Meeker school board candidates interviewed before forum

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MEEKER I There are six candidates for three four-year term seats on the Meeker Board of Education. The Herald Times asked each candidate to provide a brief biographical description, answers to five questions and a photo. We asked them to try to keep their answers to each question to about 150 words. Voters will be able to cast a ballot for three of these six candidates who will join the winner of the two-year term and three carry-over members to comprise the full seven-member board. The carry-over members are Bill deVergie, president, Bud Ridings and Todd Shults.
The candidates will participate in a public forum today at 7 p.m. in the high school auditorium hosted by Meeker High School Student Council and National Honor Society students. Mailed ballot voting begins this week and concludes on Election Day, Nov. 3.
Features on the three candidates who are running for the two-year term will publish next week. They are Richard Brooks, incumbent Mindy Burke and Davey Smith.

Scott Aldridge: I graduated from the University of Northern Colorado with a bachelor’s degree in both Earth science and journalism and mass communication. I have worked here on the Western Slope since 2010 in the oil and gas industry, in television, construction and taught mathematics at Meeker High School. I am an Eagle Scout and avid outdoorsman, and I am actively involved with my church. I married a Meeker girl who had escaped to the big city and with some coaxing convinced her this is where we want to raise our two kids (ages 1 and 3).

Tom Allen: I grew up in Meeker and attended Meeker schools. I was graduated from Western Colorado State University with BA in instrumental music education. Taught in Paonia two years and then in Meeker for 26. I have had three children and two stepchildren attend Meeker schools. I retired from teaching in 2005 and now operate Allen Weed Spraying.

Kevin Amack: I am 50 years old. I have lived in Meeker for the past 19 years. I have been married to Georgann Amack for 25 years. We have two daughters in the Meeker school system. I have been an agent for State Farm insurance serving both Meeker and in Rangely since 1996. I was born and raised in Oberlin, Kan. I received a bachelor’s degree in business-finance from Fort Hays State University in 1988.

Kurt Blunt: I’ve lived in Meeker since 2001. I hold BS and MS degrees in range resource management and animal and range science from Montana State University in Bozeman, Mont. I have been employed by Colowyo Coal Company for the past 14 years and currently serve as an environmental engineer. My wife Hallie and I have been married for 11 years. We have three boys—one in fifth grade, one in third and a 3 year old.

Bob Dorsett: I am a fourth generation Colorado native who grew up in a family of educators. I trained in science and medicine at Stanford University and passed along a tradition of academic excellence over 35 years teaching science and math at college level and high school. My wife, Carol, has provided enormous service to health care in this community. Her children, Blake and Becca, and their families have contributed significantly to our schools and to other important community projects. They all provide continuing inspiration. I first came to Meeker in 1981 as a family practice physician providing general medicine and surgery, and I gained business experience supervising a private medical practice here. My administrative background includes service as director of the Natural Science Program at Providence College. Other leadership experience comes from the National Outdoor Leadership School and I have led many expeditions in mountains, on rivers, and on research projects in the Colorado Rockies and overseas.

George Henderson: My family and I have lived in Meeker for the past seven years. My wife and I have both previously worked for the Meeker School District—I as the Meeker High School principal, and my wife, Kristen, as a fifth grade teacher at the elementary school. My wife and I are both currently teaching for the Garfield RE-2 School District in Rifle. We have four sons: JC, Jake, Jared and Justin. I hold a bachelor’s degree in middle school education from the University of Northern Colorado, a master’s degree in secondary mathematics from Adams State University, and a principal certification from the University of Northern Colorado.

1) What do you offer as a candidate that should make voters choose you?

Aldridge: I bring the unique background of having worked in the business world as well as in the Meeker School District. I’ve seen first hand what a wonderful opportunity we have being in a small district with such a tight-knit community, and some of the challenges that it poses for the district, but also for families and businesses. I’ve developed a love for learning and teaching and want to help our students do the same so that they can be competitive in today’s job market. Because the more they know, the more they are worth and the more they can do to help others reach their potential.

Allen: I believe that, having attended Meeker schools and subsequently taught here for many years, I have a unique perspective on our school district. I currently have grandchildren in the system and care a great deal about the young folks in our community. 

