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Durango school board candidates face off at forum

Candidates asked about role of board members, and policies around COVID-19
Five of the seven candidates running for Durango School District 9-R’s Board of Education faced off Thursday at a League of Women forum. (Durango Herald file)

Candidates for Durango School District 9-R’s Board of Education addressed a range of hot-button issues Thursday, such as COVID-19 policies in school, equity in education and transparency regarding finances and accountability.

Five of the seven candidates were peppered with questions as part of a League of Women Voters forum held virtually. Participants included incumbents Erika Brown and Andrea Parmenter. The forum also featured newcomers Rick Petersen, Catherine Mewmaw and Kristine Paslay.

Two of the candidates – Richard Dean Hill and Donna Gulec – didn’t attend the forum, saying they had previous engagements.They told The Durango Herald they rescheduled those meetings, but at that point, they had exceed the RSVP date for the forum. Gulec and Hill, along with Paslay, who was present at the LWV forum, attended a meet and greet before the forum at the Durango Community Recreation Center.

Brown, Parmenter, Petersen and Mewmaw expressed support for current COVID-19 policies put in place by the school board, such as making mask use a part of the district’s standard dress code. The candidates said they are not “pro-mask” as much as they are “pro-health.”

Paslay said she is also “pro-health” but supports personal choice over enforced mask use.

The candidates were asked what they think are the primary functions of the 9-R school board.

They gave answers that were generally in alignment but with tweaked interpretations.

Brown said the school board does not control curriculum taught within the school district and that it relies on a system of coherent governance. The board’s role is to manage the superintendent through operational boundaries and clear expectations.

Mewmaw said the board’s role is to be the oversight of the school district and work as partners with the superintendent to ensure policies are being followed. She said it is the board’s responsibility to work together to create solutions to problems faced by the district.

“There’s not one person that’s more important than another on the board,” Mewmaw said. "So our job would be to work with the district to make sure that policies that we put in place for kids actually get created and done.”

Mewmaw also said that per Colorado statute, the school board has the ability to set teachers’ salaries. The issue of low teacher wages was one subject Mewmaw brought up several times throughout the forum as she advocated for raising those wages.

Paslay agreed with other sentiments that the board plays the role of policymaker and policy enforcement. She said the board needs to support Superintendent Karen Cheser as well as the principals and school teachers within the district. But she said the board needs to demonstrate continuity to make sure that policies it sets function as intended, and that there needs to be a checks-and-balances system in place.

“If we’re still failing to meet some of those needs, because it is a four-year position, we need to have the ability to check those things and have the conversations with Dr. Cheser and maybe even with the principals and the school teachers so that we have an agreement in those checks and balances so that we can continue in the progress that we’re trying to make in the academic levels being brought back up to par,” Paslay said.

Parmenter said the board has a fiduciary responsibility of oversight of the budget but that it doesn’t have any oversight of day-to-day operations within the district.

“We have experts who do all of those things,” Parmenter said. “The board really is to set the operational expectations, the policies.”

Parmenter referenced the COVID-19 pandemic as an example of where the board looks to outside experts for guidance and used the superintendent as an example of where it looks for internal guidance.

She said the board should act as open-minded listeners when hearing out district issues, while also holding all undercharges accountable for meeting expectations.

Petersen said he is intrigued by the coherent governance model used by the school board and that he likes the idea that the board is a group of community members who are there to manage fiscal issues and to offer oversight, but also to listen to the feedback from teachers and the community.

“We are entrusted by the community to help create this public school system and public school experience the best we can for our kids and for the community,” Petersen said. “I like letting the experts do what they know how to do: The curriculum, the day-to-day running; and our job is simply to try and make sure that it’s guided in the correct direction to best serve our kids and our community.”

For parents who feel “pushed out” of their children’s education, what will each candidate do to improve parental involvement within the schools?

Parmenter referenced board meetings being held virtually in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and some disturbances caused by attendees when the meetings were still physically accessible. She said that email and telephones still work and that teachers are willing to make time to meet with parents to address any of the concerns parents may have.

