Election 2021: Lester runs for Cherry Creek school board to 'serve anybody' regardless of politics, identity

Social worker, adjunct professor focuses on those in need

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By the time Jason Lester was nearing the end of high school, both of his parents had died of cancer, Lester said. His grade point average was so low, he didn't know whether he could graduate.

Today, he has two master's degrees and a doctorate degree, and he teaches at the University of Denver.

He credits his turnaround to his high-school guidance counselor, who believed in him and encouraged him to audition for a college marching band. He earned a four-year music scholarship and majored in sociology, going on to work as a therapist, serving “kids that reminded me of myself,” Lester said.

He's running to represent Cherry Creek school board District E, the area that encompasses parts of Greenwood Village, unincorporated Arapahoe County, central and east Centennial, and south and southeast Aurora. His opponents are Bill Leach and Kristin Allan. The election ends Nov. 2.

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 board also approves the district's budget.

Lester, 39, was raised in Decatur, Georgia, and moved to Colorado when Arapahoe County hired him in 2007. He worked as a child-support enforcement specialist for that county and later worked in the Denver Human Services Department.

The Colorado Department of Human Services made him a “permanency manager,” a position that oversees child-welfare practices for all 64 counties in Colorado. At that department, Lester dealt with programs such as foster care and adoption support services.

“As a social worker, political party doesn't matter,” Lester said. “Identity doesn't matter. One has to be able to represent and serve anybody that comes through as a case. And I know that correlates to being a school board member, where one doesn't have time to figure out if we agree or disagree.”

He added: “What we have to figure out is what works best for all kids in the Cherry Creek School District.”

He lives in unincorporated Arapahoe County in the south Aurora and east Centennial area. His son — a special-needs student — is in third grade in the Cherry Creek district. Lester's wife works as a school social worker in the district.

“I see how hard she works, and I see how hard he works, and I just want to make sure they're both able to perform at their best ability,” Lester said.

He thinks it's “nonsensical” that teachers work part-time jobs to make ends meet, and he wants “to make sure they are compensated properly and make sure we don't lose them,” Lester said. He also wants to focus on recruitment and retention of people of color on staff in Cherry Creek.

Lester is a member of Rolling Hills Elementary School's WatchDOGS — “dads of great students” — a mentoring group that does various activities with students, Lester said.

The group sees fathers “committed to seeing not just their kids but all kids do well, kind of like a father figure approach,” Lester said. He wants to replicate the WatchDOGS model at other schools throughout the district.

In line with his social work background, Lester wants to implement what he calls “care management” in the school district: organizing former Cherry Creek employees and community members to volunteer for other district families during rough patches. He'd like to provide personal support rather than seeing families have to turn to safety-net systems.

“We're very affluent as a school district, but there are also people who aren't doing well,” said Lester, who wants the volunteers to help families with challenges such as getting a job or finding therapy in their area.

He also believes in “safe spaces” for students, noting that the LGBTQIA+ community experiences high levels of depression and suicidal thoughts. He said those kids need support.

Regarding the charged political climate in the school district — centered around the teaching of racial issues in American society and mask wearing amid the pandemic — Lester said he would encourage more dialogue.

“I think when it comes to COVID, many of us have displaced anger,” Lester said. “We're angry about the situation — our life just isn't the same. Now, what's happening is we're having to adapt to life we've never experienced before.”

Lester is an adjunct professor at the University of Denver, where he teaches classes involving the social work field. He also teaches a class called Power, Privilege and Oppression.

In response to a Colorado Community Media questionnaire, Lester said: “The critical race theory is not currently being taught in the Cherry Creek School District, nor should it be.”

“But it's also important that we do share the truth about what's happened in America, and it's important that our students are well-versed in American history,” Lester said by phone. “It's also important that we don't make people feel bad because of the way they grew up. It's a fine line because people have to understand each other's perspectives. We have to hear one another.”

Colorado Secretary of State's Office records show Lester's campaign has received contributions from people in numerous states across the nation, though the amounts are generally small.

Lester said he reached out to share his campaign goals with his fraternity brothers — he's a member of Phi Beta Sigma from his college — and others he's made connections with.

“I just told the brothers that I'm trying to run for office to try to make things better for the kids here,” Lester said.

Many contributions were $25 or $50 — most were $100 or less. A handful of people have donated a couple hundred dollars each, and he's received contributions from Aurora and elsewhere in the Denver metro area.

Lester switched his party affiliation in 2016 from Democratic to the Republican Party, a change he said was motivated by local matters.

Having worked at the state government level, he felt that many policies were being enacted “with the majority voice and really didn't seem to be inclusive of the county departments outside of the (state Highway) 470 corridor,” Lester said, saying statewide policy should take into account more input from more areas. He said he didn't like how county departments were being treated by higher leadership.

“I did not leave the Democratic Party to support a presidential candidate or anything like that; I left based on philosophical beliefs” on state government matters, Lester said.

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