Kelly Sloan, The Business Times
Six candidates vying for election to the Mesa County District 51 School Board agree on the role of public education in preparing students for the work force and college. But they disagree on the specifics of the process — and to what extent District 51 has experienced success in achieving that goal.
Six of seven candidates campaigning for three seats on the board in the Nov. 5 election discussed their backgrounds and positions as well as answered questions in a forum hosted by the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce.
Pat Kanda, Lonnie White and John Williams seek election in District C. Mike Lowenstein and Tom Parrish seek election in District D. Greg Mikolai and John Sluder seek election in District E.
Mikolai is the only incumbent in the election, although Kanda previously served on the school board. Williams was appointed to fill a vacancy on the board an interim basis.
White declined to participate in the chamber forum or the process through which the chamber determined endorsements
Williams said at the forum his goal is to “create the best employees with great schools.” His priorities include workforce or college readiness, a “cutting edge” curriculum and third grade reading proficiency.
Kanda said he would focus on such basics as mathematics and reading as well as safety, including bullying prevention.
Parrish called education an economic driver that produces students who should be ready for either jobs or college. He said the board should address the needs of students who aren’t necessarily going to college and also voiced support for increased school choice and creating opportunities for schools like New Emerson .
Lowenstein said District 51 has great teachers, but what he called a “bad product.” If that happened in the private sector, changes would be in order, he said. “If the workers are good, but the product is bad, you look at the management … . In this case, it is the school board that is not doing its job.”
Sluder said students must obtain the skills businesses need and that education should be relevant to real world skills.
An instructor at Western Colorado Community College in Grand Junction, Sluder said students have told him they feel the education system has failed them, adding that 38 percent of students entering college require remedial courses.
Mikolai cited the accomplishments of the school board, including managing $30 million in budget cuts and third grade achievement scores that came in above the state average.
Asked about the role of business in public education, all six candidates said they consider the business community an important partner.
Mikolai said he wished to “keep existing partnerships strong.” Sluder said District 51 should build a curriculum around what the business community needs. Moreover, the school board needs business knowledge and experience, he said.
The candidates also were asked about their positions on Amendment 66, a state constitutional amendment on the ballot that would increase state income taxes to raise additional funding for public education in Colorado. The measure would increase the rates on taxable income under $75,000 from 4.63 percent to 5 percent. Individuals with taxable income of more than $75,000 would pay a rate of 5 percent on the first $75,000 and 5.9 percent on income above that amount. It’s estimated Amendment 66 would raise $950 million in additional tax revenues a year for education.
Lowenstein and Kanda both suggested a better approach than a proposed tax increase would be to grow the economy and broaden the tax base.
Parrish said Amendment 66 was not the “right reform.” Both Parrish and Williams pointed to the Gallagher Amendment as an example of a constitutional amendment that imposed unintended consequences. The Gallagher Amendment requires business owners to pay more combined property taxes than homeowners in Colorado.
“The trouble with a constitutional amendment is that you are stuck with it,” Parrish said.
Williams said now is not the time for a tax increase, but added that schools constitute a public investment and “some sort of investment must be made in the future.”
Sluder said increased spending for schools doesn’t equate to improved educational outcomes, citing as an example public schools in Washington, D.C., that receive some of the highest funding levels in the nation but also report some of the poorest results. Despite comparatively low funding, Utah schools perform better than much of the nation, he added.
Mikolai questioned Sluder’s position and said some school districts in Massachusetts are highly funded and also perform well. He added, though, that District 51 needs to look at the community level for additional funding.
Chamber endorses candidates, opposes Amendment 66
John Williams, Tom Parrish and John Sluder have received endorsements from the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors in their campaigns for the Mesa County District 51 School Board.
A chamber endorsement committee interviewed six of seven candidates running for three seats on the board and made recommendations to the board of directors.
“The chamber utilized a thorough endorsement process that considered each candidate’s ability to shape the future workforce of our business members,” said Diane Schwenke, president and chief executive officer of the chamber. “That included interviews, candidate forums and answers to questions about issues that matter to business.”
“At the end of the day, these three candidates appeared to be most able to help meet business needs for skilled workers in the future,” Schwenke said.
The chamber board also came out in opposition to Amendment 66. Schwenke said the proposed tax increase would divert money that could be invested in jobs and in turn help a fragile local economy. “The chamber supports education reform, but not at the expense of our local economy.”