Election 2021 Q&As: Candidates for Cherry Creek school board

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Voters in the Cherry Creek School District, which includes central and east Centennial as well as Greenwood Village, are choosing two directors for the Board of Education in the election that ends Nov. 2. Ballots go out starting Oct. 8.

The school board members represent different parts of the school district but they are elected “at large” by all district residents. Board District D includes parts of far east Centennial and southeast Aurora. Board District E includes central and east Centennial as well as parts of Greenwood Village, Aurora and unincorporated Arapahoe County. Three candidates are running to represent each of the two board districts.

The Centennial Citizen sent questionnaires to each candidate to help voters learn more about them. Here are their responses, edited for clarity.

DISTRICT D

Jennifer Gibbons

Occupation: I am a doctor of audiology. 

Years lived in jurisdiction running to represent: 15 years

Campaign website: Jengibbons4ccsd.com

Why do you want to serve on the Cherry Creek school board?

I want to serve on the CCSD school board for many reasons. Number one is to give back to a district that has educated my four children so well. As a founder of a charter school, I can also offer my unique experience and perspective, having been on a charter school board for six years. I would like to add more parent involvement on the board through more active, transparent communication.

What would you say are your most important qualifications for the office you're seeking?

I have been a CCSD volunteer for 15 years, starting as room mom, reading intervention volunteer, principal hiring committee (member), math program organizer, PTCO (Parent-Teacher Community Organization) co-president for three years, founder of Heritage Heights Academy (HHA) in CCSD, president of the board of directors for HHA for five years, treasurer for one year. I have also been a business owner and operator, and preschool teacher for eight years. The most important qualification I have is that of having common sense and using it when I vote for policies involving our kids and community at HHA and will continue to do so in CCSD.  

If elected, what would be your first priority in office?

My first priority would be to focus on repairing the damage inflicted on our kids by the pandemic. Students have lost ground academically and suffered mentally from stress and anxiety, and our community is divided politically. I would like to focus on having students and parents “buy in” and be accountable for the work it will take to repair these academic deficits and ensure that politics are kept out of our schools. To make this happen, we need open communication between the board and parents so the board knows what is actually occurring in classrooms.

What, in your view, is the greatest single issue facing the school district, and how would you address it?

Division: There are many hot political topics being taught in classrooms that don't sit well with parents. According to the board of education's policies, controversial topics must be addressed by each side of the issue. Parents don't want to shelter kids from these issues; they want them to critically think. Learning one perspective of an issue is indoctrination. Teachers need to be trained on identifying these subjects and given access to materials to show both sides ... Parents need to know what's being taught and how it's being taught. There needs to be more communication between district administration, the board and the community.

As things stand now, should students be required to wear masks in class, or should mask wearing be voluntary?

As things stand now, we don't have a choice. We are under the mandate that the Tri-County Health Department has imposed. My main concern is that we keep our kids at school in person. Moving forward, I would like to see a dynamic, science-based rubric created with data like vaccination rates, hospitalizations and other relevant numbers for parents to see what information is being used to decide when masks should be optional versus required. This data could be disaggregated school to school and decisions made accordingly. 

What are your views on the district's current policies regarding the teaching of racial issues in American society?

Race in America is complicated. We should acknowledge that historical treatment of Blacks and Native Americans was tragic and unacceptable. It is important that we teach all of history — the good and the bad. It's also even more important that we use our educational system to improve outcomes for all kids. We should prioritize using proven programs that deliver success. I am incredibly proud that HHA has a student population that is 54% diverse and has test scores that show successful results for all students. 

Schumé Navarro

Occupation: Hairstylist and airbrush makeup artist. I own my own company called Peacock Vanity, and I have had a flourishing bridal-focused business for the last 10 years.

Years lived in the jurisdiction running to represent: I have lived in District D recently for almost six years. I also lived in District D just after high school for about three years.

Campaign website: Navarro4ccsd.com

Why do you want to serve on the Cherry Creek school board? 

It is my heart's goal to bring the parent voice back into our schools. There seems to be an agenda backed with big money that is actively removing parents from the equation, and it's just not what's best for our kids. Parents feel their voices are removed from the decision-making process, and we need to fix that. I believe we are better together as a community when teachers, school leaders and the board of education work together with our parents to create an excellent learning environment for our kids. 

