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Bayfield school board candidates call for accountability, more communication

Topics include teacher shortage, budget shortfall and serving students with special needs
(Durango Herald file)

During an online candidates forum this week sponsored by the League of Women Voters, residents running for two seats on the Bayfield School District Board of Education said they want the school district to be more accountable to parents and community members.


The four candidates are:

  • Rebecca Parnell, a real estate agent appointed to the board in June who has three children in Bayfield schools.
  • Jill Shocklee, a children’s pastor and mother of two Bayfield graduates and two current BHS students.
  • Matt Turner, a farmer and father of two elementary school students.
  • Kira Wennerstrom, a recent BHS graduate and business owner.

The forum was conducted on Zoom and broadcast on local radio stations, with questions submitted to the league’s website. The forum can be viewed on the league’s website at www.lwvlaplata.org.

School boards have become contentious positions over the last couple of years. What made you want to step into this difficult but important role?

Shocklee answered that she loves children in the Bayfield community and it is important to listen to what parents have to say about their education.

Turner said he ran after he called for the resignation of Superintendent Kevin Aten last spring, then he started studying more issues in the district.

“I started this in anger,” he said. “The only thing we can do is limit his power by being on the board. We need to have solutions.”

He noted there are positive successes happening in the district as well.

Wennerstrom also has been an outspoken critic of Aten and the current district administration.

She said teachers are being fired or leaving the district because of a lack of support, not because of the difficulties they faced during the pandemic or low pay.

Parnell said she wanted to make a difference when she applied this spring to fill a vacated board seat, adding that the board needs to be transparent in its decision-making.

What is each candidate’s plan for addressing the teacher shortage and teacher retention crisis in the district?

Wennerstrom said exit surveys of departing educators need to be made more public, and teachers need to be spoken to with more respect.

Principals should face accountability for losing staff members, in the same way that business owners do, she said.

“We need more communication with teachers,” she said. “They can’t speak to the Herald, they can’t speak out and they can’t ask for help.”

Parnell noted that teachers leaving the field isn’t an issue just in Bayfield, it’s taking place throughout Colorado and the U.S.

She wants to look at ways the community can support new teachers, mentioning the possibility of partnering with La Plata Homes Fund to help them find housing.

Shocklee has worked in human resources and said she supports Wennerstrom in asking why teachers have left the district, and why the district laid off teachers and paraprofessional aides this spring. The district budget and housing market play into teacher retention as well, she said, adding that change “won’t happen overnight.”

Turner said the issue will be hard to fix.

“Colorado is the lowest paid state for teachers in the entire country,” he said. “The housing market is astronomically out of control.” Increased pay is “a really, really good place to start, but it’s something the district’s going to struggle with.”

Currently, what do you consider to be the critical issues in the Bayfield School District?

Parnell answered that transparency needs to start with the superintendent and the board, then be upheld in every building in the district. She said she asked for exit interviews of departing teachers this spring.

Bayfield Middle School “is on my radar,” she said, noting teacher turnover, the loss of programs in the school and lower results on test scores.

Shocklee also cited the teacher shortage, but said parents need to monitor what children are learning in school. Critical race theory, sex education at an early age, bullying at BMS and the district’s response to COVID-19 are issues the community needs to be aware of, she said.

Turner said while such national issues may not be an issue right now in Bayfield, “parents need to know where we stand.” If there are any issues that community members are concerned about, “the board needs to step to the plate quickly,” and hold the district administration accountable, he said.

Wennerstrom again cited transparency in the district and said community members should have been consulted before district staff members were laid off last spring.

“Without the teachers, we don’t have a school,” she said. “To be talked to like they’re replaceable – that’s the biggest issue.”

Where do you stand on Colorado Department of Education guidelines on COVID-19, as well as mask and vaccine mandates in the schools?

Turner said wearing masks needs to be voluntary in school, noting that it is hard for kindergarten students to learn how to read when they can’t see their teachers’ faces.

COVID-19 vaccines are a family decision, he said. “That’s not something the school should be getting involved in at all.”

Wennerstrom said the administration and board should listen to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but she agrees with the current policy of not requiring masks.

Mental health and well-being are important for students as well as physical health, she said.

“It’s important that families have a choice, and they’ve spoken,” Parnell said of Bayfield’s policy not requiring students to wear masks in school. “I’m happy to honor that.”

But she said she has heard from some families who want students to wear masks, as well, and they don’t feel supported in the district.

“I’m absolutely opposed to vaccine mandates,” she said.

Shocklee said families need to decide what is best for their children.

The district has a history of poorly serving students with special needs and has had lawsuits as a result. Do you have any experience with special needs students? And what are your ideas about how the district can better serve the special needs population?

Wennerstrom said she was a peer mentor for a student with special needs in high school and thinks it is a good program. The core foundation of teaching students with special needs is the paraprofessionals, and those who were laid off this spring should be hired back.

“More staffing is definitely a key point,” she said.

Turner is the father of a daughter with special needs and said her experience in Bayfield has been mostly a positive one, but some students struggled last year after the layoffs took place.

“We need to get these people back,” he said. Without the aides who help special education students, “there’s no way one teacher can handle 20 kids in the classroom with two needing special help. It’s just not going to happen.”

Shocklee said there are many levels of kids who need special attention, and the district hasn’t always been equipped to handle that.

She wants to reach out to parents and ask them what is working for their children.

Parnell agreed she would like the district to rehire paraprofessionals and ask parents the best way to partner with families in educating their children.

Bayfield School District had a balanced budget four years ago. It now has faced up to a $1 million shortfall this past year, leading to significant staff reductions, even though the district’s per-pupil funding from the state increased by about 10%. How will you ensure the district is making the best financial decisions to provide students with a high-quality education experience?

“We need to be looking at accountability,” Turner said. That includes setting goals and holding administrators to them.

“If they don’t meet the goals, we need to find new administrators,” he said.

The district found $700,000 in funding when it was laying off staff members last spring, he said. “There needs to be accountability for that money that was just found in the budget.”

Shocklee agreed that past budget decisions should be studied so board members can learn how to correctly budget for the future.

Parnell said she has asked for more reports to board members about where money is coming into the district and how it is being spent.

Wennerstrom criticized the decision to create an assistant superintendent position earlier this year, noting that the $100,000 salary could have funded three paraprofessional positions. Another coordinator has been hired for $60,000 a year, she said.

How would you find the money to pay teachers more?

Parnell said she would like to help find revenue sources outside the district. She hopes that federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds can be used to provide bonuses for teachers, but noted that is a short-term fix, not a long-term funding solution.

Wennerstrom also said federal relief money should be used for teacher retention.

Turner said finding money in school budgets is a hard task.

Shocklee said that any money the district receives from outside sources needs to align with community values.

Closing comments

In conclusion, Parnell said school board members have to focus on multiple issues: curriculum, budgets, long- and short-term strategies, and trying to serve students who want to be in school, as well as those who don’t.

Shocklee said children who are struggling in the district need to know they have support in the district.

“We need to be part of their lives to show them they have a chance,” she said. She wants to be a bridge for parents who have concerns about their children’s education.

Turner said Bayfield is a strong community, and the school district needs community support.

“I’d like to hold the district accountable,” he said.

Wennerstrom said she appreciates the chance to run and wants to fight for teachers, the community and students.

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