On November 2, Jefferson County voters will elect three School Board Directors to fill vacancies for Districts 1, 2, and 5. I ask you to vote for Danielle Varda, Paula Reed, and Mary Parker. They are running together as the “Jeffco Kids Slate” of candidates with similar agendas and complementary skillsets, who will be able to work cooperatively to move Jefferson County Schools forward.
Contending with Conspiracists
This year, Jefferson School Board meetings have already been disrupted with activists pushing the conspiracy theories that masks, vaccinations, and testing for unvaccinated students are unnecessary and oppressive to students. These activists are also upset about “critical race theory” (CRT) , which is not taught in K-12 schools, including Jeffco schools. The critique of critical race theory is aimed at shutting down multicultural teaching. A curriculum that includes diverse writers and history from multiple points of view is somehow designed to make white people feel bad, in the view of anti-CRT conspiracists.
At the last September 2, 2021 meeting, rowdy anti-mask activists hijacked the board’s agenda in order to protest Jeffco Schools’ compliance with CDC’s Public Health Order, including mask mandates and testing of unvaccinated secondary students. Public comment starts at 3:30 in the video stream.
Board Director Schooley testified (at 1:49 in the video) that she had received threatening letters at her home; one included her child’s picture taken at her home. This was clearly done to intimidate Schooley and make her resign or back down from implementing the mask mandate. Schooley, while visibly “shook” in the video, shows no sign of doing either.
This bullying is not limited to Jefferson County. School board meetings across Colorado (Cherry Creek, Denver, Douglas County) and across the country have also been disrupted. Well-funded right wing groups have trained activists to disrupt school board meetings, and to intimidate board members, around the issues of mask-wearing and “anti-CRT” polemics.
According to former Trump campaign manager, fraudulent fundraiser and conservative commentator Steve Bannon: ““The path to save the nation is very simple — it’s going to go through the school boards.” Electing extremist candidates in moderate urban districts is unlikely. So disruption and intimidation are the go-to tactics, in order to flex right wing political muscle, to intimidate the moderate opposition, and to provide grist for the all-important fundraising.
Our Jefferson County School Board must be able to stand up to these bullies, complying with current science and public health orders to keep students and staff safe, and continuing with Jeffco Schools mission to treat all students with equity. Let’s meet the three women that are volunteering for this mission.
I met the candidates at the Slate kickoff meeting at the Lakewood Links on August 22, and asked them to choose from five possible interview questions. Here are their responses:
Dr. Danielle Varda
What are some of the best practices to keep Jefferson county staff and students safe and healthy?
Our most important priority is the health and safety of our kids, teachers, and staff in schools. Safety is a concerning topic for many parents, as instances of violence have continued to occur and rise among schools. As a parent, I am deeply saddened that our children, teachers, and staff must experience constant drills and training on dealing with the possibility of a school shooting. Jeffco Schools are doing a great job keeping our kids safe, including securing access to buildings, providing training and resources for teachers and staff to prepare our kids, and staffing personnel whose job it is to keep kids safe. We need to continue to invest in the staff and infrastructure to maintain safety for kids, including bringing new partnerships and innovation into the schools on this topic. For example, attention to conflict resolution may serve as a mitigating factor leading to school violence.
What unique strengths would you bring to a seat on the Jefferson County school board?
I have a breadth of experience working across sectors. As a tenured professor at the University of CO in the School of Public Affairs, I have experience thinking about teachers from their perspective, the needs of students, and how to create pipelines to successful careers and higher education opportunities. I can bring this expertise to the Board. I am also a small business owner. I started a health technology startup three year ago and have successfully scaled the company to 20 employees, and growing. At Visible Network Labs, we focus on strengthening supportive connections so that kids and parents can thrive. I believe I can bring that research, technology, and innovation with me to address the problem of social isolation, loneliness, and connectedness within our student, teacher, and family population. And finally, as a mother to three girls in Jeffco schools, the Chair of the Weber Elementary School Accountablity Committee, and a regular volunteer in the classroom (pre-COVID), I have a lens and understanding of the schools that I will be able to bring.
What are some of the weaknesses and strengths of Jeffco schools now?
We are doing a great job at keeping our kids in school, safely for uninterrupted learning right now. We have an energetic staff across the district that love our kids and are working hard to meet all their needs. We have great programming in arts, science, technology, and sports. However, one of the most critical priorities in the district is the teacher and staff shortages. Teachers are leaving for other districts, and also leaving the district altogether. We often cannot find substitutes for our classrooms. These are indicators that we must pay attention to better support and pay for teachers. We need to find ways to be competitive with other districts and ways to incentive employees, from teachers to bus drivers to staff to cafeteria employees. We also need to agree to our values and policies to address equity issues our kids and families face, and make a commitment to how we are going to get all our kids to reading levels and graduation rates that we are proud of.
Paula Reed is a Jeffco graduate and the mother of two Jeffco graduates. She taught at Columbine High School for 30 years where she coached speech and debate and taught in an at-risk intervention program. She now works in her husband’s small business.
