Election 2021: Cherry Creek school board candidates talk masks, diversity

Hopefuls also discuss who teachers' union supports


At the start of a forum where Cherry Creek school board candidates expressed their views, the candidates agreed on two notable points: that parents should not receive taxpayer-funded vouchers or reimbursements to pay for costs of sending children to private schools — and that if charter schools in the Cherry Creek School District do not meet the same high standards as traditional schools, they should be closed.

Past those points, some differences began to emerge among the candidates in the Sept. 21 forum at Eaglecrest High School.

For example, Bill Leach, a candidate for school board District E, is running as part of a slate with Jen Gibbons, who is contending for school board District D.

Gibbons pointed out that her and Leach's campaign donations have not come from the teachers' union in the district.

“Bill and I have been working together because this is a volunteer position — there are not many funds to be had,” Gibbons said. “Our funds have come from family members and friends and neighbors who believe in us, who believe that we need balance on the board, believe that we need a say for parents, a healthy conduit between parents and community members. This is not a political race for us.”

Gibbons later pointed to the community seeming to be “torn politically,” saying the public should work together and that “we are not each other's enemies.”

“It's OK to be on a board and have two different sides. I would like to offer that side,” Gibbons added.

The school board is the policy-making body for the school district. It hires the superintendent — the leader in charge of implementing the school board's policies. The school board also approves the district's budget.

Creek school board District E encompasses parts of Greenwood Village, unincorporated Arapahoe County, central and east Centennial, and south and southeast Aurora. District D encompasses parts of east Centennial and southeast Aurora. Election Day is Nov. 2.

The teachers' union — the Cherry Creek Education Association — has endorsed Kelly Bates, the incumbent school board vice president who represents District D, Bates said during the forum.

Candidate Kristin Allan in District E was also endorsed by the teachers' union.

The Cherry Creek Education Association is the union that represents teachers, nurses, mental health staff, counselors and other education professionals in negotiations with Cherry Creek School District. The union works to influence district policy, including decisions about salaries, resources for educators and students, and working conditions.

Candidate Jason Lester, also in District E, commented on the demographic makeup of the district's staff, saying “representation matters.”

He believes that demographics among teachers should more closely resemble those of the students. Lester also said diversity goes deeper than physical appearance.

“More LGBTQIA+, abled, disabled — whatever it may be, we are going to have everyone at the table,” Lester said, using an initialism for different gender and sexual identities.

Bates also advocated for hiring more people of color and said: “Our students experience microaggressions every day simply because of the color of their skin.”

“The students, when they see a person that looks like them, they tend to do better in school,” Bates said. “When students do not see teachers that look like them … that teacher may not be able to understand their lived experience.”

Discussions about diversity should also consider special-needs students, said Bates, who added that she has spoken to children of undocumented parents and that the fear these parents feel “follows them into schools.”

She has also listened to LGBTQ students, some of whom have had trouble with their families, Bates said, adding that the district should support their mental health.

Gibbons also said that the more diverse and representative teachers are of the population they're teaching, the better.

The moderator asked a question about “how diversity in curriculum and teaching the contributions and perspectives of all races benefits all students.”

In response, Gibbons said: “With curriculum, it's important to have constructive versus destructive curriculum.” She said teachers should “explore” concepts, but she “would like to see less of the political leaning in the classrooms.”

Gibbons said regarding the Tri-County Health Department mask mandate for schools, there are two sides and two fears: “Fear of losing your freedom and fear of having your health compromised.”

Regarding whether Cherry Creek should comply with such a public health order, Leach compared the situation to if a school sports stadium had a crack in a beam and engineers advised the district not to use the structure.

“The (school) board is not medical professionals,” Leach said, arguing that the district should take recommendations from the professionals.

Allan argued masks are necessary to protect children under 12 because they cannot yet be vaccinated. She added that “we must not allow fear or extremist political ideologies” to influence policy on items such as masks and said mask mandates “do not violate our constitutional rights.”

Such rights “must not endanger others or the public welfare,” Allan said.

Cherry Creek School District, school board, Centennial Colorado, forum, candidates, election 2021, Ellis Arnold


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