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One word used often by Douglas County School Board candidates at the second community forum was "trust."
"Before we would consider any kind of tax increase, the first goal is to restore trust with the community," Elevate Douglas County candidate Grant Nelson said when asked about the financial needs of the Douglas County School District.
"If we want to build trust - and I keep hearing this word in this campaign - then let's answer this question honestly," Chris Schor - one of four candidates running against the Elevate slate - said when asked about vouchers. "I believe in public funds supporting public schools, therefore I would not support taxpayer-funded vouchers."
The eight candidates sat at a table, each beside his or her district opponent, before a room full of adults for a forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of Arapahoe and Douglas Counties on Oct. 3 at the Lone Tree Hub, 8827 Lone Tree Parkway.
Candidates are vying for four seats on the board, currently occupied by Meghann Silverthorn, James Geddes, Judith Reynolds and Steven Peck. None of those four incumbents is seeking re-election, with Silverthorn being the lone board member who can't because of term limits.
This election could mark a major shift in the direction of the school board, which since 2009, has seen the majority of its members support a number of controversial reforms, including a pay-for-performance model of compensating teachers and a voucher plan that has been tied up in litigation for six years. In 2015, after six years of holding a 7-0 advantage on the board, the reform-minded majority lost three seats to challengers David Ray, Wendy Vogel and Anne-Marie Lemieux. The board has been divided since, with votes frequently falling 4-3 in favor of the reform-minded members.
On Nov. 7, a single seat won by an anti-reform candidate would transform the board minority into the majority.
Gerry Cummins, chair of voter service of the League of Women Voters of Colorado, moderated the forum. Members of the audience submitted questions.
The Lone Tree forum came on the heels of a Sept. 26 student-led forum at Highlands Ranch High School.
The following are some of the issues discussed.
When asked about the need for suicide prevention in schools, Elevate Douglas County, made up of Nelson, Debora Scheffel, Randy Mills and Ryan Abresch, and their opponents, Schor, Anthony Graziano, Krista Holtzmann and Kevin Leung, acknowledged that the topic was of great importance.
Schor referred to a recent student survey, in which students identified the need for additional support in schools through therapists and counselors.
"What kinds of support can we put in schools where kids feel like they have somebody to talk to," Schor asked. "I would advocate that we listen to our students and put more support in our schools."
The district needs to support the mental health professionals and programs in place, Scheffel said, so they can support their students.
"We too as adults need to model the type of respect for each other that kids need to have between themselves," Scheffel said.
Candidates disagreed on some sides of the issue. Nelson, whose two daughters have the same counselor at Rock Canyon High School, called the district's counseling "great." Whereas Holtzmann sees a need for more counseling services in secondary schools that have been impacted by budget decreases.
Candidates were asked what they would do to ensure special-needs students are not left out of charter school opportunities and if they believe special-needs students are served well.
Some candidates pointed to the case of Endrew F. versus Douglas County School District, in which an autistic student's parents say he wasn't he wasn't provided with the level of public education required by federal law and sought reimbursement for the child's tuition and related expenses at a private school. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the family.
"The Endrew F. case is an example of where public dollars are going to a private school in his interest," Mills said.
Holtzmann met with more than 40 parents of students with special needs and teachers of special needs students over the past couple of months, she said. She called the topic a "big concern."
"The school doesn't say they can't come there, but they will tell them that they don't have resources to serve them," she said. "... I think that there are quality teachers and staff working in many of our public schools - charter, neighborhood, magnet - but I think we need to have more access for our special needs students."
A former special education teacher, Scheffel has met with hundreds of parents of special needs students throughout her career, she said. Resources need to be available to fulfill quality education for special needs students, she said.
"If in Douglas County traditional public schools or charter schools are cherry picking students," she said, "that's not legal and the current board needs to look into it deeply and analyze the situation."
How do candidates plan to build trust in their community? That was one audience member's question.
Candidates' answers zeroed in on communication, action and accountability.
"Trust starts where your actions match your words," said Mills, adding that trust requires stability and involvement with the community at large.
Graziano highlighted the importance of working with the community and making decisions that "drive action" on issues including vouchers, a mill levy and teacher turnover.
"... versus continuing to deliberate and over evaluate things that have caused instability over the last eight years," he said.
Trust is making sure the public sees that the board is spending tax dollars wisely, Abresch said. He referred to his experience as an attorney, working with opposing counsels.
"You need to make sure you are listening to the other side, even when you don't want to listen to them," Abresch said, "and you need to make sure that you're both working collaboratively to come up with creative solutions to difficult problems."
For Leung, it is paramount that the board listens to the recommendations of staff and advisory committees - such as fiscal and long range planning, which study schools and capacity needs.
"If you don't trust them," Leung said, "how do you expect them to trust you as a school board member."
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