Rangely school board candidates address wide variety of topics

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RANGELY I Five candidates vying for two Rangely School District RE-4 school board positions discussed government control of education and the district’s challenges and strengths, among other topics, at a Meet the Candidates forum sponsored by the Rangely Community Education Association (RCEA) on Oct. 9.
Nathaniel Polley, Owen Robertson, Amelia Swenson, Samuel Tolley and Annette Webber answered questions posed by moderator Jeremy Lohry and audience members that ranged from parents’ role in education to the candidates’ positions on upcoming education initiative Amendment 66.
Approximately 30 people attended the event, most of whom were school staff or candidates’ family members.
Funding concerns were among the top challenges candidates identified for the district. Owen Robertson, a co-owner and operator of Twin Buttes Ranch who grew up in Rangely and has three children attending Parkview Elementary School, said that maximizing efficiency was key to the district’s future financial health.
“I don’t think we can rely on state and federal governments to solve those issues,” he said. “I think we’re going to have to do it in the community. I see the solution is just to be more efficient. We need to channel more funds to education and the students, and maybe rob, if you will, from areas that need funds less or that can get by with less.”
Sam Tolley, the general manager of Alliance Energy Services who was also educated in the Rangely public schools, added later in the session that he would be interested in new or creative ways to fund the district. He said a tax that would affect only those purchasing specific services, such as a consumption or lodging tax, could bring in additional revenue rather than a future mil levy push that he believes could become necessary if education tax increase Amendment 66 passes in next month’s election.
Annette Webber and Tolley took similar positions on the state initiative, saying that while additional funding in the immediate future is attractive, they are concerned with the prospect of passing another mil levy when the amendment sunsets in five years.
“I can see pros and cons to Amendment 66,” Webber said. “If it passes, a pro is that it would give us more local control and we would have more money for our students than we’re receiving right now. But a con is that we would have to go out to the community and sell another mil levy increase… Right now, we’re depending on the state to give us a set amount of money for students. And from what I understand, it’s not even as much as we’re supposed to be getting. So where do we get the money for increasing teachers’ salaries, or buying curriculum that’s up to date when they can’t give us what we’re supposed to be getting?”
Candidates’ priorities, if elected, turned the discussion to curriculum development, teacher support, and student preparedness.
Nate Polley, a health, safety and environment specialist with Alliance Energy who attended the Rangely public schools and whose children attend now, said he would aim to “make sure our curriculum fits the students in our area” in ways similar to the instruction he received growing up.
Amelia Swenson, a human resources manager with American Gilsonite Co., spouse of Rangely Junior/Senior High School Principal Berry Swenson and guardian of a grandson attending Parkview Elementary School, focused on traditional academics and technical training for students.
“Curriculum development is critical, as is vocational training to prepare our student — not only our college bound students, but our technical students — to really provide the best education possible for students in Rangely,” Swenson said. Those resources become available, she said, via the superintendent and principals, adding that human resources representation on the board would assist administrators with employee development and compensation planning. She also named policy transparency for parents and the community as a priority.
Webber placed curriculum development for student success high on her priority list, along with adequate teacher compensation to attract and keep outstanding faculty while also assessing the kinds and amount of student testing done.
Tolley said he, too, would focus on retaining quality staff within the school system and on gaining more local control over curriculum and standards.
“We don’t need people from Washington, D.C., telling us what we should be teaching,” Tolley said. “I don’t think those people are bad. I think they start out with real good intentions, but by the time it gets down to the local level, it has almost the adverse effect. Collectively, between the board, superintendent, principals, teachers and the community, we can decide what we need to best teach our kids to prepare them for the world in which we live.”
While Robertson emphasized financial efficiency and educational standards that take into account a broader spectrum of success than test scores, he, Tolley, and Polley stressed parent and community involvement as priorities for any future board.
Parent involvement came up repeatedly during the evening, both in parents’ appropriate roles and in response to kindergarten instructor Kari Way, who asked the board to discuss practical ways to boost sagging parental involvement.
Tolley said that educating younger parents on to communicate with teachers, help children with homework, be advocates for their kids and follow complaint or grievance processes needs to begin early. While there is “no silver bullet” for the problem, he said, the district could look at unconventional ways of getting the help it needs, such as from retirees or other community groups. He also suggested appealing to “human nature” by letting parents know how they themselves would benefit from getting involved.
Polley used his wife, who spends substantial time volunteering for the school, and his own commitment to attend parent/teacher conferences and other events as examples of how parents could help out.
“We need to have more volunteer parents in the schools to help our teachers and relieve some of their workload,” he said. “That way, (teachers) can focus on what they’re teaching our kids versus making photocopies or putting books together.”
Parents are the key teachers of their children, Robertson said, even when the public school is providing curriculum instruction. Parents need to know the schools’ expectations and make school-related time with kids essential, even as more parents working outside the home often hinders those priorities. Robertson suggested determining parents’ specific strengths and interests to garner help the schools need.
Swenson said that parents help define how children perceive the world, including education. A healthy school system depends on parent’s open-mindedness and support of instructors, staff, and administrators and on giving teachers the resources they need to be successful.
A dwindling list of parents involved with the Parkview Elementary School Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) Webber initially started in 2005-2006 was a tangible reminder of the school’s waning parental support, Webber said. Required volunteer time or talking one-on-one with parents could be options, although she noted that real change involves getting back to the basics.
“It goes back to priorities … to teaching children respect and how to deal with certain situations in the classroom,” Webber said. “If (kids are) struggling, we’ve got to get them the voice to deal with that teacher and say ‘I need help.’ As parents, we need to be there at home at night to help with the homework and make sure it’s getting done.”
All candidates agreed that state and federal governments should have less control over budgeting and curriculum decisions, from Webber’s assertion that the schools should have full control to “spend our money wisely for our students and our teachers” to Tolley, who said that state and federal recommendations, not mandates, make sense. Robertson saw a place for some government supervision, but he advocated running districts locally.
“I see the government’s role as oversight,” Robertson said. “They give us some direction and make sure that school districts aren’t left out and that children can go to school… (but) The government needs to get out of running the day-to-day process because it can’t be done effectively or efficiently. That needs to be done at the local level. The local people need to decide how they’re going set up their education system and run it because they know the issues, the finances and the situation at hand. They know their students.”
Swenson advocated for a more hands-on response given current government policies.
“The fact is that for us to receive money, there are certain criteria we have to adhere to that is set by the government as to how our school operates and certain curriculum it needs,” she said. “However, we do need to take charge of the areas we’re capable of doing.” Swenson said, adding that strong leadership is necessary to take steps like working with education lobbyists and informing the community about laws such as Amendment 66.
As the forum opened for questions, instructor Cody Brunton asked candidates how they would encourage a culture that celebrates current successes rather than hearkens back to what Rangely “used to be.”
Celebrate the district’s accomplishments, such as improved test scores over several years, and catch individuals doing good, Swenson said.
Webber agreed, saying that people need to acknowledge improvement and achievements to “stop talking about the past and move forward.”
Tolley added that while the community shouldn’t dwell on the past, remembering both past successes and difficulties will help the district take positive strides forward.
“I don’t think anybody here says we need to stay status quo,” Tolley said. “We’ve got five candidates who are really interested in running. We may have some differences of opinion on what we’re looking for, but I don’t think anybody here’s wanting to come in and change the whole world. We don’t think it’s necessary. We have a good thing, and we all want to build it up and support it.”
Voters will choose their top two candidates to replace RE-4 School Board President Adair Norman, who is termed out, and board member Rebecca Rector, who is not running for a second term, on the Nov. 5 election’s mail-in ballots.