Candidates for two seats on the Bayfield School Board say they want to bring more accountability and input to the district, which has been facing criticism for its COVID-19 policies.
Four candidates are running for the board, including incumbent Rebecca Parnell, who was appointed to fill a vacancy in June after Daniele Hillyer stepped down to take a counseling position at Bayfield High School. The other candidates are Jill Shocklee, Matt Turner and Kira Wennerstrom.
The second open seat belongs to Mary Lynne Herr, a retired educator who is not seeking re-election. Both seats are for four-year terms. Candidates are at-large, meaning they are not elected by district.
Parnell, 40, is a real estate agent who has three children attending Bayfield schools.
“I’ve been invested in Bayfield schools in varying capacities over the last 12 years, from helping in the classroom, to sitting on hiring committees, to my last 90 days on the board – all of which have given me a window of perspective to see what’s working and what isn’t working,” Parnell wrote in an email statement. “Strong schools create strong communities, you can’t have one without the other – now is a good time to step in, bring my experience to the table, make sure we are keeping our communication open with our parents, students, teachers and community, and help create sustainable, reasonable outcomes that champion our students and our district as a whole.”
Parnell called the divisions within the district “an erosion of trust.”
“We need to create an environment where we are going above and beyond with transparency and accountability to rebuild that relationship,” she wrote. “Second, but of equal importance, we’ve had ongoing issues at our middle school for a long time. I know we are working to address root causes, but it’s going to take some time to create a shift.”
Bayfield students currently are not required to wear masks in school, and Bayfield Middle School switched back to online learning Tuesday after a COVID-19 outbreak. The district then asked that middle school students not attend other district events this week, such as high school athletic games, which several community members criticized on social media. A protest against the policy has been called before Tuesday night’s school board meeting.
The current policy – allowing parents to decide if masking is right for their children – is the right one at this time for the district, Parnell said.
“The goal needs to be keeping our kids in an in-person learning environment as long as it is safely feasible to do so,” she said.
Shocklee, 45, is a children’s pastor who has lived in the district for 11 years. She is the mother of two Bayfield High School graduates and has two children attending BHS. She has worked as a substitute teacher and in the school lunch room.
In an email, she said social issues are important for the district.
“The bottom line is that the board is in place to represent the community it serves,” she wrote. “We are trusted to make decisions that best reflect the desires of the parents, and upholding the honor of the office.”
Shocklee said she agrees with most of the COVID-19 policies in place in the district.
“The kids are our greatest resource and should be our most important investment,” she wrote. “If I can have a hand in protecting them and working to give them the best possible education, it would be an honor to sit on the board.”
Turner, 36, is a farmer who grew up in Bayfield and has been back in the district for the past three years. He has two elementary students in the district.
“My big push is to get a response from the board to parents,” he said in a phone interview. “I made some complaints last year, and I got nothing from the board.”
Turner was involved in a protest against school district layoffs in April and has called for the resignation of Superintendent Kevin Aten, who has led the district since 2018.
Bayfield schools faced a $1 million budget shortfall last spring after statewide budget cuts prompted by the coronavirus pandemic. The district administration cut 13 positions, including paraprofessionals, language teachers and employees in maintenance and transportation.
After the layoffs, Bayfield restructured its administrative team and created an assistant superintendent position to replace a curriculum director position.
Turner said he doesn’t want to fire Aten, but he thinks the board needs to supervise decisions made by district administration.
“The district has made a lot of really, really major financial decisions over the past year. Those were Bayfield families affected,” he said of the layoffs.
Regarding COVID-19 policies, Turner said he hates the idea of young children having to wear masks, but he understands the need for them in some situations. The cloth masks that most students wear don’t do a good job of reducing virus transmission, he said.
Wennerstrom, 20, is a recent graduate of Bayfield High School. She is opening a thrift store in downtown Bayfield and has lived in the district her entire life. Her mother is a teacher in the district, and her finance’s younger siblings attend school in Bayfield.
“It’s breaking my heart how the school has been run lately,” she said in a phone interview, citing the layoff of the Spanish teacher at Bayfield Middle School, as well as the high turnover of teachers at the school. Eleven of the school’s 22 teachers resigned this spring, and two teachers retired.
“I want to have somewhat of a say and try to turn that around,” she said.
During this week’s shutdown at the middle school, students were sent home, but staff members had to teach in school, she said.
“They should be able to teach at home” while the school is sanitized and aired out, she said. Teachers weren’t asked if they wanted to teach at home or in the school building.
Wennerstrom criticized the district layoffs and hiring of former BHS Principal Leon Hanhardt as the new assistant superintendent.
“I want to be able to have a say in these decisions,” she said. “I feel like I have the most insight and first-hand experience.”
Having families make the decision about their children wearing masks makes the most sense right now, she said.
“I’m not for or against masks,” she said.
Regarding teaching and discussing critical race theory in Bayfield schools, candidates had a variety of opinions.
“While running for school board, I’ve had the opportunity to have conversations with many people within the community and have quickly found that not everyone has the same definition of critical race theory,” Parnell wrote. “Knowing this term means different things to different people tells me there is a common ground to be found for starting complex conversations that should be had with our stakeholders; we need to make sure we are understanding specific concerns instead of reactively addressing terminology that could create further division within our schools and community and ultimately takes the focus off our children and their learning experience.”
Shocklee does not believe critical race theory should be taught in Bayfield schools.
“I do not believe the majority of our community does either,” she wrote.
“It’s on every school board agenda right now,” Turner said. “Bayfield looked at it over and over and over.”
The Colorado Association of School Boards has studied how to teach race relations as well, he said. He believes the district’s priority should be education of its students.
“If that’s not priority one, then the school district is not doing their job,” he said.
Wennerstrom said she experienced critical race theory while attending the University of Northern Colorado, and thought it divided people into different categories.
“I feel like it’s tokenism to a point,” she said. “I believe diversity and history should be taught, but your merit as a person should not be placed under your race.”
Ballots for the Nov. 2 election will be mailed the week of Oct. 11, according to the La Plata County Clerk and Recorder’s Office.
Voters who have not received a ballot by Oct. 18 should call the clerk at 382-6296. Ballots should be returned by mail no later than Oct. 25, or voters may use 24-hour ballot drop boxes until 7 p.m. Nov. 2.
Current members on the board are President Mike Foutz, Vice President Debbie Wilhelm and Secretary-Treasurer Amy Davlin.