School board candidates share their views on education issues

Three open GWSD board seats

[  By Kendra Walker  ]

Last week, the six candidates vying for three open Gunnison Watershed School District school board seats shared their platforms and stances on public education-related issues during a Candidates’ Forum at the Mallardi Theatre. The candidates include Anne Brookhart, Jody Coleman, Cori Dobson, Lisa Henry, Greg Kruthaupt and Mark VanderVeer. This November 7 election marks the first contested GWSD school board election in over 30 years.

The September 26 Candidate Forum was hosted by the League of Women Voters (LWV) and broadcast live on KBUT to help inform voters of each candidate’s position on school district-related issues as they seek a board seat. 

Each candidate had the opportunity to provide an opening statement, answer questions and finish with a closing statement. The LWV solicited and screened the questions from the community and the candidates received the questions several weeks in advance. Crested Butte mayor Ian Billick moderated the discussion. 

The questions touched on various topics currently facing public education on both a local and national level. They included the role of the school board, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, voucher programs toward private schools or homeschooling, school safety, teacher housing, religion in public education, critical thinking and mental health.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

All candidates said they support integrating the concept of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) into school district policies.

“I believe in assuring diversity in education by exposing our students to multiple perspectives. It’s good to be challenged by diverse people and ideas,” said Dobson. “To ensure equity, I’m opposed to separating students by their set characteristics and discriminations between them.”

“My focus is every student in the school is treated with dignity and respect,” said Kruthaupt. “I don’t believe by isolating groups and trying to focus on them that we make progress. I think it needs to be an authentic learning environment. If you start isolating people and pointing out differences, it confuses them. We need to stop compartmentalizing things and trying to make it complicated and take away from educational time.”

“It is unfortunate that we need such policies to protect certain groups from violence and equal treatment,” said VanderVeer. “But these are essential to ensure students who may be vulnerable to discrimination or harm based on their race, religion, gender, ethnicity, sexuality or other characteristics are shielded from such injustice. DEI policies are not about giving preferential treatment to certain groups, rather they aim to ensure all students are treated equally when it comes to academic opportunity, grades, behavioral consequences and other aspects of education.”

Brookhart explained that in the past DEI has been confused for Critical Race Theory. “This is not true, our district does not teach CRT at any level,” said Brookhart. “The school district does a lot to provide DEI – meals, special education services, counseling, support for English language learning, Pathways programs and much more. The more students who graduate with the ability to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, the better we are doing.”

Curriculum

Candidates also shared similar sentiments regarding the school board’s role in deciding curriculum.  

“Colorado gives local school boards enormous power over curriculum. This is why school board positions have become a partisan target locally and all over the country,” said Brookhart. “I support our director of curriculum as an expert. They work with the superintendent and teachers to make decisions for the district.”

“I think it’s imperative we take the time to listen to those who have done the research, who come with the knowledge, who also have the ability and connection to the students that they are responsible for,” said Henry. 

“In preserving the integrity of curriculum, it is crucial to avoid irrational and politically motivated changes that do not align with the state standards and are not in the best interest of our children,” said VanderVeer. “Stability and consistency in the curriculum are essential to providing a high-quality education and support the success of our students.”

“When state legislation attempts to make laws which infringe on our community’s ability to decide what’s best for our students and schools, I would have to push back and consider it fortunate that in Colorado we’re allowed to govern ourselves locally,” said Dobson.

Voucher program for private schools/homeschooling

Most candidates said they opposed a voucher program that would redirect state tax dollars toward private schools or homeschooling. Henry and Dobson alluded to supporting a voucher program. 

“I oppose a voucher program until the state fully funds public education and vouchers,” said Coleman. “Public schooling offers free access and equal opportunity for every child in our nation, but federal and state monies have been trimmed for decades for local and public education coffers.”

“Both of my children have been homeschooled, attended private schools and now attend public school,” said VanderVeer. “My personal experience as a parent reinforces my belief that every child has access to the opportunities that public schools provide. I believe our focus should remain on additional support and funding our public educational system.”

Henry said she was in support of a voucher system. “I believe every student has the right to the education they deserve.”

