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Both challengers in the Jefferson County Board of Education race oppose the shift of sixth-graders to middle school and are concerned about the stress school closures brings to a community.
“I know the devastation closing Pleasant View caused the community. I also know the anxiety caused by being part of a closure conversation,” said Matt Van Gieson, who is running against incumbent Brad Rupert for the District 1 seat. Van Gieson was an active volunteer at the Golden school that closed at the end of last school year. “While our superintendent has said he won’t recommend school closures, we know this is a board decision. I support our small schools and don’t support closing schools.”
District 2 challenger Erica Shields said she also sees the stress and enrollment decline that placing a school on a closure list brings.
“Closing a neighborhood school breaks up a community and has devastating effects, especially when the school primarily serves low-income families,” Shields said.
Van Gieson is an IT project manager and lives with his wife and four children in Arvada. The parent and education advocate said he is running for the board of education seat to bring balance to the board.
“Our future depends on our children being prepared for successful futures and our community needs a balanced board to make sure we are setting goals for improvement and spending our billion dollar budget responsibly before asking for more tax dollars,” Van Gieson said. “I am committed to respectfully asking tough questions.”
Rupert was elected for the board in 2015, following the recall of the conservative board majority. He is a lawyer with an Arvada-based practice focusing on business, real estate and estate planning.
“I’d say that we have a pretty strong two-year history,” Rupert said of his time on the board. “I think my approach is simply wanting Jeffco to keep moving forward. I think we have ingredients for developing a great school district and I think that’s something I’d like to pursue.”
To do that, Rupert said he would continue to work on improving education outcomes and remedy the challenges of facility maintenance.
“We also need to work on closing the achievement gap, particularly with children living in poverty,” Rupert said.
Achievement gaps are also one of Van Gieson’s top priorities.
“In Jeffco, 50 percent of third-graders don’t read at grade level by the end of their third-grade year,” Van Gieson said. “I look at my four children and see statistically that would be two of my children not prepared for fourth-grade work. That is unacceptable, and for our future we must do better.”
Shields is challenging incumbent Susan Harmon, who was also elected in 2015 following the board majority recall.
Shields, a Jeffco mom, describes her work as being a “public health educator,” who advocates for childhood causes including fitness, resiliency, pediatric cancer, child abuse and neglect, and education.
“Over the last year, I have spent a significant amount of time volunteering in schools which serve high populations of students from families living below poverty,” Shields said. “I have seen the incredible needs in these schools. I have learned not every student in Jeffco has the same opportunities despite the billion dollars we spend each year. I am running to be sure we focus on improving opportunities for all students so that they can be better prepared for college or career.”
Shields said she also wants to attract and retain great teachers and staff for the district — something the current board laid out as a priority last year.
Harmon, a Lakewood-based attorney, began getting involved with Jefferson County’s public education system when her kids first began school — joining the PTA and serving as an elected board member before being elected to the board of education.
“I’m very excited about continuing the great progress our board has had,” Harmon said. “There’s a stiff learning curve which I went through with the other board members. We have had a lot of very difficult decisions to make during these two years.”
Harmon said she believes in the democratic process and is encouraged to see that other people want to serve the students in Jeffco.
“I’d be curious to see her views on policy governance and our differences, concerns or criticisms of things she feels I haven’t done or we collectively haven’t done,” Harmon said of her challenger, Shields. “I’m proud of the work that I’ve done and look forward to continuing that.”
One opposition Shields has to the current board is their decision to move sixth-graders to middle schools.
“This plan doesn’t have the community support needed to ensure success,” Shields said. “We need to understand the costs and what benefits are expected before moving forward with this plan.”
Van Gieson also sees the sixth-grade shift as an issue.
“Adding capacity to middle schools doesn’t give us the elementary school space we will need and is estimated to cost $50 million,” Van Gieson said. “These are not solutions the community supports.”
When asked about the views of his competitor, Rupert responded saying that democracy requires choices and that the community should be grateful for people putting themselves out their for the best interest of students.
But Rupert said there are two clear differences between him and his challenger.
“He’s interested in pursuing the policies of the last board,” Rupert said. “I would not.”
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