What are some of the best practices to keep Jefferson county staff and students safe and healthy?
The most important thing we can do is to listen to our county public health experts. Not only do they have the training and experience to deal with public health crises, they have the most current data regarding our county, and that is the data that matters. Jeffco Public Health specializes in just that, the health of the general public. Of course, the school board’s job is not just to look after the health of our community, but the education of our children.
I want our kids in school, in-person, without interruption, as safely as possible. I believe we can attain this if we work closely with Jeffco Public Health every step of the way.
What are some of the most pressing financial needs in the district, and how do these (lack of funds) affect student outcomes? Compensation remains an issue. This year’s budget has improved pay, but those efforts have brought our salaries to the point of simply being minimally adequate. I’m not sure we want to be attracting and retaining minimally adequate employees. We have been riding on the loyalty of our educators and support professionals for a long time, and the structures of pay across the state have kept many mid- and late-career educators with us despite pay issues. What we are creating is a system where our most effective educators are reaching retirement age, and too many young teachers are not applying to Jeffco, leaving Jeffco for greener pastures, or leaving teaching altogether! These are the people who most affect student outcomes. High turnover and recruitment issues affect the outcomes in any industry. Education is no exception.
What unique strengths would you bring to a seat on the Jefferson County school board? I am a retired teacher with 30 years of school-based experience, including high school and elementary. I have taught in programs that drew some of the most driven students and some the most challenged, as well as everything in between. I spent time as a dean of students and gained perspective as an administrator. It is critical that a school board understand the impacts of its decisions on schools–the educators and students who make our mission possible. I am now working in private industry, and this has given me a different perspective on how other industries manage finances, employees, and company outcomes. I can combine these experiences as a school board director.
We all know that Jeffco schools don’t actually teach “critical race theory”. How and why should inclusive history and literature be taught, in your opinion?
I hadn’t even heard of “critical race theory” until a few months ago but just from the name I expected it was something significant and divisive. After researching it, I discovered that it is an academic theory examining the intersection between race and law. It is more than 30 years old and was taught in universities, most often at the graduate level. So why are people up in arms and demanding that Jeffco schools stop teaching something that they have never taught? After speaking with some of my conservative friends, I found that they are concerned about how we teach history and social studies in K-12. Specifically, they don’t want our children to be taught that white children are privileged and that black children are oppressed. They don’t want white children to feel responsible for things that happened in the past or to feel guilty for things that are still happening today. Furthermore, they feel that black children will feel like victims and will resent white children. My rebuttal to these concerns is that all history and literature should be taught accurately and comprehensively, without any cherry-picking of facts to bias the presentation in any direction. Teachers should never teach any subject in a way that would shame or humiliate any student. This is the very heart of training on diversity and equity that our educators receive.
What unique strengths would you bring to a seat on the Jefferson County school board?
I have 2 daughters who are teachers in Jeffco schools, and 4 grandchildren who have graduated from or are currently attending Jeffco schools. I taught parenting classes for 20 years, teaching helicopter parents, soccer moms, and parents who were court ordered to attend. For the past 14 years I have been a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) working with neglected and abused children. I worked as a Systems Engineer at Hewlett-Packard where I taught classes in Problem Solving and Decision Making. In addition, my husband and I own a Human Resources Consulting business specializing in Compensation, Compliance, and Pricing. I have strong, relevant business experience combined with volunteer activities in support of children and families, which I am eager to use as a member of the Jeffco School Board.
What about the other candidates?
I will try to interview some of the other candidates running for the Board, for a later diary.
Jeffrey Wilhite is an ardent supporter of charter schools, and former Vice President of the Colorado Charter School Association. He is running against Danielle Varda in District 1.
Theresa Shelton and David Johnson are running against Paula Reed for the District 2 spot. David Johnson was the chair of the District Accountability Committee. His priority seems to be staying within budget constraints, and running the school district like a business.
Kathy Miks is running against Mary Parker for the District 5 position. On her website, Miks refers to “the right of parents to direct their children’s education”, which I interpret as a veiled reference to either an anti-sex education agenda, or a swipe at “critical race theory”. I’ll ask her about it, if I get the chance. Miks also advocates running the school district along a business results-oriented model.
Stick with the Slate for the win
However, the “Jeffco Kids Slate” candidates profiled in this diary, I believe, will give Jeffco school stakeholders (families, students, staff, community) the best value if we elect them as a team. We need all of their expertise: Dr. Varda’s higher education and health industry background, Mary Parker’s empathy , advocacy for abused children, and parent education experience, Paula Reed’s thirty years as a classroom teacher at all levels, and her experience of surviving the Columbine shooting.
These women won’t waste time on conspiracy theories, Facebook “science” or quibbling about curricular details, although they’ll certainly listen and respond appropriately to the concerns of their constituents about health and safety practices. Seasoned teachers and advocates for children, they will bring compassion and competence to the job. These three women can support each other and stand strongly for shared beliefs, creating conditions for Jefferson County Schools to achieve its mission: providing a quality education that prepares all children for a successful future.