What would you say are your most important qualifications for the office you're seeking? 

I'm a natural problem solver and offer creative solutions. I will be the first to tell you I am not an academic; I naturally think differently, and I believe that is of value to the school board. As a tradesperson, small-business owner and a person who has experienced poverty, I have gifts, talents and a life experience that will round out conversations and decisions made on the school board. Plainly put, we don't need more of the same; we need change, and I believe adding diversity of thought to the school board will be of value. 

If elected, what would be your first priority in office? 

When elected, my priority will be to prioritize communication from the board to our parents and stakeholders so they have opportunities to be involved and have a voice. As we make decisions for the district, it is essential that we genuinely consider the parents' concerns, as they are who we are truly held accountable to. By opening our communication and listening to parents, we will continue to provide our kids an excellent and inclusive education. 

What, in your view, is the greatest single issue facing the school district, and how would you address it?

Understanding the proper role of the district. We see children's books promoting gender dysphoria given to our preschoolers, board members advocating to take a vocal stance on TABOR (the Taxpayer Bill of Rights law), the systematic removal of parent input … Two new medical facilities are being constructed for the district, which is concerning as there is no transparency or accountability to make those new institutions safe for me as a parent. I will address this by being a transparent board member and advocating that the district stays in its proper role of educating our children on core curriculum.  

As things stand now, should students be required to wear masks in class, or should mask wearing be voluntary? 

It should always be voluntary. Children are suffering by not individualizing their care within our school districts … we need to look at each child individually instead of deciding what the solution should look like. Whether it's in the best interest of their disability, mental health, physical health or learning needs, in the end, it is not the proper role of the district to make or validate these decisions by way of a committee. We need to respect parents and their individual rights when they provide medical letters explaining their child's needs and not remove those decisions from the parent or the child's provider.

What are your views on the district's current policies regarding the teaching of racial issues in American society?

It's of value to look at our past, learn from it, speak clearly about it. My father is a history teacher, and I value our country's history, but what is being pushed is a viewpoint that is plainly anti-American. Unfortunately, many educators are forging new racial issues. As a person of color, I do not agree with boxing kids into a system of oppressed or oppressors that is not unifying. Those ideals steal from minority kids, boxing them into a system of oppression that is not life-giving. I am adamantly against teaching that is not American exceptionalism.

Kelly Bates

Occupation: Homemaker; vice president of Cherry Creek School District Board of Education

Years lived in the jurisdiction running to represent:17 years

Campaign website: kellybatesforCCSD.com

Why do you want to continue serving on the Cherry Creek school board? 

I am running for re-election to the Cherry Creek School District Board of Education because I know the meaning of leadership and how to make tough decisions during these times of uncertainty. I am proud of what we have accomplished for our students, families and teachers, but we still have a lot of work to do. I am proud of the collaborative work on our strategic plan, and I am committed to continuing to ensure that each and every student is supported on their unique pathway of purpose.

What would you say are your most important qualifications for the office you're seeking?

I believe that my prior work on the board of education uniquely prepares me for this role. I have spent the last four years learning about each and every department in this district. I have learned about and challenged myself to be understanding of others and where they have come from. Every person has a different lived experience, and we need to value that. With the last 19 months having so many ups and downs during the pandemic, I feel that being a constant in a time when everything seems to be in flux is an asset.

If elected, what would be your first priority in office?

Ensuring that our students and staff are coming to us whole. We need to be focusing on the whole child. This includes making certain they have access to both physical and mental health care and that they are in a safe environment. I am proud of our collaboration with STRIDE Health Clinics to bring school-based health centers to our district, as well as our collaboration with Centura Health to support our Mental Health Day Treatment Facility. When children are safe and healthy, we can make certain that they are supported, engaged and challenged in the classroom.  

What, in your view, is the greatest single issue facing the school district,and how would you address it?

Equity and how it affects our most marginalized populations. We have students of color, students in our LGBTQ community and students with different learning abilities that need extra support systems. We must ensure that we are giving them the resources they need to be successful. I will fight for student-based funding to make certain that all students receive an equitable education.

