BY FREDA MIKLIN
On Nov. 2, voters in the Cherry Creek School District will elect new school board members from director districts D and E. Incumbent Kelly Bates and challengers Jen Gibbons and Schumé Navarro are running for director district D. Kristin Allan, Bill Leach and Jason Lester are seeking the position of director district E. On Sept. 14, the first of six candidate forums were held at Overland High School. Assistant Superintendent Jen Perry moderated the forum.
When Perry asked, by a show of hands, whether candidates had attended at least three CCSD board of education meetings prior to announcing their candidacy, Allan, Bates, Gibbons, and Navarro raised their hands. Leach and Lester did not.
To the statement, “I support periodically raising taxes to continue the long history of investing in safe, healthy and innovative school buildings,” all the candidates except Navarro raised their hands in agreement. To the statement, “I believe that teachers and other district employees are underpaid,” everyone except Navarro also agreed. Allan and Bates responded yes to the question of whether they’d received donations from political groups, having gotten financial support from the teachers’ union.
Asked to name which primary role of the board of education is consistent with their personal strength, Bates named hiring the superintendent, pointing to the hiring of Scott Siegfried and Chris Smith. Gibbons said her strength was in policy, which she uses at Heritage Heights Academy, a CCSD charter school where she is president of the board of directors and was its founding chair. Navarro said that “having a voice of the families…is a relevant space in those we’ve been seeing (sic) how policies are being made without giving enough thought and having enough input from the community.”
On the issue of how CCSD navigated the pandemic, most candidates offered praise. Navarro said, “We need to take an individualized approach to how we mandate things and the way we are looking at exemptions. Not everybody has disabilities that you can see. I actually suffer from a traumatic like-suffocation issue, and this is hard for me, referring to the requirement that everyone wear a mask in the school building where the forum was held. During the entire evening, she held her mask away from her face with her hand, appearing to be quite distracted by it.
In response to a question about how the candidate would address disparity in outcomes for students of color in CCSD in the areas of student achievement, implicit bias, and discipline, Gibbons said, “At Heritage Heights Academy, we boast that 54% of the kiddos are diverse and we have 100 percent of some of our classes that have proficient or above achievement… I believe that we can get parent involvement and community involvement and have a child buy-in… Those are the things that if you Google you can see what closes the achievement gap… I think it’s terribly important that teachers examine their biases.” Bates said she believes that student-based budgeting will help close the achievement gap “by put-ting funds into our schools, into our students who need more resources.” For discipline rates, she said, “I want to look at more restorative justice for our students rather than…just giving students tickets.” Navarro said, “I was a student that came into CCSD out of the district because I’m His-panic and they needed to fill a quota, so I feel like I lived this exactly and I really feel like I benefited from the individualized approach that CSSD did to me even before there was equity in inclusion training.”
In her closing, Gibbons said, “Our district is divided. Not only are we struggling to close the achievement gap that we’ve had for decades, we have hot political topics being discussed in classrooms and in teacher trainings that don’t sit well with our students, our teachers and our parents… It’s time for a change in Cherry Creek. It’s time to close that achievement gap. It’s also time to heal the wounds of the pandemic. We have our academic deficits. We have social and emotional deficits. It’s time to look around at models that have closed the achievement gap like the model used at Heritage Heights Academy.
Bates closed with, “I am passionate about serving the whole child, ensuring that they are healthy, supported and challenged in our schools. That means being able to choose their own pathway of purpose for the rest of their life.”
In her closing comments, Navarro said, “I’m sorry, but I’m sitting here and I’m struggling with this thing (pointing to her mask). I’ve sent a letter trying to talk about the cultural issues that I’ve gone through with being abused. I can’t really think in this space and I’m so sorry that I can’t offer more. That’s because I’m here for choice. Not everybody has the same background.”
Lester closed with, “A 38-year-old black man, proud autism dad, educator and community social worker, I decided to run for the Cherry Creek school board simply because tomorrow does start with us today. I want all students to have better opportunities in life…I will fight to eliminate all external, internal barriers to learning… through day-to-day advocacy… strategy… and consensus building.”
Leach ended with, ‘I have no axe to grind. I’m just a grass-roots candidate.” He said he wanted to touch on “the three-pronged attack of onsite security, school resource officers, and the new and improved mental health aspect of CCSD.”
Allen said, “I am running for Cherry Creek School District Board of education to expand our legacy of excellence and stand strong for all of our students, families, teachers and staff.” We must fulfill our promises of excellence by retaining a diverse teacher workforce so that students see themselves in their teachers.”