AURORA VOTE 2021: 6 vie for 2 Cherry Creek district board seats in contentious political fights

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Six candidates are running for two seats on the Cherry Creek School District board of education. The seats are by district and each candidate is elected to a four-year term. One incumbent and two other candidates are running for the District D seat, and three new candidates are running for the District E seat.

AURORA | Six candidates are squaring off for two board seats in this year’s Cherry Creek School District board race, in what is turning out to be one of the most competitive races in recent memory, filled with legal action and campaign complaints.

In 2019, only one of the three districts in the running had a contested election. This year, three candidates are each vying for one of the two spots.

In District D, incumbent Kelly Bates is running for a second term against newcomers Schumé Navarro and Jennifer Gibbons. Bates is a former educator and longtime district volunteer who says she is running to continue to deliver on many of the goals the board has been working toward. 

Gibbons is an audiologist and the founder of Heritage Heights Academy charter school in Centennial, and is “concerned about what has been happening in our District with Board Leadership and think that we need a stronger voice that better represents kids and the community,” according to her campaign website. 

Navarro is a Cherry Creek High School graduate who operates a hair and makeup salon. Parental choice is one of her main campaign priorities, and she has been an outspoken critic of mask mandates and critical race theory.

Navarro filed a lawsuit against the district for requiring her to wear a mask at campaign forums held by the district, claiming that she had psychological and physical issues that made it difficult for her to wear a mask for long periods of time and that the district was discriminating against her. A judge ruled in her favor, saying that the district could not enforce its mask mandate on her as long as she remained six feet away from other people on school grounds.

Navarro is active on social media platforms under the username “Don’t Tread on MAE,” where she has posted about her opposition to pandemic health measures and also posted unfounded allegations of voter fraud during the 2020 election.

In a post on her campaign Facebook page, she describes mask mandates as “medical tyranny.”

“Masks are medical devices that MUST be consensual!” the post said. “And we do not consent!”

In District E, Jason Lester, Bill Leach and Kristin Allan are all vying for a spot on the board. The district is currently represented by board president Karen Fisher, who is term limited.

Allan is an attorney and serves as the chairperson of Cherry Creek’s district accountability committee. Her website lists her two main priorities as improving the teacher shortage by increasing salaries and boosting per-pupil funding for students.

Bill Leach is a former Montana county commissioner who is running as a team with Gibbons. He wants to improve board transparency and student outcomes, and has raised concerns about the amount of union involvement in district decisions.

Lester is a social worker who currently works as a director at the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. He wants Cherry Creek to have the highest recruitment and retention rate in Colorado and the highest teacher compensation, according to his campaign website.

The Cherry Creek Education Association has endorsed Allan and Bates.

The first board election since the beginning of the pandemic, addressing the ramifications of COVID-19 on students is top of mind for all candidates.

Cherry Creek had more in-person learning than any other metro area district last year, sparing its students some of the worst effects of the pandemic. However, state standardized testing from this spring show that there were still declines in performance across the board, with students of color faring worse than their white peers.

When asked how to address student learning loss, candidates had similar answers: Cherry Creek should invest in tutoring for students, evaluate students individually on what support they need to catch up and devote resources to social emotional-learning.

They were more divided on how the district should address the ongoing pandemic, as mask and vaccine mandates have become a political flashpoint nationwide. Allan, Lester and Bates said that they supported mask mandates for students in schools, while Leach and Gibbons equivocated. On his campaign website, Leach has posted material expressing skepticism about the science behind mask mandates. Navarro, who has made opposition to mask mandates a key platform of her campaign, said that she did not support the mandate.

The district is also grappling with issues of how to close the achievement gap for students of color, how to address Colorado’s ongoing youth mental health crisis and how to address the critical race theory controversy that exploded into the public consciousness over the summer.

The district unveiled a new plan to close achievement gaps at its September board meeting, the most recent in a long series of efforts that has been going on for decades. Once elected, the new candidates will be responsible for tracking whether or not it is successful.

The new board will also be in charge of monitoring the results of the mill levy and bond increase that voters approved in last fall’s election, giving the district $35 million in operating revenue and $150 million in money for deferred maintenance and new building projects.

