Final CCSD candidate forum contrasts contenders

BY FREDA MIKLIN
STAFF WRITER

“We do not need a white man sitting on our board,” said Bates

On November 2, voters in the Cherry Creek School District will elect representatives for Director District D and Director District E. Candidates for Director District D are incumbent Kelly Bates and challengers Jen Gibbons and Schumé Navarro. There is no incumbent in Director District E because the current representative, board president Karen Fisher, is term-limited. Seeking to replace her are Kristin Allan, Bill Leach, and Jason Lester.

The last of six Cherry Creek School District board candidate forums held on October 7 at Cherokee Trail High School saw many new questions being asked. Schumé Navarro participated live for the first time since September 14 after a dispute about wearing a mask was finally resolved. 

At the beginning of each forum, Jennifer Perry, Assistant Superintendent, read a series of statements with which candidates were asked to agree or disagree. The statements below are ones Perry read on October 7 which we have not previously reported and on which not all candidates agreed.

“I support the voter approved student-based health centers, mental health facility, and the building of the new elementary school.” All candidates except Navarro agreed.

“I have received support for my campaign directly or indirectly from previous board members and previous superintendents.”  Only Bates and Allan agreed.

“I support periodically raising taxes to continue the long history of investing in safe, healthy and innovative school buildings.” All candidates except Navarro agreed.

“I believe that the teachers association and other employee groups play a critical role in the success of Cherry Creek School District.” All candidates except Navarro agreed.

Candidates were then given the opportunity to explain or expand on their responses. 

Navarro explained that she disagreed with student-based health centers because she “did not feel that it’s the proper role of a school district to be facilitating health.”

Gibbons said all her campaign contributions came from family, friends and community members and that she “had no problem with the unions giving a verbal endorsement to candidates,” but she did not seek their endorsement because she believes “that where money is taken from a group with a vested interest in your future actions as a board member…that’s a conflict of interest.” 

Bates emphasized that the school-based health facilities and mental health day facility will assist students who have limited access to those services and will also save CCSD money.

Allan pointed to her endorsements from four former CCSD superintendents and “other community leaders.” 

Leach emphasized his support for Proposition 119 that would provide a $1,500 per student stipend for tutors outside of school for various subjects, including “ACT-prep,” paid for by imposing additional taxes on marijuana and governed by a nine-person board. 

Lester said, if elected, he would hold extra meetings to get parent input and pointed to CCSD’s “world-class” special education program.

Perry moved on to questions received from audience members that evening and in previous meetings, that had not been asked. She noted that some were directed to specific board members but that others would also be asked to answer them.

Allan was asked if receiving campaign contributions from CCEA (a teacher’s association) would cause her to let CCEA drive her agenda and decision-making. Allan responded, “No. It is the exact opposite. My guiding principle is, how do we serve every child every day?” Addressing Proposition 119, she asked, “Why are we looking to marijuana money to fund education?” She pointed out that Proposition 119 would allow the “unelected board of trustees to spend twice as much on their own salaries and overhead as it takes to run the entire State of Colorado Board of Education,” noting that the appointed board of trustees could spend up to 10% of its budget on administrative costs,” and that its annual budget, $10.9 million, is “nearly twice the entire budget of the Colorado Department of Education, which was $5.79 million for the 2021-2022 school year.”

Bates was asked the same question about whether the union would impact her agenda and decision making because she received contributions from it. Bates pointed to the longtime collaboration between the teacher’s union and the district that has often included lengthy and challenging negotiations, clarifying, “I will not be run by a union. I accepted the funds because of the high stakes in this election.” 

Gibbons was asked if, having started a charter school under a classic core-knowledge curriculum because “CCSD was not providing what you desired for your children,” she intended “to change the current educational plans and curriculum of Cherry Creek and move to core knowledge?” Gibbons responded that she founded a charter school, Heritage Heights Academy, “because of consistent overcrowding” in neighborhood schools on the east side, but confirmed, “I don’t think all schools need to go to core knowledge.” She used the rest of her time to defend an accusation she said had been made against her by current school board President Karen Fisher about her role in trying to remove a principal at Black Forest Hills Elementary. 

Leach was asked to address a statement he’d made in a previous forum that, “The union is driving the agenda and decision-making of the board,” including providing “specific evidence and examples of how you know your statement is accurate.” Leach said, “Just because I question union tactics doesn’t mean I question the validity of the teacher’s union.” He pointed to the fact that he “can’t see any reason to not have a union as the agent of the teachers,” and clarified, “I’d never vote to disband the teacher’s union as a board member.”

Lester was asked to address how he felt prepared to serve as a board member for the fourth largest school district in the state, having attended no school board meetings or been involved in any parent committees. Lester noted that his wife is a social worker in CCSD who shares information with him about the district and that he had talked to CCSD families in his neighborhood about their concerns. He also pointed to his “unique ability to bring people together” and his dedication to excellence. 

Perry asked Navarro, “Local reporters have stated, ‘Cherry Creek School Board candidate Schumé Navarro appears to support Qanon conspiracy theories. Is that true and explain how it impacts your decision-making process.” Navarro responded that the news media’s goal is “to sensationalize stories to create clicks, vilify and create division.” She described Qanon as “an internet sensation that was just surface and just cultural and fun,” explaining that “it was an interesting thing” when she “was at home with kids for months…It was an outlet that was just harmless and it’s just a distraction.” 

Later, Perry asked the three district director D candidates to respond to the statement, “Some have commented that the current (school) board lacks diversity because there are no men on the board.” 

Bates said, “I believe that our board has a lot of diversity on it. We have five women. This is the first time in the 70-year history of this district that we have five women sitting on the board. I think it speaks to the times that we are living in… I don’t think that we need a man to be on our board just because he’s a man… We have cultural diversity. We have two black women who sit on our board (who) come from very different backgrounds. We have people who live in all areas of our district. We are not all wealthy white women who sit at home eating bon-bons all day. We are a very diverse group (with) our own strengths and weaknesses, but we all work together collaboratively…So no, we do not need a white man sitting on our board.” At the regular school board meeting on October 11, Bates said that the question had caught her off-guard and explained her answer this way: “I’ve always had respect for the diverse perspectives of the women who I’ve served with on this board over the past four years. I feel they are capable of leading this great district as well as any man would. I want our board to consist of those who maintain our vision of excellence. My response was not meant to be about race, gender or religion, but a focus on excellence.”

Gibbons also disagreed with the statement, saying, “I don’t think there needs to be diversity with the sexes but I do think there needs to be a diversity of ideals…If everybody is joined on the same page…you don’t go anywhere. You need a healthy back and forth.” She then pointed to her six years of experience on the board of Heritage Heights Academy as preparing her to serve on the school board. 

Navarro agreed with the statement that the board lacks diversity because there isn’t a man on it, explaining, “I think a strong male presence is awesome. My life has been substantially just changed and just supported by a male influence. My dad has been my best friend throughout my whole entire life…I just think that presence that men bring to a group setting is amazing… I think that they belong at the table. I think that they have great ideas… As women we need to allow ourselves to hear them and not silence them with just whatever. I’m over that thought process.” In response to Bates’ answer, Navarro said, “No white men on the school board? That’s just terrible to say. No inclusive or, at all.”

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