Amack: I have successfully owned and managed a small business in Meeker/Rangely for the past 19 years. I am responsible for managing employees and meeting a payroll. I pay commercial real estate taxes, and I understand the extra property tax burden that state law puts upon commercial real estate owners. I have held leadership positions within my church and within the local Masonic Lodge for most of the past 19 years. I have two active and involved daughters in our schools. I have been a “Support Our Students” volunteer at both the elementary and middle school.

Blunt: I hope that people who know me personally would say that I am a pretty level headed and fair-minded person. I don’t have a particular agenda that I’m trying to promote, other than to support and encourage what is in the best interests of the children who attend our schools. I also have direct experience and an understanding of the challenges facing our teachers, students and administrators as I am a member of the current board.

Dorsett: I have a broad range of experience and leadership, and I appreciate, particularly, the enormous challenges faced by classroom teachers and by students who need extra help. In all my endeavors I have found the courage to ask questions, to try to obtain accurate information and understanding. I solve problems based on the best available evidence, informed by my training in science and my experience in the classroom. I bring a willingness to listen to all viewpoints and to test ideas by vigorous and open debate.

Henderson: I have been in public education for more than 25 years. Both as a teacher and as the principal at Meeker High School, from 2008 through 2012, I have always and will continue to make all my decisions based on doing what is best for the student.

2) How would you ensure our Meeker students are adequately prepared to pursue their post-secondary education choices or work force options? How should we measure the quality of K-12 education in our Meeker schools?

Aldridge: I think the best way to prepare students to pursue post-secondary or workforce options is by getting them to start experiencing it first-hand long before they are ready to graduate. We do this in two ways: first by the way they are taught in class from elementary school on and second by the opportunities they have to work, participate in a work study, and to attend universities and other work-related events. We need to help encourage our teachers to make classes as real life applicable as possible. To me the best indication of the quality of education the students are receiving doesn’t come from a test (though tests do have their place). It’s more about how much the kids love learning and how excited they are about school. Tests give us numbers we can measure and will be a major determining factor in which schools they can get into, but should never be used alone to determine what quality of education they are receiving.

Allen: A school board member can ensure a quality education by seeing that the highest quality teachers and administrators are hired and then supporting them to the best of his ability. This can be accomplished by making sure that district policies are in line with best practice teaching and administration techniques. Also a board must do their best to provide the best possible resources for their employees. 

Amack: The Meeker RE1 school board is a seven member board. I do not believe that any one member can “ensure” anything other than committing to thoroughly educate themselves on the issues at hand, seek out well-diversified community input and advocate for the best use of all available resources. The bottom line needs to be that our district strives for excellence at all levels and delivers the best possible educational experience that available resources allow. Like it or not, college admissions and scholarships are heavily based on the ACT (American College Testing). We need to be preparing our college-bound kids for success on the ACT.

Blunt: I am committed to working with the other members of the board to support and promote hiring and retaining the very best people we can. We have to do everything in our power to secure alternate sources of funding, because the current system is a bad story only getting worse as we look forward. We’ve got to maximize the amount of funding coming from our local community in order to minimize the impact of decisions made at the state level. We’ve asked the staff to do more with less for a painfully long time. Programs and class offerings will continue to diminish if we can’t find a long-term solution to our funding challenges.
The current system of measuring the success or failure of schools is comprised of a multitude of mandatory tests that kids take from elementary school through high school. The mix of tests and their perceived importance changes constantly, with the exception of the ACT perhaps. It’s pretty difficult to hit a constantly moving target. I think the most practical measure of a school system is the quality of the folks who walk out the door into the world. From my direct personal experience, I feel Meeker has an advantage over some other places due to the fact that the quality of the character of our kids is high. How many 14-18 year old men and women do you know who will take time out of their day to be kind to the younger kids? I’m proud to say I know a lot of them around here. Testing will continue to be the official mechanism we have to use to measure our success. Additional emphasis on test taking and test preparation is time well spent and is being implemented currently.

Dorsett: The role of public education is to produce an informed citizenry capable of making sound decisions in a democracy and to provide them with the skills to pursue their individual happiness. We can best fulfill that mission by providing a wide range of opportunities for our students, so they can explore many realms of knowledge and try out many different skills under expert mentorship. I think the Meeker School District has done a good job offering a range of opportunities, for example preserving art, music, family sciences and vocational programs in difficult fiscal times. On the down side, the district has cut computer programming and instruction in digital technology. In order to give our students opportunities in the digital economy, and, more importantly, foster critical thinking skills, we should re-establish those course offerings and expand them to include, e.g., 3D printing, computer assisted design and production and lab-based introduction to biotechnology.
How to measure the quality of education? Certainly not by arbitrary, high-stakes standardized tests narrowly focused on a limited skill set. The best measure of success is life outcome: Are we serving the needs of all our students? How do our graduates fare when they are out in the world? Do they succeed in work, family, community, and creative pursuits? Are they satisfied that they have the knowledge and skills necessary to pursue their dreams?

