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MEEKER | At the school board candidates’ public forum last Thursday, the candidates were there along with a couple former school board members and previous school board candidates, two principals, the superintendent, a few teachers, a district division director, a couple spouses, a reporter, a new-to-town educator, a couple members of the District Accountability Committee and the hosting Meeker High School National Honor Society students—some 25 people in all. Who wasn’t there? The general public.
The forum was pre-planned to involve roundtables through which the candidates would circulate. “The public” at the tables would ask the questions facilitated by the students who would also act as recorders/reporters. The superintendent circulated to answer questions.
The event was an opportunity to ask the five candidates one-on-one questions, four of whom are incumbents currently serving on the board, and four of whom will be elected. Even though “the public” by-and-large wasn’t there, good questions and good conversation did ensue.
Honor Society president Sierra Williams and vice-president Mariella Rosas presided and introduced the candidates, who gave opening statements similar to their answers in last week’s Herald Times article. Honor Society member Alex Murray served as timekeeper. Ellie Anderson, Macy Collins, Gracie Bradfield, Sember Leatham and Shelby Steele were the student facilitators.
Much of the discussion revolved around the lack of public participation. Three of the five candidates had been candidates four years ago when a similar forum was held. They recalled how the cafeteria in 2013 was jam-packed with a concerned public who turned out to hear from the then seven candidates for four board seats. Concerns included a number of issues—the well-being of the kids not being the primary concern of our schools or the board, the need for better communication and transparency of the administration, the need for more accountability in the system, issues of staff morale, public trust, better respect for teachers and a board that needed to pay more attention to what was going on in the schools and classrooms. Candidates indicated the public was very concerned about turmoil in the schools.
Last Thursday, candidates, school personnel and students alike wondered, “Have all these concerns been resolved? Is the public generally very happy with the district schools? What’s up?” No one could answer those questions with any certainty.
In the course of the roundtable discussions, the candidates—Laurie Whiteman Simonsen, Bill deVergie, Davey Smith, Todd Shults and Bud Ridings—expressed the following views and participated in discussions on the issues raised.
On the lack of participation, Simonsen suggested that perhaps greater use of social media and other technology could better engage the public. “You have to grab them where they are (the internet),” she said. All the candidates expressed disappointment that more of the public hadn’t engaged in this opportunity to interact with current/prospective board members. Smith recalled when he was 18, his age group fought for the right to vote. “Where are those younger voters tonight?” he asked.
Several candidates expressed some uncertainties about the Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) program which provides special education and other services to both Rangely and Meeker School Districts. Only three of Meeker’s seven school board members serve on the new BOCES board arrangement. Prior to this year, all seven served on the board as did all five Rangely school board members. deVergie expressed concern about Meeker getting its money’s worth out of BOCES and said that the communication could be better, as he feels the board is a bit out of the loop in terms of BOCES operations.
Regarding finances, all the candidates were disappointed with the paucity of financial support from the state and were pessimistic about any change there. They all felt that as the district’s reserves are spent down over the next few years, going back to the voters with a request for a mill levy override was inevitable. Both Smith and Simonsen stressed the mantra of good schools leading to a better community, as well as the importance of being able to recruit and keep good staff (teachers).
All candidates, including Shults, registered support for the facilities master plan and indicated that preliminary information suggests that the high school has serious-enough issues to warrant complete replacement, with the possible exceptions of the current auditorium and main gym, and that building a new high school was probably the best option. All also stated the community needs to learn more from and pay attention to the final numbers (costs, deficiencies, how a transition might be accomplished, timing, etc.) from the consultants, but none suggested we could go on for very long with the current high school building as well as the bus garage facilities if we intend to provide for good modern facilities as part of our basis of excellence. The district currently has a construction request out for necessary remediation of some of the bus barn issues.
To help with costs, the question of charging some type of fee to those who use school bus transportation was raised. All the candidates said the idea was a concept they had not considered but which might be helpful. It may be something that the board discusses soon as it takes up consideration of some of the district’s other student fees. There are approximately 200 days of bus use for events annually compared to only 150 days of bus use for daily school commutes.
As for funding a new high school, the incumbents laid out hope for a Building Excellent Schools Today (BEST) grant from the state. This competitive grant application program is limited to capital construction expenditures, specifically to support schools with major renovation and new school buildings in order to help provide first class, high performance and 21st century facilities which reduce health and safety concerns. BEST is funded by state school land revenues, marijuana excise taxes, lottery spillover dollars, and interest on funds. The fund can only afford the equivalent of two new, relatively small schools per year. None of the candidates support marijuana sales in Meeker and all realized that any marijuana funds to help the district had to come through the BEST grant process.
All candidates said they would welcome and support more performing arts programs and credited courses if the funding could be found. Smith pointed out that saving the auditorium for performances in the process of building a new high school would be a positive factor in this regard.
There seemed to be concern among attendees about the board’s current consideration of more policy limiting the conduct of district staff members. deVergie suggested that it was really the superintendent who had the responsibility of staff oversight and that not everything (every behavior) can be fairly defined in policy. This discussion included the effectiveness of the district employee council. Ridings suggested his overriding concern as a board member was to make sure teachers were sober, fit and qualified to teach. Shults seemed the most comfortable with having enforceable limits and high expectations of staff. All agreed that board members ought to be required to meet the same standards as all the staff.
In closing, Shults restated his support for the facilities master planning process and building a new high school. deVergie stated the value of the current diverse board and pointed out there are still some critical goals to be accomplished—building fixes, better salaries and community support. Smith remained sensitive to the economic issues. Simonsen sees much to be done and appreciated the good communication at the forum. Ridings said he enjoyed the larger crowd four years ago, but was glad to note that the board is apparently in a good (better) spot now.
All the candidates were concerned with the low public presence at the forum. All said it would be up to the voting public as to how the district would be further funded and if an investment in a new high school should be made, so the public needs to be informed. The community needs to be more involved. They all supported greater effort in involving the public in order to get the community on the same page as per the future of our schools. Smith summed it up, “We’ve always been a ‘git ‘er done’ community, we’ve always been for good roads and good schools, and both are endeavors the state is having trouble supporting.”
Note: This report is based partly on the written notes of Honor Society facilitators Ellie Anderson, Macy Collins, Gracie Bradfield, Sember Leatham and Shelby Steele.