One of the challengers for CCSD school board wants to bring back valedictorians

BY FREDA MIKLIN
GOVERNMENTAL REPORTER

Three seats on the Cherry Creek School District (CCSD) Board of Education are up for election on November 7. Anne Egan is running for re-election to a second four-year term in Director District A. She is being challenged by Steve McKenna. Ruthie Knowles is the sole candidate running for Director District B, which is an open seat. Anglela Garland is running for re-election to a second term in Director District C. She is being challenged by Scott Graves. All the candidates run at large.

The Villager watched and listened to the first four of six candidate forums presented by CCSD at four of its high schools between September 12 and September 27. We noted key questions and answers that could help voters determine differences between candidates. Ms. Knowles was only allowed to participate minimally because she is running unopposed so we did not include the few responses she gave. Some questions were asked of all four of the other candidates. Some were asked of only two.

In their introductions at the first candidate forum held at Smoky Hill High School on September 12, Garland emphasized her experience on multiple committees and PTCOs while her children were in Cherry Creek schools before graduating. 

Graves talked about being a father of four sons, a former band schoolteacher in Texas, holder of a masters’ degree in curriculum, and a current financial planner. 

Egan, a parent of four CCSD graduates, focused on her former role as education policy advisor to Colorado Gov. Romer, as well as having completed the Cherry Creek Leadership program and having served on three CCSD school PTCOs, including as president. She also pointed to her role helping to pass several CCSD bond issues. 

McKenna noted that two of his three children attended CCSD and said he was running because, “district leadership fails to educate half its students to grade level proficiency in English and fails nearly 60% in math.” He pointed to his work as an attorney for the Securities and Exchange Commission and his prior service as a training pilot in the U.S. Navy. He pledged, if elected, “to reverse the decision to eliminate naming valedictorians at our high schools,” which he stated came about because, “current leadership thinks recognizing academic excellence inflicts harm.” Later in the forum, Egan pointed out that Cherry Creek High School, which hers and McKenna’s children both attended, has not had a valedictorian for 30 years.

The questions and answers that follow were selected from the first four candidate forums.

Asked if they had attended at least three CCSD Board of Education meetings prior to announcing their candidacy, Egan and Garland said yes. Graves and McKenna said no.

To the statement, “I support periodically raising taxes to continue the long history of investing in safe, healthy, and innovative school buildings,” Egan and Garland said yes. McKenna said no and Graves was uncertain.

“I believe the Cherry Creek school district provides an excellent academic environment for all of our children,” and, “I believe Cherry Creek is fiscally transparent and responsible with its funds,” brought agreement from Egan, Garland, and McKenna. Graves disagreed.

None of the four candidates supported the use of school vouchers for religious or private schools.

“Based on state law and district policy,” all the candidates were asked what they believe is the role of a school board member and what they would bring to it.

McKenna said school board members’ role was, “to be a liaison between the schools and the community, including the parents,” and his experience as a litigator would help him do that.

Egan named the responsibilities of the school board as 1) hiring and managing the superintendent; 2) the district’s budget; and 3) setting district policies at a high level. 

Graves said, “The job of the board of education is to represent the people who elect them and to take responsibility for the outcomes that a school produces,” along with “making sure funds are used in an efficient and transparent way.”

Garland echoed the responsibilities outlined by Egan, adding that it is important to be accountable to the voters.

Asked how they would support CCSD’s goal to eliminate academic disparities, Garland said that giving every student what they need to be successful “may not look fair or equal on the outside,” but “is a path to eliminating academic disparities.” 

Graves said that it is the duty of the school board to make sure outcomes are appropriate and kids are prepared for adult life, adding that kids are all individuals and should have the opportunity to progress. He retold a story he heard from a community member at a recent school board meeting that a child was expelled without his family getting notified, thus they could not contest the expulsion. Assuming it was accurate, he said, “That’s the kind of thing that should never happen and leads to the school-to-prison pipeline.”

Asked what CCSD does well and what it could improve upon, McKenna said that academic success should be a primary focus “and I think we’ve veered away from that.” 

Egan said CCSD needs to improve its test scores.