Support them! Donate to and volunteer for all or any of the candidates at the Jeffco Kids Slate website: https://www.forjeffcokids.com/
Not mentioned here … but Paula Reed was the speech & debate coach at Columbine the year of the shooting.
She was featured in a CPR profile — you can read or hear it here.
Paula mentioned being a Columbine Survivor at the campaign kickoff meeting, but chose not to highlight it for this interview. I respect her even more now.
These are phenomenal leaders, and Jeffco will be fortunate to have them.
Before considering any of these candidates, I want to hear more about their positions on fiscal issues. David Johnson's priorities; "staying within budget constraints and running the school district like a business;" makes a lot of sense to me.
I remain suspicious of "doing it for the kids;" after the fiasco in 2004 where the voters were sold a "bill of goods" that led to the demolition & replacement of perfectly good school buildings here on Green Mountain.
In these times we live in, you may be right in being suspicious of Kathy Miks. But it is inappropriate to assume something before you actually get confirmation yea or nay.
The “school as business” analogy doesn’t work well. For sure, administrators must be accountable with money, and spend it for programs that accmplish agreed-upon goals. Colorado remains 36th in the nation on per-pupil spending, thanks to TABOR, so we have to pinch pennies more than most.
And funding varies by property tax collected per district; there’s a world of difference between an elementary school in Rooney Valley vs. one near Ruby Hill. ( see school district funding on page 2 of the 2020 school finance report) So every visionary pilot program must have its metrics to prove to funders that their money wasn’t wasted.
The exception to this is secondary sports programs, which, if the team wins games, seem to have unlimited funds available from alumni and local businesses.
But teaching and learning are much more an art than a science; relationships are key. If kids feel loved and valued, they’ll do anything for their teachers. For poor and minority students, they also need high expectations, supports, and a sense of hope for the future.
I don’t know how you quantify all that “like a business.”
The school buildings you refer to may have had asbestos abatement or black mold issues, or could not be made ADA compliant. Tearing down and rebuilding may have been the most cost-effective solution. I don’t know, but I have seen that before.
Finally we agree on something . . .
. . . How come no one's talking at all about those wonderful, and very cost effective, private for-profit GED instructional programs? (That Republican Congressional Preparatory program, in particular I hear, has shown some very, um . . . promising, results, huh?
I mean do we really need to bother with all that expensive and wasted socialist math, godless science, and critical race theory tainted history and music education, etc., when all that's really important is already known and has been well thought through by our Ttumpublican Party?
Damnit, wake up people, there's just nothing these days any more important to a good, high-quality, 21st-century education than "fiscal issues" . . .
. . . and right thinking, of course (which goes without saying)!
"right thinking….." You mean the progressive left?
Take a look at the articles in this week's issue of The Economist regarding the threat from the illiberal left.
Run the school like a business? Break the union, fire all the workers, rehiring some at half wage as contractors with no benefits, loot the pension fund, give huge bonuses to management, then declare bankruptcy and stiff your creditors and bankers?
Uhh, I'd rethink that approach.
I said the notion of running like a business makes sense. I didn't say anything about running a business like Trump does, or the Alden Capital hedge fund.
” I found that they are concerned about how we teach history and social studies in K-12. Specifically, they don’t want our children to be taught that white children are privileged and that black children are oppressed. They don’t want white children to feel responsible for things that happened in the past or to feel guilty for things that are still happening today. Furthermore, they feel that black children will feel like victims and will resent white children. My rebuttal to these concerns is that all history and literature should be taught accurately and comprehensively, without any cherry-picking of facts to bias the presentation in any direction.”
Conservatives are correct. We, as adults are to guide children; not to present them with realities and let them choose, reality is they don’t know what to choose, that’s why we teach them what’s best and guide them. Your rebuttal makes the assumption that children understand social structures beyond their own development. In early childhood, peers will begin to identify one another as their friends. However, it is important to note that the concept of “friendship” is still a very concrete, basic relationship. At this stage of development, friendship only goes as far as sharing toys and playing together, rather than the associated qualities of empathy and support that adolescents and adults develop, let alone political structures understanding which one begin to develop on late teenage years. I would not want my kid to feel someone that has another color is any different from them, I want my kids in a future where the color of their is not seen as a concept of judgement, I want them to only judge themselves by their character. We already live in that era where youth, no matter the color gets along and we need to continue that. The people that I see hurt the most are the older people that had to live through that. The current United States is nothing like that except for the music industry which ‘promotes’ certain self-destructive behaviors via ambassadors for certain race identities and not others. That’s a more important matter and CRT introduces more racism and division to indoctrinate the youth. I would not let my children be in a school district that would teach this. No way in earth. I will not have my children feel like victims of nothing, they have not done anything wrong, they will be taught to strive, work hard, be kind and achieve great things while closing their ears to negativity. Thank you.