School board candidates put to the test at forum

Phil Castle
Phil Castle

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Candidates for the Mesa County School District 51 Board of Education were put to the test in answering questions posed during a forum hosted by the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce.

Some of their answers addressed testing, while others   touched on funding and proposed mill levy and bond measures that also will appear on the November ballot.

Five candidates vie for three seats on the board in the election. Tom Parrish, an incumbent who serves as vice president of the board, seeks re-election in District D. He’s challenged by Dusti Reimer. District E features a race between Amy Davis and Tom Keenan. John Williams, president of the board, is unopposed in District C.

The candidates cited in opening statements a variety of motivations for seeking election, including the importance of education in developing the work force and economy.

“It’s the No. 1 thing for economic vitality and job growth for this community,” Williams said.

Davis, a family physician, said she wants to give back, but also pursue three issues in student performance, school safety and recruiting and retaining quality teachers.

Keenan — who’s worked as a teacher, coach and counselor — emphasized academics and the importance of preparing students for college and careers.

Reimer said she would bring to the board her experience in working with businesses and nonprofit organizations as well as communications and building relationships.

Parrish said he believes in the potential of children and the school district as well as the future of the community.

Asked to identify what they consider the most pressing issue facing the school district, Williams, Davis and Parish cited funding.

Along with selecting candidates, voters will be asked to approve an increase in the property tax mill levy for the school district to fund additional instructional days, books and other materials, technology and school repairs.

Voters also will be asked to approve a bond issue to replace Orchard Mesa Middle School, pay for repairs and maintenance at other schools, purchase additional computers, provide additional security and construct gymnasiums at Palisade High School and the Dual Immersion Academy.

Parrish said school districts across Colorado will require more local support as state support dwindles.

Keenan said he considers student achievement in the classroom the most pressing issue and the school district budget should reflect that.

Reimer said more community unity is needed to support the school district. “We have to all get on the same page.”

In a related question, the candidates were asked what they’d do as members of the school board if the mill levy and bond measures fail.

Williams said additional budget cuts could be needed that in turn could lead to increased class sizes or reduced or eliminated bus services.

Reimer said she’d strive to keep budget cuts away from students.

Parrish said he continue to look for efficiencies, but noted that personnel accounts for about 87 percent of the school district budget.

Davis and Keenan said they’d go back to the community to set priorities and try to come up with solutions.

The candidates also were asked what they’d do to create schools of excellence.

Parrish said the move to performance-based learning in School District 51 will help. But it’s also important, he said, that Mesa County become what he described as a “community of and” that supports schools and other civic efforts.

Reimer agreed additional community involvement is needed.

Williams said excellent schools require excellent principals, but also the involvement of parents in raising their children.

Given the increased emphasis on standardized testing, the candidates were asked whether or not instruction has been geared to taking those tests.

Williams said he wasn’t a fan of testing and questioned whether or not a School District 51 assessment might work better.

Keenan said testing has become a driving force in education when the focus should remain on students.

Davis said tests are needed to track progress, but they should offer a realistic evaluation.

Reimer said instruction should be geared to teach students how to solve problems.

Parrish said testing offers a way to hold schools accountable, but also requires a lot of time and resources and creates test fatigue. He said teachers should be empowered and entrusted to teach materials.

In making their closing statements, two candidates differed in their assessments of the school district.

Reimer said she wants to address what she considers a broken system. “I’m really tired of the mediocrity.”

Williams said he disagreed with the notion the system is broken. “There’s hard work being done out there every day.”