Seven million dollars of that money will go toward a mental health day treatment center, the most ambitious part of the district’s efforts to address the need for better mental health services for young people.

Along with the facility, candidates also said they would like to implement teacher training in suicide prevention, partner with local mental health providers and hire more staff.

When asked what the other most significant issue facing the district was, Bates and Leach named school funding and Lester and Gibbons named division and anger that has sprung up during the pandemic. Navarro said the biggest challenge was the district not listening to families enough, while Allan said that it was misinformation being spread by groups with political agendas.

The race has been more contentious than those of the past. Along with Navarro’s lawsuit against the district, several candidates running for a seat on the Cherry Creek school board have filed complaints against the current board president and an incumbent candidate.

The Secretary of State’s office has opened an investigation into one of the complaints.

Candidates Bill Leach, Jennifer Gibbons and Jason Lester filed identical complaints against current board president Karen Fisher for improper campaigning, claiming that she violated campaign laws by endorsing candidate Kristin Allan at the Sept. 15 parent’s council meeting.

Fisher is term-limited and has endorsed Allan to replace her as the board’s representative for District E.

The complaint states that Fisher violated the Fair Campaign Practices Act by campaigning in her capacity as board president on school grounds. It also says that by campaigning at the meeting she violated the district’s rules against using district resources to campaign.

Fisher told The Sentinel that she is allowed to endorse candidates during business hours because she is not a district employee. She said that it is common practice in the district for term-limited board members to endorse potential successors.

 “As a term-limited school board member everybody asks who are you endorsing to succeed you?” she said.

At the meeting, Fisher said she made it clear she was endorsing Allan in her personal capacity.

There was “no we, there’s no the board of education or the school district,” in her remarks, Fisher said. “It’s just me.”

A post on the Cherry Creek President’s Council website after the meeting said that the council cannot endorse any candidates and did not give permission for any campaign materials to be handed out at the meeting.

“We invited Karen Fisher, outgoing president of the Board of Education, as a representative of the BOE, to present on what the Board of Education’s role is within the district, not to endorse any candidates,” the post said. “The views she made public regarding her endorsement of candidates are her personal views, and do not reflect the views of the Parents’ Council Executive Board.”

A notice posted to the Secretary of State’s website on Thursday said that the three complaints had been consolidated into one and the office determined that they complained sufficient evidence to open an investigation. The investigation is due on Nov. 8.

Fisher said that she believed she did not do anything wrong, and questioned the motivations of the complaints.

“It’s a strategy to discredit the current board because they want to get elected, but it’s a practice that we’ve done for years and years,” Fisher said of the candidates’ complaints. “If I had done anything wrong I would have immediately apologized and owned it.”

In an email, district spokesperson Abbe Smith told The Sentinel that the district cannot comment in detail on legal matters but that it disputes that there was a campaign law violation.

Board candidates Jennifer Gibbons and Bill Leach also filed identical complaints against candidate Kelly Bates, claiming that she failed to register as a candidate within the appropriate time frame after announcing her candidacy, reported inaccurate information in her financial filings and improperly passed out campaign materials at the September parent’s council meeting.

According to the complaints, one of Bates’ campaign finance reports did not list the occupations of all the people who contributed to her campaign and listed several inaccurate addresses for donors. 

In an email to The Sentinel, Bates said that she disputed the allegations.

On Thursday, the Secretary of State’s office said that Bates had 10 days to submit a notice of intent “to cure any deficiencies specified in this notice or provide other relevant information on how respondent has cured the alleged violations and substantially complied with the law.”

The contentious nature of this year’s election has also manifested in some of the questions asked to candidates at the district’s public forums.

At an Oct. 7 candidate meeting, Gibbons was asked about an endorsement she received from FEC United, a Colorado political group run by Joe Oltmann, who has pushed false information about the 2020 election being stolen and is currently being sued by Dominion Voting Systems.

A post on FEC United’s Facebook page from Sept. 30 says that “It’s school board election season, and the stakes couldn’t be higher! When asked, why are you running for school board, we got the following responses:” with quotes from Gibbons and two other candidates from different school districts.

The quote from Gibbons said that “Unlike my opponents, I’m not backed by the union or a political party. I’m a parent who loves CCSD and wants to see it remain excellent.”

