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Schools choice, transparency and opportunities for all students were hot topics at the first Jefferson County Board of Education candidate forum held Sept. 13 at Wheat Ridge High School. The forum, presented by Support Jeffco Kids and Arvadans for Progressive Action, featured eight questions submitted by residents.Two things all candidates agreed on was their support for the “Dreamers” and DACA program and the importance of arts, humanities and other electives for Jeffco students.This year three incumbents, Brad Rupert, Susan Harmon and Ron Mitchell — all of whom were elected in 2015 following the recall of the former board majority — are running for re-election. In District 1, which covers the north and northeast portion of the district, Rupert is challenged by Matt Van Gieson. In District 2, which covers the western most part of the district, Harmon is challenged by Erica Shield. Mitchell is running unopposed in District 5.When asked about opportunities for students, all candidates said its important to offer career-ready options for those students who will not go to college.Here is a look at how they answered some questions posed to them.Q: What governance policy strategies would you put in place to support the emotional and social health of students?Brad Rupert: I’m proud that over the last two years our board increased the number of mental health workers in schools to serve the children. And I can tell you that the feedback from the schools is very positive. And we were able to retain that in schools in the current budget cycle. I can tell you that it is not easy to maintain that when you’re under a situation of constant cuts. But the mental health of the children is obviously very important. The suicide rates are skyrocketing and Colorado is among the higher states. And we need to keep keep the foot on the metal in terms of protecting our children and their mental health as part of the education we want to provide them.Matt Van Gieson: What I’m hearing from the community when I’m out knocking on doors and talking to people is that emotional support is something that is very important for our kids. And what I’m hearing is that lots of parents see that and are appreciative of that, especially in our K through sixth grade schools. And one thing I continue to hear is that those parents are nervous of what’s going to happen to those kids and if they won’t continue to get that support if we continue to move them into middle schools. So, I am hearing from people that this emotional support and bullying is something worried about, especially when it comes to the middle school move. I think it’s important to talk to the families and make sure what we’re doing is supporting what they think is best and supporting our kids in the best way possible.Susan Harmon: I spent the last four years as a parent in middle school and I can tell you it’s one of the greatest areas of support and continued support in mental health. The ability to have counselors at each grade level, the introduction of SELs (social emotional support specialists) at each of those higher need areas. They work with the counselors. And the introduction of some amazing programs — my daughter is part of an amazing program where they’re working with peer groups, parents, SELs and counselors to be a support group for other children. Its used to be Where Every Child Belongs, but now there’s a national movement being introduced in middle schools to really engage at a deeper level. I also believe that increasing community engagement in our schools is the best support for our children so that we know our children in our schools, we can be a support mechanism for families, our children and our teachers.Erica Shields: I agree 100 percent with Susan on the importance of community engagement. In talking to various administrators in my community, I can guarantee you that they have said social and emotional issues are one of their greatest concerns right now of our children in elementary school. We talked about that a little bit and what the cause of that might be. We have both parents working, a lot of stress in families, people my age with parents who are aging and ill. We have social media problems with kids on phones all the time, so our children are not really learning how to communicate well. So, all of those things are things that the schools can;t control. And so that community engagement piece is so important to work with our parents, giving our parents resources so that we’re not putting responsibility of all those issues on the school. I think our parents in our community needs to get involved in that decision-making process.Q: What ideas do you have for partnering with the district to better engage the community for improved communication and transparency about Jeffco Schools issues?Brad Rupert: The question obviously is about transparency and the transparency of our budgeting process. Each of the last two budget cycles that we’ve been engaged in we’ve attempted to engage the public in those. We’ve had public forums, we’ve had call in forums and a variety of mechanisms to reach out. We published proposed public budgets, we’ve done groups and questionnaires … a variety of methods to get the support and input from our communities. As far as having a line item explanation of the budget, you can imagine that the size of a school district like ours, 150 some odd facilities. that a budget gets very complicated very quickly. Now we have people available to answer the questions, but to think that we can present that on a line-by-line item is unrealistic. we also have a financial oversight committee that makes sure we follow the budget. These are outside people, not district people, that hold us accountable.Matt Van Gieson: Budget concerns