Meeker School Board candidates respond to questions before forum

MEEKER | There are five candidates for four four-year terms on the Meeker Board of Education (BOE). These candidates are Bill deVergie, Bud Ridings, Davey Smith, Laurie Whiteman Simonsen and Todd Shults. Ridings is the current board president, Allen is vice-president and deVergie is secretary. deVergie served as board president from November 2013-2015. The carry-over members on the BOE who each have two years left in their current terms are Bob Dorsett, Kevin Amack and Tom Allen.
The Herald Times asked each of them to answer four questions. Their answers are below, edited only for overall length.
The candidates are scheduled to participate in a public forum hosted by National Honor Society members at the high school cafeteria at 7 p.m. today hosted by the students. The format is to be round table Q&A where the candidates will circulate among tables and have members of the public ask their own questions of each candidate.
Mail-in ballots are to be put in the mail on Oct. 17, to be returned by Election Day, Nov. 7.

Question No. 1: Why are you running for another or a first term on the Meeker Board of Education? Why should voters choose you? Please include in your answer relevant biographical information.

Bill deVergie: I am running for a third term as education has always been an important interest in my life and this is just one way I can try to help contribute to the education of our children. I hope that the experience I have gained in the past 8 years will help me contribute to the board in a variety of ways.
Bud Ridings: I am running for second term because strong leadership at the board level is paramount to having a successful school district. Voters should choose me because I am committed to seeing fairness, honesty and integrity throughout the district. I took it upon myself to push for upholding state and federal attendance laws ensuring kids were in school learning and not running the streets, our attendance numbers are now excellent in all three buildings and the district has been “accredited with distinction” by the state the past two years which I believe comes back to “you can’t learn if you aren’t in school.”
Davey Smith: I originally ran for the board two years ago because I was interested in the school system. I was elected to a vacant two year term. I am running for a full four year term now because I have acquired a lot more knowledge about the operations of the school system and believe that I can contribute successfully to policy development. I am an active participant in the current discussions and decisions. I have enjoyed the interactions between the board, staff, and public. I believe common sense and a commitment to the Meeker community are important. I am a Meeker native. My whole family attended and benefitted from Meeker schools. I am experienced in being an active member of numerous organizations.
Laurie Simonsen: After many years working in both the private and public school sectors, I am hoping to serve as a member of the Meeker BOE. I have spent time in the classroom as a teacher and substitute teacher as well as working in all aspects of office administration in various districts. I have a heart for the students, the staff, and the district. As a native of Meeker and graduate of Meeker High School, I know this is a great community and I feel that the schools are a huge part of making it so. I hope to serve not only the district in this capacity, but the community as well.
Todd Shults: I’m a dependable and insightful candidate. My inspiration to run for my first term was the turmoil that was being experienced by our community within the school district at the time. Morale amongst our faculty, parents and citizens was of concern to me as a father with three small children in the district. I felt I could complain to the powers that be or I could step up and help make a difference. This district has made a wonderful turn for the better with the school board, administration, and faculty currently in place. I feel the citizens and parents alike can feel the morale shift. I would like the voters of our community to give me the opportunity to help continue down this positive path for our students. My vision for our district going forward is to continue to provide the children of Meeker the highest level of skills and opportunities to function as productive, successful and happy adults in any area of further education they choose. My hope is that they will then bring back their talents and knowledge to our community some day. I am a product of the Meeker School District and a proud Meeker Cowboy. I now have an 11 year-old daughter and 7 year-old twins, a boy and a girl. I volunteer with the Meeker Rec District coaching my children’s various sports teams. I am a 5th generation Rio Blanco County cattle rancher.
Question 2: What do you see as the primary challenge(s) in education today? What would your priorities be?
deVergie: Unfortunately, funding is the primary challenge facing all aspects of our educational system in Colorado and specifically in Meeker. The district currently does not have enough money available to provide all of the educational opportunities, facilities and instructors needed to provide the best education possible for our students. This is an extremely complex problem dealing with legislation that controls state spending (TABOR, Gallagher, School Finance Act, etc.) and continues to hamstring our educational process. Meeker is fortunate to be able to provide a very good education despite the monetary limitations. We have a dedicated staff of teachers and administrators as the backbone. Plus, the community is so generous when it comes to education and the support we receive from businesses and private individuals. However, if the district is not able to change some of the State’s funding deficits, the challenge to educate will continue to become more difficult. The district needs to continue to pay and support our teachers and staff in any way possible. Without good teachers and support staff, learning will be limited. How the board can accomplish this task is an ongoing challenge, but good open communication and dialogue will go a long ways. Unfortunately, difficult and unpopular decisions sometimes need to be made.
Ridings: The primary challenge right now in Meeker education is funding. My priorities will stay the same—to work towards getting all of our students a quality education so that they will become productive members of society. Doing this with the funds we have available continues to be the challenge.
Smith: The primary challenge is continuing or improving the education of our children and being able to fund that education. My priorities are to keep the excellent standards of achievement and education that we have today by keeping quality staff on board.