At the forum Gibbons said that she had never heard of FEC United. 

“I don’t know what that is and I didn’t know they endorsed me,” she said. “I’m glad my message is reaching other people and I’m happy for their support, I hope they vote for me.”

Navarro was asked about whether she supported QAnon conspiracy theories. On social media Navarro has posted unfounded allegations that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, and was in Washington D.C. during the insurrection at the U.S. capitol.

Navarro said that she became interested in QAnon when Jeffrey Epstein was arrested on suspicion of sex trafficking. She said that QAnon was “an internet sensation” and was “cultural and fun.” She described it as a distraction during the pandemic.

“I was at home with kids for months and it was an outlet that was harmless,” Navarro said.

Navarro said at the forum that she believes in critical thinking. She has been a frequent critic of the media, saying in social media posts and videos that the media is deliberately divisive and that she no longer watches the news.

Allan shot back later in the forum, saying that QAnon is “a hate group” that was tied to many of the people who participated in the insurrection at the capitol on Jan. 6.

Gibbons dodged a question about the forum asking whether as a board member she would move to change all the district’s curriculum to the Core Knowledge curriculum, which is what Heritage Heights Academy uses. Gibbons said that she did not think all schools needed to go to Core Knowledge but used most of her time to criticize Fisher for her alleged campaign violation.

Gibbons has touted her credentials as founder and board president of HHA as her main qualification for why she is the right candidate for the school board seat. However, documents obtained by The Sentinel show that the charter school has had a series of problems since its inception and has been under fire from the district for issues including problems with its lease, failing to accommodate special needs students and a lack of financial transparency.

Kelly Bates was asked about whether she felt like the board lacked diversity because there were no men on it, and faced blowback from the community when she said in her response “We do not need a white man sitting on our board.” At the district’s board meeting on Oct. 11, several people criticized her for discriminating against men.

“I value and respect the diverse perspectives of the woman I have served with over the last four years and feel they are capable of leading the district as well as any man would,” Bates said of her response at the school board meeting. “My response was not meant to be about race, gender or religion but to focus on excellence.”

 

Meet Jennifer Gibbons

Jennifer Gibbons

Jennifer Gibbons is running for a seat in District D. Gibbons is the founder of Heritage Heights Academy, a charter school on the east side of the district, and has been president of its board of directors since spring 2020. Gibbons worked as an audiologist after receiving a master’s degree from Brigham Young University, then operated a preschool in Aurora for 11 years. In 2016 she resumed working as an audiologist, and received a degree from A.T. Still University School of Osteopathic Medicine in 2017. She has also served as a volunteer in the Black Hills Forest Elementary PTCO.

Jennifer Gibbons Q&A

Jennifer Gibbons

What makes you the best candidate for school board?

I have 4 kids who have, or will have graduated from CCSD schools. I, like most people in this district, bought my house in within CCSD so my kids could go CCSD schools. My family has benefitted greatly from the education and sports programs available at CCSD and I would love to give back using my tools and talents I’ve developed through 15 years of volunteering in CCSD.

Unlike the other two candidates, I am not backed by a political party or a teachers union. I am backed by parents, teachers, and community members who know I will be an effective conduit for their voices on the board of education. I have 6 years experience serving on the board of directors of the charter school of which I am a founder and current president here in CCSD called Heritage Heights Academy (HHA). I have also volunteered in numerous other capacities in my children’s schools including room mom, intervention volunteer, PTCO president and principal hiring committee to name a few. I have the energy to get things done and a desire to do things right, including obeying election laws and ethical practices.

Besides COVID-19 recovery and closing the achievement gap between students of color and white students, what is the biggest challenge facing the district?

The biggest problem facing the district is division. The past 18 months have been hard for everyone. We have all just been through and continue to go through a pandemic. We have also been though a summer filled with unrest and an election which caused rifts in families and friendships.

It’s time to heal this political rift and get politics out of schools. We need to treat controversial subjects as controversial subjects and ensure both sides of those subjects are taught in a relevant (to the curriculum), age appropriate way.

Parents love their teachers dearly and they trust them to do their jobs as the professionals that they are, but there are also some cases where the teachers feel the parents are against them and vice versa. Teachers need to be seen! They are in need of resources and help to get our students to reach their potential. There is too much divisiveness, and we need to focus on how we can heal.