Henderson: I would not accept second best. I would want our district to pursue the best educators possible, not wait to see who comes knocking on our door. Once we have those educators, then retain them by supporting them both in and out of the classroom. Public opinions should be used to evaluate the quality of K-12 education. It is hard to evaluate from within. As a school board member, I will look and listen to the people, not sit in an ivory tower and be fed what the administration wants me to hear, as some of our current school board members do now.

3) Should there be a better effort to balance student experience between athletics and academics?

Aldridge: To me, giving the students the opportunity to lead a well-rounded life is important. Whether it be through sports or other extracurricular activities, I think it is important for kids to have other experiences that give them a chance to grow. But I believe that it should be up to the child and their family to decide where the right balance is for them. It’s our job to provide them with opportunities.

Allen: Athletics (and other student activities) work hand in hand to educate the “whole student.” I believe that these activities enhance and complete the educational experience for most students. However, there are those students who, for one reason or another, are unable or uninterested in participating in co-curricular and extracurricular activities. A school district should honor these students and support them just as vigorously as the athletes and other participants. I believe our district does this for the most part.

Amack: The recent (and unfortunately necessary) district budget cuts have eliminated funding for numerous non-core programs. It is important to keep in mind that the non-athletically inclined kids need places to plug in, fit in and excel. As budget resources permit, I will advocate for maintaining and restoring more diversified academic and activity opportunities.

Blunt: Ultimately, the choice of balancing extra-curricular participation and classroom instruction is best made by individual students and their parents. Our kids are involved in a lot of things that are not purely academically related that provide invaluable lessons not available in the classroom. Our mission as the school board should be to make sure we do everything we can to provide as many academic and extracurricular opportunities as possible to allow our students the chance to explore their interests and develop skills that will serve them well in the future. It’s two sides of the same coin.

Dorsett: The Meeker Schools provide an extraordinary variety of extracurricular opportunities for our students, including clubs, sports and service organizations. Sports provide essential skills, exercise and fun. They provide an extra incentive for students to stay in school and maintain their grades. And sporting events provide a valuable opportunity for community gathering and a source of community pride. However, an objective outside observer might argue that we’ve got the cart before the horse. The demands of extracurricular activities have reached a level that take too much time away from academics and impose excessive costs on the district. The district needs to restore a balance.

Henderson: Yes! We should always strive to enrich our students’ lives and experiences to the fullest, whether it is in academics, music, the arts or athletics.

4) As a school board member, what does “accountability” mean and how would you live up to it?

Aldridge: To me accountability means sticking to your principles and not abandoning them when things get hard or messy. We do this by being willing to listen to anyone, take criticism, and then with a smile on your face, see if there is something we can do about it. I think reaching out to the community and encouraging them to be involved and providing their feedback is the best way to keep the board accountable.

Allen: A school board member is accountable to the students and parents of the district to provide the very best education within his means. Accountability means being held to the oath of one’s office. It means doing to very best you can for the students of our community. I try to live up to it by being prepared for each and every meeting and knowing what I need to know to contribute to the discussions and decisions that the board has to make. Transparency to the public is also a very important quality for a school board and it is always a part of my actions and decisions.

Amack: Accountability, to me, means doing what one committed to do, in a timely and professional manner, while keeping an open mind and always striving to increase pertinent knowledge and discernment. Accountability is a character trait. I have lived and worked in our community for 19 years. The voters can make their own assessment of my accountability.

Blunt: I think there is a personal component and a collective component to accountability. As an individual, you are asked to make personal judgments based on the rule of law and what is best for kids within your own philosophical framework. For me, those are easy to be accountable for, and I’m happy to talk to anyone about the issues I can legally talk about. More difficult is to be accountable for the collective decisions the board makes as an entity. There is not always universal agreement on issues that arise, and that should be expected. As long as I can say at the end of the day that I have advocated for what I believe is best for all of our kids I can sleep at night. Part of the collective accountability side of the issue is that it isn’t fair to disparage a decision of the board publicly if the majority of the board does not agree with your position.