As things stand now, should students be required to wear masks in class, or should mask wearing be voluntary?

As of today, students should be wearing masks in schools for the safety of themselves and others. (Tri-County Health Department) has implemented a mask mandate, and we will follow their guidance. By following TCHD and (Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment) guidance, we were able to have our students in school almost the entire last year … Because of the protocols we have in place, i.e. masks, handwashing, distance, we are able to keep the incidence rates (rates of new COVID-19 cases) under control.

What are your views on the district's current policies regarding the teaching of racial issues in American society?

Every student deserves to be taught true history. We will follow the academic standards that are set by the Colorado Department of Education. The standards that they have set follow Colorado law that requires teaching an inclusive history. Our board policies and curriculum will be in alignment with these standards.

DISTRICT E

Jason Lester

Occupation: Social worker; director at the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless; adjunct professor at the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work

Years lived in jurisdiction running to represent: I've lived in this jurisdiction since March 2012. 

Campaign website: ElectDrJasonLester.com 

Why do you want to serve on the Cherry Creek school board?

As a 39-year-old Black man, proud father, educator and community social worker, I decided to run for the Cherry Creek School Board simply because "Tomorrow Starts With Us (Today)!" I want all students to have better opportunities in life, regardless of their parent's political party affiliation, socioeconomic status, race, sexual preference, religious beliefs, gender, gender expression or impairment. Therefore, I will fight to eliminate all external and internal barriers to learning for students, parents, faculty and staff through day-to-day advocacy, policy implementation, strategy and consensus-building, primarily in situations featuring dissenting opinions. 

What would you say are your most important qualifications for the office you're seeking?

I must represent the community with the highest integrity possible. Being on the Cherry Creek Schools Board of Education means that I represent the community regarding public education matters. 

If elected, what would be your first priority in office? Equity! Strengthen faculty and staff recruitment (and) retention of all backgrounds, in general, and diverse backgrounds, specifically. 

What, in your view, is the greatest single issue facing the school district, and how would you address it?

Failing to recruit and retain teachers is the greatest threat to the Cherry Creek School District. We must put extra effort into training and compensating our teachers more. When teachers are properly compensated, our students do better in the classroom. If we do not properly support our teachers, they will leave and work in other school districts.

As things stand now, should students be required to wear masks in class, or should maskwearing be voluntary?

Students, faculty and staff should wear masks in school. I worry that students could go back to remote learning if (COVID-19) cases continue to rise.

What are your views on the district's current policies regarding the teaching of racial issues in American society?

The critical race theory is not currently being taught in the Cherry Creek School District, nor should it be. However, an accurate account of world and United States history must be taught to Cherry Creek School District students. 

Kristin Allan

Occupation: Attorney and member at Allan Law PLLC

Years lived in jurisdiction running to represent: Seven

Campaign website: kristinforccsd.com

Why do you want to serve on the Cherry Creek school board?

I am running for Cherry Creek School District Board of Education to expand the CCSD's legacy of excellence and stand strong for our students, families and educators. I believe in CCSD's commitments to excellence, Future Forward (plan) and Pathways of Purpose (plan). I know the struggles our students and families in CCSD face. While we are proud to live in CCSD, there's more work to do in order to ensure that all of our students — no matter their background or ZIP code — have an opportunity to obtain a world-class education as they become our future innovators, entrepreneurs and leaders of tomorrow.

What would you say are your most important qualifications for the office you're seeking? 

My experiences as a lawyer, an engaged mother and a longtime CCSD volunteer have uniquely prepared me to be a CCSD Board of Education member. In law school, I discovered my passion for serving others. I am actively involved in, and the leader of, school- and district-level groups and committees. Last January, to prepare for my candidacy and election to the board, I began a listening and learning tour. For about 20 hours every week, I meet with community members across the 108 square miles of CCSD. I believe that before one can lead, they must listen and learn.

If elected, what would be your first priority in office? 