How do you think the district should address student learning loss from the pandemic?

I would like to see the district use the community more. When I hear a success story about an adult who when they were a child they either had no access to parents, or their parents did not have the tools to help the child academically, there was always a community member, a neighbor, someone from church, or family friend who either inspired them, or took them under their wing. I know many people who would be willing to mentor a child who has fallen behind. A mentorship program would not only help a child mend the holes in their learning, but also enrich the lives of those who mentor.

What do you think should be done to close the achievement gap for students of color?

At HHA we have a diverse population of 54%. 20% of our children are black or Hispanic. We have some classes in our school that have 100% at proficient or above academic achievement. I am not saying all schools need to be charter schools - If I am elected, I would like to see neighborhood schools maintain excellence, so there is not a need for another charter. I am saying there is something happening at HHA that is at least worth examining.

The achievement gap is nothing new, and not changing the way we approach it is the definition of insanity. We need to change our perspective if we expect a change.

Involving the community may not only help with closing the pandemic gap, but also the achievement gap. If I am elected, I would add a different perspective and a new point of view.

What role do you think law enforcement should play in schools?

Our state has been devastated by school violence too many times to not have a constant law enforcement presence at all of our schools. The security resource officers (SROs) at my children’s schools, and the district SROs I’ve seen in action recently have been impressive. They are organized, smart, calm and competent.

SROs need to be able to use their experience and foresight to tell schools their thoughts and ideas about how we can keep our kids safe. They see the kids and know what’s going on. The SROs at CT where my kids go are very interactive and have a caring way of protecting.

I would like to see a partnership with law enforcement with open communication to invite innovative ways to keep our kids safe.

What role do you think the school board should play in day-to-day operations of the district, including issues such as what gets taught in the classroom?

I have read many books and received hundreds of hours of training about how a board should behave. A board of directors should never get involved with the day to day operations.

The only time a director should get involved is if there is an escalated grievance, or if there is an issue where a child is endangered, or something happened that is illegal.

CCSD has specific guidelines and policies about curriculum. Our policies give teachers some freedom to present the curriculum as they see fit. Teachers need to feel they are able to be innovative and use their talents to teach their kids the curriculum they are given.

When a child is taught something the parent is not happy about, that problem needs to be worked out with the teacher. If the problem is not resolved, it is then escalated.

The BOE should listen to concerns if parents have concerns with what is going on in the classroom, but it is not their job to intervene.

As a board member, I would like to increase the communication between parents and the board. If parents are having problems with curriculum and email me, I will respond and let them know the proper channels for a grievance and let them know that they have been heard! This is an element that is currently missing from the current board.

What’s the role of the school board in regards to the current controversy over “critical race theory”?

The school board has a part in vetting the curriculum, but the curriculum is mostly chosen by the curriculum specialist, superintendent, and other specialists. CCSD assembled a group of educators, and parents to explore the most recent curriculum.

The board of directors are not professional educators and must trust their superintendent. However, if there is concern from parents and community members that the curriculum may be damaging to the children, which is the primary concern with CRT, this must be addressed. It is the job of the board to communicate to the community that either the curriculum is sound, or they need to address the problems in the curriculum and explore solutions.

My plan if I am elected is to explore the new curriculum, Inquiry Journey, more throughly and to attend the teacher training, Beyond Diversity. I would then like to watch in classrooms how the combination of these two elements is rolled out to kids.

This seems to be parent’s biggest concern. I know this from listening to parents at board meetings, and reading emails from parents sent to me since I have announced my candidacy. If elected, I would like to explore the curriculum and teacher training more extensively and share my findings with the community.

What can the school board do to increase transparency in how it interacts with district staff and families?

Parents just want more communication. Teachers do too. The board does not return emails, and parents feel frustrated.

If I am elected, I would like to not only make sure to answer emails, but to also send out a monthly email to address what we discuss at our monthly meeting and any other pressing matter.

How well do you think the current board handled the pandemic, and are there things you would have done differently?

The board was amazing at getting food to our students that rely on school lunch.

I was worried about this when the schools first shut down and sent an email to the board and superintendent. I then saw that they had a plan in place immediately. I was impressed and grateful.