Dorsett: There are many levels of accountability. Parents are accountable to their children, to provide a safe and nurturing environment that encourages learning. Teachers are accountable to students and their parents, to provide exciting and meaningful opportunities to learn new skills. Principals are accountable to their teachers to provide the facilities, equipment and mentorship for effective instruction. The superintendent is accountable to principals and district staff to provide the resources and support necessary for them to perform their jobs. The board is accountable to the community to provide oversight, direction and clear communication regarding the state of education. Finally, full circle, the community is responsible for providing a safe, stimulating and happy environment with necessary resources for the education of all of its children.

Henderson: Accountability means to have that tough conversation when it needs to take place. Go the extra mile when it means a better educational opportunity for Meeker students. I will have that tough conversation, and I will go that extra mile. An example of my going the extra mile would be when I led the board recall effort. We ran the recall effort because the majority of the board would not hold administrators accountable for not acting in the best interest of students. The majority of the school board allowed our students to be exposed to a principal who lied to get her job, then even renewed her contract. That renewal resulted in the firing of the high school secretaries within the next few days. The school board allowed that same principal the freedom to make our top students make “the walk of shame” to hold advanced placement and CNCC classes in a non-used middle school art room while the taxpayer-enhanced science classroom at the high school sat idle. Where was the superintendent for all of this one might ask? Doing nothing! And how was he held accountable? By our current board’s majority decision to hire him back to the Meeker School District to a job that he created. Had I been on the board at the time of all of these atrocities, I would have done everything in my power to change the vote of the board.

5) If elected, what will be your priorities as a school board member? Why?

Aldridge: I think the most important thing we will have to do as a board over the next several years is to figure out how to keep the quality of the education we are providing as high as we can, while preparing to deal with the reality that we are not likely to get additional funding from the state or from a mill levy override. As hard as we may try in those areas, we need to prepare for more shortfalls. We also need to take care of our teachers so that they will want to stay and give them the professional development they need so that they can continue to become better teachers that can light a love for learning in more students. Teaching our kids to love learning will be more important to the quality of education they receive than any other factor because when they want to learn they will take accountability for their education.

Allen: My priorities will be the same as they have always been as a board member. That is to support and empower the employees of the district to the best of my ability. And to see that they have everything they need to do their jobs. Also, I am an elected representative of the citizens of Meeker School District and as such am answerable to them to provide solutions to their educational issues. It has been an honor to serve on this board for the past year and a half. I feel we have improved the educational opportunities for our students tremendously during that time and I look forward to seeing those improvements through to fruition. 

Amack: Promote excellent communication both within the district and between the district and the community; Advocate for a level of school funding that helps us deliver educational excellence to our students; Advocate for hiring and retaining the best possible teachers and administrators that our resources allow; Advocate for honest discernment and discussion of district weaknesses and participate in corrective decisions when appropriate; and Educate myself in order to increase my wisdom and discernment in all things pertinent to the district. Those are the things that are within my control and that I believe will make a positive difference.

Blunt: If elected I hope that I continue to make well-informed decisions based on the best information available, that are in the best interests of the children of our community. Beyond making good decisions, I/we have to continue to find avenues to support our lagging school funding situation. Without adequate funding, we are going to be focusing on what not to cut rather than what we can hope to improve. I’d like to continue to support our efforts to be as transparent as possible with the public regarding controversial issues and to make sure our policies and expectations of the staff, administrators and the kids are in line with our overall goal of providing the best education we can with the resources we have. These past four years on the board have taught me that this is challenging but very worthy and necessary work. Best of luck to all the candidates, and thank you for volunteering your time to be part of this process.

Dorsett: My priorities will be to attract, retain and reward excellent teachers, to restore respect and authority to our teachers and staff, guarantee open and vigorous debate of issues in education, re-establish the democratic process in our schools, establish consistent policy guidelines and stability in administration and identify sources of revenue to fund our schools properly. The most valuable resource in the school district is staff experience, and the key to good decisions is open discussion based on accurate information.

Henderson: If elected, it will be my number one priority to hold the superintendent accountable for his actions and non-actions. The superintendent is the direct employee of the school board, and therefore should be held accountable by that board. Second, I will listen to the public, and use sound student-based judgment when making all decisions. Finally, I will take great pride in serving the public as a Meeker School Board director.