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Ignacio school board candidates address mask policies, critical race theory

Four candidates in the running for three open seats
Chris deKay, new superintendent for Ignacio School District, said there is a lot of divisiveness this year about the appropriate level of health precautions to limit the spread of COVID-19. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Like other rural school districts around the region, school board members and administrators in the Ignacio School District are performing a balancing act.

Some parents are vehemently opposed to having their children wear masks in school, while others would like to see more of it.

“Quite honestly, there’s just a lot of divisiveness in the country right now, and both sides are very emotional about their perspective,” Superintendent Chris deKay said in an August interview. He is taking over the reins of the district after Rocco Fuschetto retired in May after serving as superintendent for 11 years. “We’re doing our best to navigate those waters and bring kids back to school in person.”

With school board elections set for Nov. 2, three candidates are running for two open seats on the board for four-year terms. They are Leila Baker, James Bulwan and Lee Petty. A fourth candidate, Jay Dee Brunson, is running uncontested for a two-year term.

Leila Baker

Baker, 48, is self-employed and has been a resident of the district for more than 35 years. A graduate of Ignacio High School, she worked as an educator in the district for 10 years and volunteers on several community committees.

“I would like for our students to continue to gain valuable skills and knowledge beyond the required testing,” she wrote in an email to The Durango Herald. “I would also like to support our educators and help reduce the turnover rate. For our parents, I would like to encourage parents to continue being involved in their child’s education, no matter the grade level. Lastly, I believe with the support of our community, we would be able to continue building our sense of pride.”

She said the board should focus on student education and skills, as well as financial responsibility.

She said the COVID-19 procedural document is working for now.

“We must realize that while plans can be made and steps taken to provide a safe learning environment, we must continue to work together and stay informed,” she wrote.

Baker said she has not researched enough information about critical race theory to discuss the topic.

James Bulwan

Bulwan, 60, is a construction inspector, parent and grandparent in the district, and serves as a sports official.

“The Ignacio community has served my family for over 25 years, and now I think it is my turn to give back,” he wrote via email. “My community and our children are much too valuable to miss an opportunity to serve them. I want to contribute in any way I can to the continued improvement of our schools.”

He said attracting and retaining educators will be a critical task for the district this year.

“Currently, there is a statewide teacher shortage, and if I am elected to the Ignacio School Board, I want to listen to the concerns the educators have and work to resolve issues that are important to make teacher positions at the Ignacio School District more desirable,” he wrote. “Also, after the COVID-19 restricted school year that we experienced, the focus of getting kids back in school and back on track is of the most importance.”

Last year, Ignacio was the only district in La Plata County that kept its doors open for in-person learning all year. The neighboring Bayfield district switched between remote learning and in-person instruction.

Bulwan said the current policies regarding masks, sanitizing and social distancing are working for the district.

In regard to critical race theory, Bulwan said diversity and inclusiveness make Ignacio a special place to live.

“If I am elected to the Ignacio School Board, I will make it my business to understand how and to what extent CRT is formally taught in our schools,” Bulwan said. “In the meantime, I know all students of every ethnicity and heritage need and deserve the highest quality of instruction available.”

Lee Petty

Petty, 39, is a landscape architect who has lived in the district for four years. He was appointed to an open board position in May. His three children are schooled at home, but he added they participate in extracurricular activities in the district.

“Much of the challenges of 2020 brought to light that our public education system no longer is a center for critical thinking, but one that values compliance,” he wrote in an email to the Herald. If elected to the board, he said he wants to focus on academic excellence, improving the graduation rate, curriculum and retaining faculty.

Regarding the district’s health procedures, he wrote:

“Our current policy of not requiring masks and optional screening is the only acceptable policy. My goal will be to protect our staff’s and parents’ choice in masking, vaccinating and testing. Much of these dictates are coming from the Federal or State level and I will fight within all my power to keep the choice in our hands and not bureaucrats.”

Petty also said he is unequivocally opposed to racism, and he believes critical race theory teaches it.

“As such, I am opposed to anything that differentiates people by racist distinctions,” he said. “The basis of CRT is that the system and people are inherently racist.”

Petty continued: “My dear friends, we must empower our students to succeed, not cripple them with broken philosophies.”

Brunson, who is running unopposed, did not return messages and emails requesting comments for this article.

Current members of the board are Petty, along with President Yvonne Chapman, Allen McCaw, Lisa Ruybal and Kara Pearson.

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.

The school board election is the only race on the November ballot in Ignacio, along with a few statewide issues.

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