“I want to empower parents to make the best decision for their children by giving them education choices and not forcing them into one size fits all, take it or leave it model,” said Dobson. “There are children with special needs and gifts that cannot be accommodated by a single school. It is unfair to require families to pay for both public school and the school that best fits their child’s needs.”

Teacher housing

The candidates also addressed their thoughts on whether the school district should provide housing for teachers or staff. 

“Our primary mission is to educate our children, not to dabble in the housing market,” said VanderVeer. “However, it’s essential to recognize if we stick our heads in the sand and don’t address this housing issue, we could lose the very educators who are crucial to our children’s education. My commitment would be to support initiatives that ensure we can retain a highly motivated and skilled staff to deliver best possible education for our children.”

“Housing is a huge issue,” said Brookhart. “I support GWSD getting involved in valley’s housing solution and I am currently part of the school district’s housing committee.”

“One way to help teachers is to raise wages,” said Dobson. “It has been shown giving (teachers) housing does not improve teacher retention or student academic achievement, but we have to come up with a solution that works for all. The school board is in charge of the school facilities, housing of teachers and staff needs to be a conversation with the local government.”

“This is a complicated issue but one that’s of critical concern, probably the most serious concern in our district because in three to five years we’ll face 60 retirees,” said Coleman. “With our current school budget, we cannot afford to subsidize employee housing. We’ve got to work together with government agencies, the university, the hospital, the schools to find solutions for all of us.”

“It’s imperative that we work together as a community to solve this problem,” said Henry. The problem is on a much larger scale, your service industry is affected, your teachers are affected, there’s a lot of people affected in this community because of the lack of housing. It’s a much bigger issue than the school.”

Candidate statements

The candidates used their opening and closing statements to share their reasons and qualifications for running for the school board. 

 “I understand the crucial importance of fiscal responsibility, efficient resource allocation and strategic planning,” said VanderVeer. “One of the key reasons that compelled me to run was the turmoil in the Woodland Park schools. I question the honesty of those board members during their campaigns. The chaos in Woodland Park will not repeat itself in this community. I will use input from community members, teachers, parents and experts along with data and research to make the best decisions for our schools and students.”

“I started this campaign to be a part of the school board because I was listening to the students, listening to the parents and the community around me that had concerns,” said Henry. “It’s important and imperative that we carry on that legacy of building a strong foundation for everyone’s children. I’ve listened to them, most of them are the reason I chose to run – their concerns, their fears, but mostly their vision that they can share with someone else. I’m running to protect that vision.”

Coleman shared, “I’ve attended school board meetings for 45 years. I taught in the Gunnison School District for 23 years. I’ve been caring for other people’s children for 45 years. I ain’t stopping now. We need to come together and work for student success. I’m compatible with Mark’s analytical skills and Anne’s intelligent, data-driven decisions. We three know improvements need to be made in our school system, but we passionately believe in public education that tries to lift every child, that welcomes every child in the nation, and we try to challenge every child with academic rigor and curiosity.”

“I am a former principal, superintendent, teacher, coach,” said Kruthaupt. “I was responsible for the development plan of creating the community schools in Gunnison and Crested Butte. I had six children who went through Gunnison schools, and it was the most remarkable experience. I feel like there needs to be change on the board. I am concerned about the test scores of reading. We need to do everything we can to prepare students to have full advantage when they’re ready to learn.”

“We must reverse the trend line of lower K-12 literacy and math performance,” said Dobson. “Isn’t the point of education to lift kids from where they are to where they are capable of going? I worry the educational bar is being lowered for children. I worry that our kids’ schools are less a place for academic rigor and learning, and more a training ground for political activism. I favor a K-12 curriculum that prepares our students to be productive and happy citizens of the United States by exposing them to multiple perspectives and teaching them to think critically so they can form their own opinions.”

“I have made a positive impact as a current board member and will continue to do so in a second term,” said Brookhart. “My vision will be to support programs, activities and policies that ensure all students are successful. I will continue to support improved academic achievement, community engagement and parent communication. Student success, performance and health will continue to drive all my decisions I make on the board.”

To listen to the complete forum, visit KBUT.org. Ballots will be mailed out later this month and Election Day is Tuesday, November 7.

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