As expected, this November’s election was a relatively low-turnout affair, with no major state or national political offices being determined at the polls. However, there were local school board races. In those, Stephanie Schooley prevailed in District 3 (representing Wheat Ridge and parts of Arvada) and in District 4 (representing much of Lakewood) Susan Miller prevailed. In the course of this election, much was made about candidates supported by the teacher’s union versus those who brought an “independent” view to our schools.
In my professional opinion, this dichotomy dramatically over-simplified the positions and perspectives of all the candidates. If we rely on this overly simplistic frame, one candidate from each perspective won this past election. We are a diverse community in terms of values, ideologies, partisanship, and even geography. The challenge before our new board members (as well as the three members already seated) is how they transition from the work of political campaigning to that of governing and representing the interests of the district as a whole, and the great work going on its schools, to the broader community.
Looking ahead, I see three big challenges before our schools and the board. The first is around the district’s instructional philosophy and how that relates to standardized test scores. For the past two years, we have worked to emphasize authentic student experiences that prepare students for life and work. This work is guided by a focus on what we call “Generations Skills” – content mastery, self-direction and responsibility, collaboration, critical and creative thinking, agility and adaptability, civic and global engagement, and communication. Such a pursuit overlaps with, and is distinctly different from, a focus on raising test scores. This past year, our growth and achievement scores are lower than they have been in the past. While significant work is already underway in our schools to reverse this trend, our board going forward will need to wrestle with the choice between following through on building an educational experience emphasizing real-life experiences, approach focused on standardized test scores, or trying to find some middle ground.
A second area is around the size and number of our schools. Jeffco is the second largest district in the state, but we have seen declining enrollment for the past several years. Now, we have many small schools, some enrolling fewer than 200 students. Jeffco has a tradition of supporting small neighborhood schools, but there is a real financial cost associated with keeping those schools open and subsidizing them so they can offer an equitable learning experience with larger schools. Questions around school closures and consolidations are never easy. They go far beyond building conditions and enrollment trends as schools are often the social and emotional hearts of their communities. It will not be easy, but this is an issue on which our board, as the representatives of our community, will need to engage.
Finally, the board (and this community) will need to determine if it will operate as the representatives of two factions competing for control, or if it is possible for people with different viewpoints and perspectives to work together for the commonly shared goal of a great public school system for our community. Over the past several years, Jeffco has been a national example of divisive partisan politics in local education. Time will tell if we have turned that page. I wish to personally express my appreciation for all four candidates who ran for the school board seats this year. School board positions are unpaid volunteer roles and we are grateful that four quality people (Stephanie Schooley, Robert Applegate, Susan Miller, and Joan Chavez-Lee) put in such tremendous time and energy vying for these important positions. I also wish to thank all the candidates and individuals who fulfilled their civic responsibility by participating in this election – from being on the ballot, to knocking on doors, voting, or even talking about these important questions with your friends and neighbors. Our representative democracy relies on engaged, informed, and participant citizens to survive.
Jason Glass is the superintendent of Jefferson County Public Schools.
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