Simonsen: I am not seeking a position on the board with any particular agenda or intent of changing anything. Of course, an “excellent” district always has room to improve. My priority is to work with the other board members and administration to make decisions that are in the best interest of our students, staff and administration, as well as the community, and to make each of our schools excellent. Meeker has great schools, great parents, and great kids. The job of the board is to protect that and to see that the best possible education is being provided.
Shults: Our primary challenge has been, and continues to be, school funding. Our rural schools are often short-changed by the state. A great deal of our county taxes that should be returning to our district never make it back from the state. This is very frustrating to me as a board member. We have been able to overcome this deficit temporarily by using our capital reserves. I would like to see a mill levy override passed by voters when our reserves are at a low level and will work toward accomplishing that at the appropriate time.
Question 3: Do you feel the Meeker School District currently maintains a good balance in student experience between academics, athletics and other extra-curricular activity? If not, what additional effort should be made in this regard?
deVergie: The district is able to maintain a good balance between the students’ academic, athletics and extracurricular activities. In the perfect world, I wish the school district was able to provide a few more academic opportunities for our students. But, with the current funding shortage, that is impossible.I feel the district provides a great education under the circumstances. Our students are so fortunate to have opportunities to participate in so many different extracurricular activities including athletics. These are great learning experiences for young people and the diversity of choices is great. Again, all of these opportunities would not be possible without the staff and community willing to donate so much of their time and energy towards educating our kids.
Ridings: The district does an excellent job of balancing academics and extracurricular activities considering the budget constraints that we operate under.
Smith: Given the size of our rural school system, we keep an excellent balance between education, sports and other activities.
Simonsen: The current administrators do a great job in balancing a good student experience between academics, athletics and extracurricular activities. Academics should come first, but there are also great learning and life lesson opportunities in the extracurricular activities and athletics, and they provide an opportunity for a well-rounded education. Academic grades and good behavior standards, however, should be kept up in order to allow participation which is being monitored well at the high school level at this point.
Shults: We are continually looking for new and creative ways to fund and offer additional extracurricular activities for the students. The recent graduate survey gave positive feedback for the high school students’ overall experience in their years as Meeker Cowboys and we hope to continue that for future graduates.
Question 4: What are your thoughts on the District’s Facilities Master Plan with regard to the need for a new or renovated high school? How does this correlate with the elementary school bond yet to be paid off? (The Facilities Master Plan was commissioned by the district last spring. The consulting architectural firm and engineers are to present their analysis and recommendations to the board at their Oct. 17 meeting.)
deVergie: Unfortunately, our high school is in need of renovation or replacement. The master plan is a third party expert opinion on this fact. Meeker has been able to keep this building and other school facilities operating as best as possible, but as each year rolls by the building is getting further behind on repairs, maintenance and upkeep. The infrastructure, such as pipes/plumbing, electrical, flooring and more are just outliving their life expectancy.Funding a new or renovated building will be a difficult challenge to ask of our community with the current bond for the elementary school existing. However, I feel it is needed to help Meeker move forward for the next 50 years of education. There are grant opportunities available and the time is still good to try to apply and help take some of the financial burden off of the Meeker community.
Ridings: We need to see how the facts play out. In the not too distant future we are going to have to make some very serious decisions on the high school building and the bus garage/bus maintenance shop. It would be unfair to others later if we don’t take an honest look at these issues now and see where it shakes out. Whether or not the bond on the elementary school is paid off yet doesn’t concern me as much as the need for remodel or replacement of the other facilities. Let’s see what the final master plan report suggests, then we can make some decisions on whether or not to proceed or wait. At the end of the day, it won’t be a board decision anyway. It will be decided by a vote of the taxpayers of the district.
Smith: I have attended all of the special meetings about the district’s facilities. In the future, we will have to replace a 60 year old high school, but at this point in time we are still in the planning stages. The bond issue on the elementary school is somewhere between 8-10 years away from complete pay-off. One of the biggest questions for the board and the taxpayers is whether we can afford to wait until the end of this bond payment or are we willing to continue with the planning and proceed with plans for replacement before the other bond is paid off. If we wait 10 years, the cost will increase dramatically. If we start next year, we may have the advantage of a possible BEST (state) grant. The decision to build a new high school will ultimately be made by the taxpayers.
Simonsen: It is apparent that renovation in some fashion needs to be done to the high school in regard to safety and functionality. There are options being presented and it will be the board’s duty to focus on the best avenue once all numbers and final information are available considering financial costs to the district and past financial obligations, as well as maintaining a good education environment during renovation or construction, all the while keeping the public well informed. There are many factors that will have to be considered financially, logistically and educationally looking at the past, present and the future of our schools and the district.
Shults:At this point in time, the current board does not have the complete master plan document or recommendation available for our review.