We are charged with ensuring the well-being of the whole child. My first priority will be the safety and protection of our students as they learn and grow in our community schools. I will ensure CCSD is addressing learning losses and setbacks from COVID-19. I will prioritize decisions based on the whole well-being of the child, science and research, and not on fear or any extremist political ideology. I will prioritize both equity and rigorous academics, which are not mutually exclusive. All of this is part of my priority of creating engaged, competitive and global citizens of the future.

What, in your view, is the greatest single issue facing the school district, and how would you address it?

The greatest issue facing CCSD is the promulgation of misinformation about CCSD by biased and uninformed people and groups with an extremist political agenda. Unfortunately, these people and entities attempt to persuade our community through fear — not facts. In response, we must engage our community and communicate CCSD's mission and core values, based in truth, facts, data, research and science. We must dispel misinformation. In this way, we expand CCSD's dedication to excellence for all students and all schools, keep the promises we make to our community, and ensure we maintain taxpayers' expectations of our schools.

As things stand now, should students be required to wear masks in class, or should mask wearing be voluntary? 

As it stands now, our scientific research tells us masks should be required in school. Universal mask wearing reduces the risk of COVID-19 spreading. Masks are a key way everyone can help contain the pandemic. And masks are necessary to protect children under 12, who cannot be vaccinated at this time. Mask mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic do not violate constitutional rights. Our constitutional rights are subject to several conditions. The most fundamental condition is that when we exercise our rights, that exercise must not endanger others or the public welfare.  

What are your views on the district's current policies regarding the teaching of racial issues in American society? 

Academic standards and requirements are established by the Colorado Department of Education. Colorado law requires teaching inclusive history. CCSD policy aligns with Colorado law. Research shows that students who see positive representations of themselves in their curriculum have improved educational outcomes. For students of color and white students, culturally relevant education decreases dropout rates and suspensions and increases student participation, confidence, academic achievement and graduation rates. Truth in our classrooms propels the next generation toward a more united, inclusive and just future. As the world becomes a global community, we must ensure our children can participate and compete.

Bill Leach

Occupation: Operations team for the Colorado Benefits Management System, a division of the state Office of Information Technology.

Years lived in jurisdiction running to represent: Lived for 11 years in District E of CCSD.

Campaign website: leach4ccsd.com

Why do you want to serve on the Cherry Creek school board?

I would like to be able to give back to the district in which my six kids have been educated and given so much opportunity. Having said that, there are a lot of concerns from a lot of people that convinced me to seek a seat on the board of education.

What would you say are your most important qualifications for the office you're seeking? 

I have the background as a former county commissioner and member of several municipal boards to understand the importance of collaboration and consensus-building. My "listening tour" has been 10-plus years of paying attention to my kids' education from the first day of kindergarten all the way to high school graduation and everything in between. That is a far better barometer for what is going on in the district than staged photo ops.

If elected, what would be your first priority in office? 

Transparency and improved communication between the board of education and community, as well as facilitating the same transparency and communication between the district and the community, would be one of my first priorities. People really want to be heard when they have an issue.

What, in your view, is the greatest single issue facing the school district, and how would you address it?

Single biggest issue is not a new one. Raising the achievement level of our lowest-performing students, regardless of which school they attend, has been a talking point since this district was formed, I am sure. COVID has only made this problem worse. We need to get students caught up and use new ideas to close the achievement gap, while at the same time allowing the highest-performing students to thrive as well. Merit-based AP and honors classes should always be available to CCSD students.

As things stand now, should students be required to wear masks in class, or should mask wearing be voluntary? 

As Superintendent Chris Smith said, we are educators, not medical professionals. (Members of the) board of education, as currently constructed, are also not medical professionals. Our most important goal is to keep kids in school (and) in person. Having said that, I hope that all decisions made are science-driven and not an agenda. I have included on my website in the security section some good peer-reviewed links from various sources (University of Minnesota, University of Louisville and the CDC via New York Magazine) that should be getting equal attention.

What are your views on the district's current policies regarding the teaching of racial issues in American society?

Social awareness and understanding are an important part of any school district's role in not only education but also bringing out the best in each student. In my opinion, if/when social awareness crosses the fine line into social engineering, then we have a problem. Social issues should be taught, and students should be encouraged to think critically about these topics.

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