“I do not think that there is any deliberate ploy to limit access either to the board or to the superintendent,” Parmenter said. "Board meetings are business meetings, they are meant to be kept not so unruly, but there are multiple forums or levels that we can speak to try to get answers from your teachers. And if you really don’t get what you’re finding, come to one of the board coffee chats.”

Petersen said he’s found volunteering and access to teachers in the classroom has become difficult given COVID-19 policies that restrict parents and visitors from entering schools as casually as they might have been used to.

But, he said, despite electronic formats such as Zoom meetings, he has found that staff members and teachers are ecstatic to interact with families and the public.

“Again, it’s a difficult time, but I don’t feel in any way that parents have been shut out,” Petersen said. "Now, a parent has to be engaged and has to be willing to make the effort to find out these opportunities, to reach out to their schools, to find out the protocols for engaging with the school board, but the opportunities are absolutely there.”

Brown said it makes her sad to hear that parents and community members feel they’ve been pushed out of involvement in the education at the school district. She said she knows COVID-19 has made it especially challenging with limitations on who can be inside classrooms, but defended protocols when she said that is part of the school district’s layered approach used to keep school children safe amid the pandemic.

"Something I’m aware of too as a parent,” Brown said, “I think there is a lot of room for opportunity – it depends on the school and the classroom – but I think we can do better (with) opportunity of not just being open to parents and families coming in but actually recruiting families to be more actively engaged in classrooms and in their schools.”

Brown said engaging parents and families and letting them know of opportunities that do exist, such as the monthly school board coffee chat, public comments and the district email system, is part of the school board’s equity work to meet the needs of all district students and families.

Mewmaw said she thinks it is horrible for any parent to feel like they are pushed out of education involvement, especially with at-home learning in play.

“From a teacher’s perspective there’s never a time where you refused help from anybody, (for) any ” Mewmaw said. "We’ve always welcomed parents. I know with the security issues and the safety issues of COVID that’s not been so possible.”

Mewmaw said her experience in a Chicago public school where she taught, safety protocols were “so stringent.” She said she applauds 9-R school district for keeping students safe and school buildings secure.

In a related question about addressing the needs of children who require special education, Paslay said as far as parent involvement goes, parents feel pushed out by the school district because of guidelines and restrictions to in-person appearances by non-staff members and non-students. She said her daughter used to visit her granddaughter for lunch at the elementary school often, but has been restricted from doing so because of COVID-19 protocols.

Paslay said she spoke with one grandmother of a student with autism in elementary school. The grandmother told Paslay that the school para-educator called in sick and the district didn’t have anybody else on staff trained to deal with the granddaughter. Paslay said this was an example of why the district needs to make sure funding is used where it is allocated.

“Contingency plans need to be found in the budget to address those needs,” Paslay said.

Mewmaw advocated again for revamping the salary structure of not just teaching staff but para-educators who assist with special needs education as well as aides in classrooms throughout the district at every grade level.

Brown said her goal is to make sure all students get what they need.

She said in terms of ensuring equity, some students need more assistance and the issue is on Superintendent Cheser’s radar. Brown acknowledged that pay and affordable housing are “big problems that need to be addressed” and said there is a lot of room for improvement.

Petersen said as the son of a special educator, the idea of kids with special education needs requiring extra attention is of high importance to him. He said board fiduciary responsibility is there and it is up to the board to figure out how to allocate money to special education needs within a “very tight budget.”

He said that despite funding issues out of direct control because of state Legislature decisions, “we don’t have the money” is not an acceptable reason not to appropriately fund special education needs.

Parmenter expressed similar thoughts and suggested that with Cheser’s restructuring plans, the district could do “something without more” funding, but also that the district needs an equity check to ensure resources are in the right places.

Every candidate in attendance said they would serve as a voice to the state Legislature to stress how important proper school funding is to the district.

cburney@durangoherald.com

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