is something that I’m hearing as well. For me, the thing that I would do is people want to see line item budgets. They want to know where the money’s going. They want to see where it’s being accounted for. And they want to see that what they’re being told is actually happening. People understand the need to spend on schools, but they are asking to see how its being spent and I think that’s fair. So, when I’m elected to the board, I intend to show and to demonstrate that a detailed level for people who want to see what is actually being spent and what they’re getting for their dollar.Susan Harmon: I believe the transparency is there ... I rely heavily on the presentations at the board table. To me the difference is communication. I do believe the transparency is there, but you can never communicate enough and in different ways to ensure that people are processing the information so they do feel like we are being transparent and we are receiving it. So that, I am confident with our new superintendent, who I hear from every group I’ve been to says they feel he communicates, they understand and they feel valued. And that process is going to help us work on that area. In terms of our job, I do a lot of community meetings in our articulation areas and just listening. When you think you’re explaining something really well, and then you have the same question five times, you realize you haven’t done a great job with that.Erica Shields: When I think of budgets, the first thing that comes to my mind is my own home budget. When we’re spending money, the husband wants to know exactly what I spent on that credit card line-by-line. So as taxpayers, it’s really not that different. We pay taxes, you pay taxes in Jefferson County, and don’t you want to know exactly where your money is going and how it’s being spent? And if student outcomes and achievements are good? Don’t you want to know those things? So, the questions was how to engage the community in doing that. Well obviously we want to make sure we’re being as transparent as we possibly can be. And on the website, make it more clear about where those line items are going. I think that’s really important because a lot of that number stuff goes over a lot of heads in the community. Simplify it and be more specific and transparent.Q. Tell us what school choice means to you.Brad Rupert: I’m absolutely not in favor of vouchers and the privatization of our public schools, period. With regards to school choice, in Jeffco we are very fortunate to have a variety of options. We have open enrollment at any of our schools. We have option schools, some of them are terrific alternate educations. We’ve got charter schools that run the gamut of wide variety of different curricular options. And of course we have the private choices. So it’s a wide variety, but we have to remember that we need to provide a good education for all because not everyone can access all those choices. Some people living in poverty are confined to the neighborhood school because of transportation, because of access to information, and any number of reasons they don’t get to access those choices. We need to make sure we don’t dilute the resources for our neighborhood schools because some of our people must go there.Matt Van Gieson: I believe strongly in school choice. My mom made a school choice. She made a choice to take me to a school that was close. Her reasoning was she wanted me to be close to her during the day so that she could be there in case of an emergency. I’m a big advocate of school choice. My wife runs a mothers group and so I hear a lot from young mothers in that kindergarten age range where they’re all so worried about what choice is going to fit their child best. And we’re very fortunate in Jefferson County to have many choices: STEM schools, Montessori schools … And as we get into the high school area, we need to look holistically and think about places like Warren Tech as a school choice. So, I absolutely support school choice. And as others have said, vouchers are unconstitutional in Colorado, so I’m gonna worry about choices that are available now.Susan Harmon: School choice to me is making sure that the choices that are out there for families are sustainable. That they are providing quality education fro all students in our buildings. I do not support privatization of our public school system. I don’t support vouchers. But we live in choice district. My children chose their neighborhood schools and they did that because they wanted to be at a school they could walk to in their community. I support that choice. I also support the choice of my neighbors who choices out into a new charter school that opened up. I support my neighbors that go to private schools. We just need to make sure that the choices that are out there provide the quality level that can be sustained. I don’t want families choosing a school that they then have to choice out of the next year because it did not provide the education that their children deserved.Erica Shields: That is a great question. In the state of Colorado the use of vouchers are currently unconstitutional. And the voters decided that is the case and I support our voters. For me, I advocate school choice because it gives opportunities for all of our children to have the education that they need, that suits them. I believe that our parents, and me as a mom, know what’s best for my children. So, for me, school choice means options. And so that being said, I will continue to support school choice.Note: A full video of the forum can be viewed at www.supportjeffcokids.org. The video also includes answers provided by unopposed incumbent Ron Mitchell, not included in this story in the interest of giving space to candidates in contested races.
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