Susan Harmon, school board candidate in District 2

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By Gabrielle Porter

Lakewood resident Susan Harmon said she wants to bring a reconciliatory voice and more thoughtful decision making to the Jeffco school board. 

Harmon, a family law attorney and mother of two Jeffco students, is running for the District 2 seat currently held by John Newkirk, one of the recall targets. Physician assistant Matthew Dhieux of Littleton is also a challenger for the seat.

Harmon said her years of involvement in the neighborhood schools her two children have attended and her experience in family law have given her insight into how board decisions play out on a local level. She also believes she has the ability to help reconcile the district with residents and teachers.

“I’m hoping to again build some bridges there, bring people back in, listen effectively (and) respectfully …,” Harmon said. “I think that is a critical piece that’s missing on this board.”

A California native, Harmon attended the University of Colorado for her undergraduate degree before returning to the West Coast to earn her law degree at Santa Clara University School of Law. She practiced law in California for about six years before moving to Jefferson County in 1997. She worked at a Denver law firm and eventually was made partner before branching out to start her own practice. Harmon specializes in family law, and often works with couples going through divorce, arranging child custody and dealing with finances. She said her work has given her the ability to deal with people in crisis situations, and to show them how to solve problems. She said mediation is an important part of the process.

“I am exposed to all kinds of family dynamics and issues. I listen to people all day long. I advocate for them … ,” Harmon said. “There’s a big collaboration movement in family law, and I totally support that.”

Harmon for several years has also been active at Rooney Ranch Elementary, which her daughter attends. When Harmon’s son — now a student at Dunstan Middle School — was in first grade, she was approached by another mom to join PTA. Since then, Harmon has served on the board in several capacities, and was also a legislative liaison to local elected officials. Harmon said she was impressed with the other PTA members she worked with, most of whom were also successful professionals. 

“I think PTA is so important,” Harmon said. “A lot of times people think of it as cookies or movie nights, but it’s so much more than that. … It was really a great experience for me.”

Harmon also served on Rooney Ranch’s accountability committee last year, when student-based budgeting decisions were being made. Having spent so much time in classrooms — thanks in part to the flexibility that comes with being a business owner — Harmon said she has a deep admiration for educators and that “in another life, perhaps, I would have been a teacher.”

She said that, over the years, other parents and neighbors have suggested to her several times that she consider running for the school board. 

“I had to explain to people that I couldn’t really run until there was an open seat,” Harmon said. “When the recall went through and District 2 was then potentially up … it all happened fairly quickly.”

Harmon disagrees with several of the major decisions spearheaded by the board’s current conservative majority in the past two years. 

She’s concerned about major looming facility needs in the district that she said the current board has not adequately planned for.

“The lack of moving forward … has put us in a critical state,” she said. 

Harmon worries that teachers who work with challenged learners — children with special needs, or high-poverty or other challenges — will be disproportionately affected by the district’s year-old pay-for-performance model. 

“As a small-business owner, I do support the concept (of pay-for-performance) …,” Harmon said. “(But) I do have concerns over the issues that perhaps have not been worked through effectively.”

Harmon said the school district’s contract with the teachers union should have been longer than 10 months, and that the district needs to address the problem of teachers feeling disrespected.

“That’s not a lot of security in that job model …,” she said.

Harmon said the teachers’ issues with the school board aren’t all about money.

“As I talk to people in my community and people that I know that are teachers, it’s about being heard, it’s about being understood, and it’s not always about the compensation piece,” Harmon said. “There seems to be a level of distrust, a level of difficulty negotiating. … It may be delivery, it may be processing, but there appear to be a lot of deaf ears in terms of concepts. It’s not about people not accepting change.”

Harmon said the board should be concerned about teachers leaving Jeffco for other school districts.

“When you are not happy, you are not being valued, why would you stay in an area?” she said.

Harmon finds the rancor at board meetings disturbing, and said she would try to bring a more respectful approach.

“It’s baffling at times for me, the lack of respect for speakers …,” she said. “It’s upsetting to watch. I don’t think that that is appropriate.”

Harmon said conversations about the district’s charter schools have become overpoliticized. She said she respects established charter models that provide choice — such as Montessori and Waldorf schools — but says neighborhood schools that can serve children with special needs are the only truly inclusive model.

“I am deeply concerns about the proliferation of charter schools that are privately owned, free market, (and) not well thought through …,” she said. “They look further and further and further away from … public schools.”

Contact Gabrielle Porter at gabrielle@evergreenco.comor 303-350-1042, or follow her on Twitter at @gabyreport.