A question about candidates’ volunteering experiences in CCSD and how it has prepared them to serve on the board brought, “Back-to-school nights, parent-teacher conferences, and sporting events; my wife did a lot of volunteering while I was busy practicing law, and I really do care about the kids,” from McKenna. 

Egan listed her past four years as a board member, where she served on (three committees for which she used acronyms) and as the delegate to the state school board.

Graves said, “I’ve been involved in the raising of my four children, two of whom are twice-exceptional.” He also listed being a cubmaster, scoutmaster, and teaching in church as volunteer work, adding, “While it is very important to volunteer in the district, it is equally important to have voices from outside the district on the board who can come to the board and say…here are some new ideas that will be effective in helping kids get the academic experience that they should.” 

Asked what to do about, “Tens of millions of dollars in deferred maintenance…while providing updated, innovative spaces for students to learn,” McKenna said, “I wasn’t aware that we had outstanding maintenance issues. I’m still learning a lot about the district.” 

Egan said, “I think it’s critical to go for another bond and budget,” pointing to Cherry Creek High School as being over 50 years old and “severely struggling with maintenance issues.”

To a question about putting aside personal and political affiliations to work with others on the school board, Graves said he was concerned about the history of four or five years of unanimous votes on the school board and, “We need some different voices. We need some new ideas.” Later, Egan pointed out that it was not true that all board votes were unanimous, giving an example of a vote during her tenure on charter schools as being divided.

“If elected or re-elected, what would be your top priority?” the candidates were asked.

Garland pointed to the district’s new strategic plan, which focuses on 1) literacy, 2) the whole well-being of all students, and 3) the disproportionality that exists in the district that predict students’ achievements based on race, economics, and their zip codes, as well as discipline.

Graves would prioritize “making sure every child knows how to read at grade level by third grade.”

Egan pointed to the strategic plan, as well, adding the importance of individual Pathways of Purpose because four-year college is not the right answer for all students, who might choose the military or the trades.

McKenna pointed to, “The lack of a focus on academic excellence,” thus his priority would be, “returning the focus to teaching the kids how to read and to make sure they know how to do basic math,” adding, “Safety and security is certainly right up there.”

Asked to “explain the role of each of the stakeholders–teachers, parents, school boards, superintendent, leadership, students—and what changes you would like to see related to school curriculum,” Graves said, “School curriculum, I think, is one of the primary and most important jobs for the school board to supervise because that’s ultimately what our kids are learning…There’s been a lot of effort at the district, unfortunately, to not include all parents in that conversation…When a parent doesn’t agree, that’s when we’ve seen issues with parents not being told the truth, not knowing what it is that their kids are learning, finding out later. That’s one of the reasons why Covid became such a dramatic moment, because parents started to find out what their kids were learning and some of them had a problem with that.”

Garland said that, “All the stakeholders have a place in determining curriculum,” and, “We live in a global world, so we ought to know each other’s experiences,” adding, “Some of the guidelines for curriculum are dictated by the Colorado Department of Education, which establishes guidelines and sets curriculum.” She commented that she did not understand how parents did not know what their children were learning since they register their students, take them to and pick them up from school, attend back-to-school nights where books are out, talk to teachers, and have access to syllabuses their students are given.

Asked, “Would you consider hiring a teacher or a district administrator who has admitted to multiple DUIs and sex assault? Is this history appropriate for a district employee or a member of the school board?” McKenna responded, “I think it would depend upon the circumstances…I think the way this country works is if you do something wrong and you’re punished and you pay your debt to society, then you get to go on with your life and you need not be ostracized forever for that. But obviously, if you’re a teacher with children, then we need to look carefully at your past and ensure that the safety of the children is there…” 

Egan said, “When we look at adults interacting with children, I agree with candidate McKenna that there is a certain level of an ethical bar that we need to apply to make sure that our students are safe and secure in their environment.”

fmiklin.villager@gmail.com 

Editor’s note: Before The Villager completed its report, another media organization published an interview with candidate Steve McKenna in which he admitted to having had a brief, non-consensual sexual contact with a woman he did not know during the infamous U.S. Navy Tailhook  convention in Las Vegas in 1991. McKenna has expressed remorse and embarrassment for the incident.