One thing I wished the board had done differently was to bring us together. We needed to stop with political rhetoric and come together as a team. We are all on the same team. The team where we support kids to learn and to care. It seems we lost focus and we need to realign.

I would like to support the creation of more groups in high schools that bring kids together in spite of their differences. I think this would do more healing and less dividing.

Do you support the district implementing (or following state/local public health orders to implement) mask and/or vaccine mandates for students and staff?

This is a split issue. When our community is split, we need to find a suitable compromise. To me, wearing the mask so we can be together in person is a compromise that seems to be working for most. No one likes the mask and I hope we will not be wearing it forever.

As a doctor of audiology, I understand how important data are to making decisions for our health. The vaccines are working for adults, so adults should get them, especially if they are at risk. I am generally in favor of choice, so I don’t like the idea of a mandated vaccine. I worry how mandating a vaccine would effect us being able to hire more substitute teachers and bus drivers. I especially am weary about a mandate that is so new for kids. Kids seem to be fighting Covid successfully for the most part, so I would want to wait for more testing.

Children’s Hospital Colorado declared a “state of emergency” for pediatric mental health in Colorado earlier this year — what role should the district play in addressing this issue?

Every family is affected by mental health. It is an epidemic. We don’t have enough mental health professionals to address these problems, and there have been too many times where children have felt hopeless and taken their lives.

The board needs to stay ahead of these problems. We need to find ways to include all kids. Make sure they feel safe in classes to try hard things, which can increase meaning in their lives. Having a focus and a group in which they connect gives kids a reason to come to school and feel hope. They need to be together, to create new and safe relationships with teachers and friends.

CCSD has suicide prevention activities, but I would like to see more partnerships with mental health specialists, and parents. Parents should have the final say in their child’s mental health care and decide on a plan with their doctor for treatment.

More about Jennifer Gibbons

What was the last book you read?

I read “The Bitcoin Standard”

What has been your pandemic guilty pleasure?

Making TicTok dance videos with my daughters.

What are you handing out to trick-or-treaters for Halloween this year?

Full sized!! We only get a few.

What do you think needs to be invented more than anything?

Self cleaning homes.

If you were going to staycation in Aurora, what would you do?

Play Pickleball with my family, take my dog for a long walk, and eat at Teds.

 

Meet Schumé Navarro

Schumé Navarro

Schumé Navarro is running for a seat in District D. Navarro is a 2004 graduate of Cherry Creek High School, and the owner of beauty salon Peacock Vanity. Previously, she worked as a hair stylist at Floyd’s 99 Barbershop and was a co-owner of Urbanity. Since 2013 she has been the director of a support group for young mothers, and in 2021 she was elected secretary of the Arapahoe County GOP.

Schumé Navarro Q&A

Schumé Navarro

What makes you the best candidate for school board?

Growing up in the district, I saw firsthand how individualized educational support from teachers and administration could forge a path for success and resiliency in students. I want to continue with that holistic and individualized support for ALL kids in our district. My educational journey included graduating with a trade and opening a small business at a young age. I believe that life experience can add to the conversation and decision-making on the school board. My story, having experienced poverty and childhood trauma and my time spent as a community volunteer serving marginalized teen moms has uniquely provided me the skill set to understand and represent our families with a range on the Board of Education. Being involved in my community has allowed me to see our local community’s issues and how different every individual’s needs are. I believe my diverse ability to serve others and solve problems will be well suited on CCSD’s Board of Education.

Besides COVID-19 recovery and closing the achievement gap between students of color and white students, what is the biggest challenge facing the district?

The biggest challenge to me as a parent is the district’s balance of listening to the main stakeholders, the families, and their concerns versus being beholden to special interest groups with agendas and deep pockets.

How do you think the district should address student learning loss from the pandemic?

The schools should focus on academics and bringing the students up to level by focusing less on social issues. There needs to be a focus on STEM, reading, writing, and other core subjects. Social causes add minimal intellectual value right now, and our focus should be the basics during this period. Equity IS education. What makes a man unfit to be a slave is being educated.

What do you think should be done to close the achievement gap for students of color?

