahlkemper’s wishy-washy answer was just one in an evening full of wildly non-specific responses:
With the district facing another $70 million in cuts over the next several years, what specific areas would the candidates target?
“Everything should be looked at.”
Do you favor vouchers?
“The issue is in the courts. It won’t come up.”
What is the solution to the dysfunction that has plagued the current school board?
“Everyone needs to act like adults.”
I am famously unfond of vagueness, but am usually big on civility. Yet Tuesday night’s relentless barrage of goodwill left me concerned that Jeffco’s citizens won’t know who or what they’re voting for in this school board election, and how much is really at stake.
The choices are dramatic: Fellman spent 30 years as a teacher and administrator in this district; she knows the profession, and the district, from the inside out and would bring a classroom perspective to the board. Dahlkemper, a former Colorado Public Radio reporter, has worked with the district in the roles of consultant, volunteer and parent — and brings an encyclopedic command of the issues.
Their opponents, on the other hand, lack in-depth knowledge of classroom or administrative issues, and their chief pledge seems to be guaranteeing every Jeffco student an outstanding education while simultaneously looking for ways to spend less money on it.
Let me be uncivil for a moment. And not vague. In 21 years as an adjunct instructor at Metropolitan State College, I’ve seen incontrovertible evidence that these hard truths exist about public education:
• Some children ARE left behind, and there’s very little that public schools alone can do about that.
• Politicians’ obsession with standardized tests is forcing many of our teachers to be more worried about assessing effectiveness than about effectiveness itself.
• K-12 education IS going to need more funding, just to keep the number of children left behind to a minimum.
Want to hear some more unsettling truths? Cutbacks in Jeffco will still be necessary, even with new funding sources. Some schools will have to close. Administrative costs will have to be reduced.
Jeffco voters must be certain that the people making those tough decisions have the knowledge, experience and courage to reach them wisely. And that they know when to take off the gloves.
Doug Bell is the editor of the Courier.