School board candidates differ on issues

Phil Castle, The Business Times: 

In answering questions at a forum about a range of issues, three candidates for the Mesa County School District 51 Board of Education highlighted some of their differences.

Mesa County District 51 school board candidates, from left, Cindy Enos-Martinez, Jeff Leany and Ann Tisue answer questions during a forum hosted by the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce. (Business Times photo by Phil Castle)

One of the biggest differences concerns a measure that will appear on the same November election ballot as the candidates that requests an increase in property taxes to restore some funding to school district budget that’s been cut a total of $28 million over the past two years.

Cindy Enos-Martinez, an incumbent seeking election to a second term from District A, said she supports the proposed mill levy override as a way to reinstate teaching positions and school days that have been reduced in the wake of budget cuts.

John Leany, a restaurateur who’s unopposed in District B, said he opposes a tax increase he considers “too expensive” for businesses.

Ann Tisue, an entrepreneur who’s challenging Enos-Martinez in District A, said her position on the measure was a “resounding let the voters decide.” Tisue wouldn’t disclose how she’ll vote on the measure even after Enos-Martinez challenged her to do so.

The Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce candidate forum also brought out differences among the candidates on administrative staffing, standardized testing and school vouchers. But the three agreed businesses have a role to play in promoting a public education that helps train the work force.

In their opening statements at the forum, the three candidates outlined their backgrounds as well as their motivations for running for the school board.

An entrepreneur involved with his family’s restaurant business, Leany said he sees the shortcomings in education and training in the employee applications he reviews. He said he wants to bring his business experience and an entrepreneurial perspective to the school board. “I want the best for my kids and I want the best for you all’s kids as well.”

Enos-Martinez said she offers experience not only as an entrepreneur who runs a small trucking business, but also decades of experience in working in government and with government budgets. She said she wants to serve as an advocate for students as well as a member of a school board team that’s striving to make reforms in the face of budget cuts.

Tisue said she offers the credentials of an electrical engineer and small business owner with a master’s of business administration degree and experience in budgeting. She said she’s concerned students aren’t learning math and science — or enjoying the kinds of educational opportunities she enjoyed. “I want to see some changes, and I want to see some reforms.”

In answering a question about administrative staffing in School District 51, Leany and Tisue said they’d examine whether or not staffing levels are too high.

Enos-Martinez said administrative staffing levels have been reduced over the past three years and that assistant principals are needed in high schools to assist with annual evaluations of every teacher in those schools. “I don’t think we’re top heavy in administration by any means.”

Questioned about standardized testing, Leany and Enos-Martinez agreed too much emphasis has been placed on state assessments. “I think there’s a better system out there than what we’ve got,” Leany said. Enos-Martinez said students should be evaluated on an individual basis over time because they learn at different rates. Tisue said individual educational growth is important, but standardized tests offer an important measure of accountability.

Asked about a legal battle over the use of vouchers to help pay for private schools in Douglas County, the candidates differed again.

Enos-Martinez said she opposed vouchers, which she said have the potential to destroy a public school system. Leany said he favors competition because it improves quality. Tisue said vouchers could offer a win-win situation — if students with special needs attend private schools set up to meet those needs, for example.

While the three candidates offered different opinions on many issues, they agreed that businesses can play an important role in public education.

Tisue cited the results of the 500 Plan in which volunteer tutors help elementary school students read for an hour each week. Students who participated in the program last year showed improvement in standardized testing. The Grand Junction Forum, a committee of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce, first proposed the 500 Plan.

Enos-Martinez also praised what she called “healthy partnerships” between businesses and schools and the ultimate goal of those efforts. “A solid educational system is going to produce a healthy economy.”

Leany said there are opportunities for business owners to inspire in students a spirit of entrepreneurism. “Tomorrow’s leadership is going to come from today’s kids.”