Maintain high standards and provide them with needed help to achieve those standards. One of the ways to obtain this is to have smaller class sizes and having more one-on-one instruction. Individualizing the approach for each school and creating a strategy to meet those local needs should be our approach vs. looking at the whole district. Various types of parental communication and more family engagement opportunities, I agree with Dr. Jason Lester’s idea of bringing in the community and having mentorship programs to assist kids with no father figure. As always, school choice.

What role do you think law enforcement should play in schools?

It is crucial to have SROs in schools. We live in a world where things aren’t easily planned or expected. They also help with truancy drugs and restorative justice. If something happened, wouldn’t you want law enforcement present? If the average response time is 10 min, I want someone there on campus. Beyond law enforcement, I believe it is valuable to have another set of eyes on kids. As a student, my friend group was significantly impacted by our SRO’s humor and friendliness, and I will always hold them in high regard.

What role do you think the school board should play in day-to-day operations of the district, including issues such as what gets taught in the classroom?

You have to be involved with the community you are making decisions for. It is essential to visit the classrooms, talk to teachers, talk to the administration and listen to our families.

What’s the role of the school board in regards to the current controversy over “critical race theory”?

The school board’s job is to represent the parents and protect and provide equity for ALL students. Not just be a rubber stamp to the teachers union and public education department, who seem to have a political agenda. We need to focus on adding educational value to our students, and many social projects steal the effort.

What can the school board do to increase transparency in how it interacts with district staff and families?

Make the Board Meeting sign-up easily accessible, allow streaming for parents that are not able to attend in person, and PC accommodations. Limit the voice of the teachers union to provide equity with the parents’ voice. We can achieve this by limiting union voices to a 1/3 representation or half the allotted time for public comment. Parents are our primary stakeholders; we need to hear their voices. They, in return, need to hear ours, so study sessions should be recorded and posted on the website in place of note-taking minutes. We need to respond to concerns; the automated email that says your email has been archived does not increase transparency. I also think the board should have director seats represent their area and that the election should be of that area only, not an at-large election. This will enable the community to have easier access to their director, who can then better represent them and be held accountable to the community they serve.

How well do you think the current board handled the pandemic, and are there things you would have done differently?

2020 -When we knew little about the pandemic, the school board did a good job based on the little information we had. As we have learned more, the decisions are showing to be less about science and facts and more about a political agenda. Through CORA’ed emails, it is shown that district leadership pursued Tri-County in implementing mandates. These mandates enabled the district to receive financial benefits from the federal government. We shouldn’t operate based on agendas; our children are not dollar signs.

Do you support the district implementing (or following state/local public health orders to implement) mask and/or vaccine mandates for students and staff?

No. Although government-sponsored science says one thing, other scientific studies show that mask mandates and the COVID vaccines do not accomplish their intended purpose. Mandating compliance with ineffective means is not right.

Children’s Hospital Colorado declared a “state of emergency” for pediatric mental health in Colorado earlier this year — what role should the district play in addressing this issue?

I am not a mental health expert, but looking at the numbers and realizing how this pandemic has affected our lives, we have to understand the weight of the mandates on our teens and the value of getting back to normal. Especially for a sickness that affects them at a much lower rate. The CDC says suspected suicide attempts increased by 50.6% for girls ages 12-17. For adolescents, it was 20.3% higher during the summer of 2020 and 39.1% higher during the winter of 2020. Beyond getting back to normal, having qualified counseling and mental health staff on campus along with teacher training for suicide prevention are reasonable steps to mitigate mental health issues in our teens. I also believe in empowering families and providing them with the resources to support their children at home.

More about Schumé Navarro

What was the last book you read?

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

What has been your pandemic guilty pleasure?

Making memes

What are you handing out to trick-or-treaters for Halloween this year?

Pocket constitutions 😉 jk

What do you think needs to be invented more than anything?

I thought by 2020, we would have flying cars or could teleport places. I would really love for Elon Musk to get on this asap.

If you were going to staycation in Aurora, what would you do?

I love the Aurora Reservoir and the summer concert series. Maybe brunch at the Stanley Marketplace.

