School board candidates talk priorities and positions

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Implementing a performance-based learning system, strengthening reading instruction and improving leadership and communication rank among the top priorities for six candidates seeking election to the Mesa County District 51 School Board.

In participating in a forum hosted by the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce, the candidates also addressed such issues as the school calendar, recruiting minority teachers and whether or not candidates who work for the district would create a conflict of interest in also serving on the board.

The six candidates are vying for two seats on the board in the upcoming mail-in election. In District A, Arvan “Jeff” Leany, a businessman who has served on the school board since 2011, faces Doug Levinson, a retired educator who worked as principal at Scenic Elementary School, and Kelly Reed, the current principal of Redlands Middle School. In District B, Cindy Enos-Martinez, a former member of the school board and Grand Junction City Council, faces Paul Pitton, a retired teacher who still works part-time at Palisade High School, and George Rau, a financial advisor who’s also worked in private education.

Leany said he’s running for re-election in part to implement a performance-based learning system in which students advance when they’ve demonstrated proficiency of the required knowledge or skills. “We have a chance to become the best district in the state.”

Enos-Martinez said the top issue on which she would focus if elected would be to strengthen reading instruction, although she didn’t offer any specific suggestions.

Levinson, Reed and Rau emphasized leadership.

“We need a system of leaders,” Levinson said, including more support for the teachers and staff that support students.

“It’s all about leadership,” Rau said, attributing the difference between mediocrity and excellence to leadership.

Reed stressed leadership along with collaboration and communication.

Pitton said he believes the district must do a better job of communicating with teachers and the community.

Questioned whether or not they believe long summer vacations inhibit students in their educational advancement, the candidates offered varying answers.

Rau said a shorter summer vacation would be better and that teachers need fall and spring breaks.

Reed said year-around school would be better for students. But if the community doesn’t support that, he said it would be best to go with a traditional calendar.

Levinson said prior experiments with year-round school in District 51 “fizzled,” and the community would have to discuss whether or not to reconsider a year-round calendar.

Pitton said the calendar should be based on data and community input.

Enos-Martinez said she’d like to see data from the district, but added that parents care more about educational achievement than the calendar.

Leany said the district has considered the data and that some students likely suffer from a longer summer breaks, particularly those for whom English is a second language.

Asked whether or not District 51 should recruit more minority teachers and administrators, several candidates said they’d support such efforts.

Enos-Martinez said the staff doesn’t reflect the demographics of Mesa County. It could be possible to recruit more minority teachers from Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction even as the proportion of minority students there increases, she added.

Rau said the district has been “very passive” in its recruitment efforts, but added that it can be difficult to recruit minority teachers.

Reed said he’d support efforts to recruit staff from different cultures and backgrounds.

Pitton said the District 51 staff and student body already is diverse and that he’d hire staff on the basis of their abilities and character rather than nationality.

Levinson said the district should hire the best educators it can find.

Leany said he expects the new performance-based learning system to help in attracting talent.

The candidates also were asked whether or not employees of District 51 would create a conflict of interest in also serving on the school board.

Reed said he’d recuse himself from voting if a specific conflict arose. But more generally, he said his role as a middle school principal offers insights from “ground zero” rather than creates conflict.

Pitton said he would consider no longer working as a teacher at the end of the school year if he were elected.

Levinson said he retired from his position as a principal a year ago, but he offers experience as a school board candidate. “I come with a lot of knowledge of the system.”

Rau said a District 51 employee who serves on the school board creates an “obvious” conflict of interest. “I think it’s definitely a danger.”

Enos-Martinez said her candidacy doesn’t pose any conflicts, but that other candidates could create possible conflicts, especially in negotiating teacher contracts.