 

Meet Kelly Bates

Kelly Bates

Kelly Bates is an incumbent running to retain her seat in District D, and was first elected to the board in 2017. Before coming to Colorado Bates served as a childcare director and preschool teacher in Michigan and Ohio, and has been a longtime Cherry Creek volunteer. She formerly served as PTCO president and vice president, and volunteered at different district schools for over a decade while her five children were in school. She has also been involved in district organizations including Leadership Cherry Creek to the Parent Information Network and the Special Education Advisory Council.

Kelly Bates Q&A

Kelly Bates

What makes you the best candidate for school board?

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.

I have also served on the last 3 bond and budget campaigns. This past November, we were successful in passing 4A/4B with a 70% approval vote. This percentage is almost unheard of, let alone during a pandemic. I believe that this shows that our constituents overwhelmingly value the commitment we have to our students and community. I will strive to retain that trust over the next 4 years.

Besides COVID-19 recovery and closing the achievement gap between students of color and white students, what is the biggest challenge facing the district?

Funding. Colorado is already ranked as 47th or 48th in the country in terms of per pupil funding. The government continues to impose unfunded or under-funded mandates that makes it harder and harder for districts to provide the type of education that we want to provide.

How do you think the district should address student learning loss from the pandemic?

First, we must address the trauma that our students have endured during the past 19 months. We must first work on their social-emotional well-being. Then, we can evaluate where each child is in terms of meeting benchmarks and proceed from there.

What do you think should be done to close the achievement gap for students of color?

One way to help close the achievement gap is to hire more staff of color to more closely represent the diversity in our district. Studies have shown that students do better in school when they see teachers that look like them. My colleagues and I have instructed the district to continue this effort even though they have met the goal we set. CCSD has started a new budgeting model, Student Based Funding. Every school will receive a base amount of money, then addition funds will be allotted based on the needs of the population; to include the achievement gap.

What role do you think law enforcement should play in schools?

I believe we should have SROs in our schools. They are not there for the day-to-day discipline issues, but rather for the most extreme cases of discipline. Our SROs should build relationships with our students so that the students have a safe trusted adult in the building. We must ensure that all 5 jurisdictions within CCSD are trained the same so that we have consistency throughout the district.

What role do you think the school board should play in day-to-day operations of the district, including issues such as what gets taught in the classroom?

Most, if not all board members, are not educators or trained professionals in working with children. We hire the superintendent with the understanding that we can trust that he will hire the best staff to oversee day to day operations. Once his staff has selected what they feel is the best curriculum to align with the state criteria, it is expected that it be presented to the board so that we can approve it.

What’s the role of the school board in regards to the current controversy over “critical race theory”?

The role of the school board is to ensure that the district is following the curriculum guidelines set forth by the CDE. These guidelines ensure that our students are taught a true and factual history.

What can the school board do to increase transparency in how it interacts with district staff and families? ​​

The school board offers various avenues for receiving communications from the board. We have district emails, we have a BOE section on the website where all information is posted. CCSD sends out email blasts, and social media posts.

We need to encourage our community to actively seek out the information that they require.

How well do you think the current board handled the pandemic, and are there things you would have done differently?

I believe the board did an amazing job handling the pandemic. We were the only district in the state that opened our schools on time last year with safety protocols put into place. With these safety protocols, we were able to keep most students in school for the majority of the year. We followed the science that was provided by Tri-County Health and CDPHE.

Do you support the district implementing (or following state/local public health orders to implement) mask and/or vaccine mandates for students and staff?

Yes. We must follow the science that is presented to us to ensure that our students and staff are safe and healthy.

Children’s Hospital Colorado declared a “state of emergency” for pediatric mental health in Colorado earlier this year — what role should the district play in addressing this issue?

Cherry Creek has already been addressing this by having mental health professionals in every school. Still, this is not enough to meet the needs of every student. We have social-emotional curriculum in our schools as well.

Most exciting will be the building of our new mental health day treatment facility along with community partners. This will be a first of its kind in the US being run by a public school district.

More about Kelly Bates

What was the last book you read? ​​

Together is Better: A Little Book of Inspiration by Simon Sinek.

What has been your pandemic guilty pleasure?

Sewing masks and donating them to our nurses as well as our most vulnerable students.

What are you handing out to trick-or-treaters for Halloween this year?

Candy bars and trinkets.

What do you think needs to be invented more than anything?

Kitchen cabinets with built in step ladders.

If you were going to staycation in Aurora, what would you do?

Go to the Gaylord Hotel and spend a day at the spa.

 

Meet Jason Lester

Jason Lester

Jason Lester is running for a seat in District E. Lester currently serves as the director of family support services at the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. Previously, he was an adjunct professor at the University of Denver’s school of social work, and held a series of roles in the Denver and Arapahoe County departments of human services. He received a master’s degree in social work from University of Denver in 2016 and a doctorate in social work from University of Southern California in 2020. He has one student in the district.

Jason Lester Q&A

Jason Lester

What makes you the best candidate for school board?

When presented with facts on opposing views, I can genuinely separate my ideas and beliefs to do what’s suitable for students, parents, faculty, and staff. Moreover, my wife is a school social worker, and my son is a special needs student within the District. If given the opportunity to serve, my decisions will have lasting impressions on their overall experiences within the Cherry Creek Schools. Therefore, my choices must be perfectly executed because they directly affect my household and everyone within the Cherry Creek Schools District.

Besides COVID-19 recovery and closing the achievement gap between students of color and white students, what is the biggest challenge facing the district?

Displaced anger has caused so many of us to be nasty because we cannot express our outrage for the life changes that this covid situation has created. So instead of talking about one another, we need to speak with each other. Though we are entitled to our opinions, we must agree on doing what is best and safest for students. Our students should not be pawns within political games.

How do you think the district should address student learning loss from the pandemic?

We should explore grant-writing efforts that allow the District to garner federal funding to provide additional tutoring for students needing further educational assistance. This equitable approach would hopefully repair the learning loss experienced by the pandemic.

What do you think should be done to close the achievement gap for students of color?

Mentorship - My plan allows for students to gain exposure to educational and sociological experiences. For at-risk students with academic and behavioral issues, they will link up with a mentor who resides within the Cherry Creek School District. The plan will call for mentors to commit themselves to at-risk students through the completion of 12th grade.

What role do you think law enforcement should play in schools?

Resource officers are in place to eliminate internal and external threats. They must be trained on cultural respect. Resource Officers can serve a huge role in revising the tarnished reputation of law enforcement officers. I like to believe that there is a tiny group of officers purposefully making poor choices. The vast majority of officers are trying to do their job and avoid fatal situations that prevent them from coming home.

What role do you think the school board should play in day-to-day operations of the district, including issues such as what gets taught in the classroom?

The school board does not oversee the day-to-day operations of the Cherry Creek School District. However, indirectly, the school board does have a huge role in hiring and firing the superintendent that does oversee the day-to-day operations. As a school board director, I will listen to trends and issues coming from the community. They will be addressed through my policy recommendations and regular dialogue with the Cherry Creek School District community members.

What’s the role of the school board in regards to the current controversy over “critical race theory”?

In the Cherry Creek School District, the Critical Race Theory isn’t taught. Much of the controversy resides within false claims of it being taught. We must be accurate and honest about history. Moreover, learning environments must be accommodating to all students.

What can the school board do to increase transparency in how it interacts with district staff and families?

I would like to see bi-weekly videos posted on social media and our district website. These videos would give a brief overview of what’s happening behind the scenes. I also believe in town hall meetings. Board Directors should engage in monthly town hall meetings with the community to check and address trending matters affecting students, parents, faculty, and staff.

How well do you think the current board handled the pandemic, and are there things you would have done differently?

I appreciate the way the existing board dealt with the pandemic. All students had laptops and were able to learn remotely at home. However, the thing I am most pleased with was the food distribution efforts.

Do you support the district implementing (or following state/local public health orders to implement) mask and/or vaccine mandates for students and staff?

I support the guidelines of health professionals. Though I am no medical expert, I believe that masks and vaccines are our greatest hope in keeping students and teachers in schools. Therefore I encourage masks for students for all and vaccinations for adults.

Children’s Hospital Colorado declared a “state of emergency” for pediatric mental health in Colorado earlier this year — what role should the district play in addressing this issue?

We must intentionally check in with our students to ensure that their mental health needs are met. We need more mental health professionals to assist with this effort. Currently, our social workers and other mental health staff are balancing schools and trying to keep up with the mental health demands of students. Also, our mental health professionals need mental health services to address secondary trauma they experience.

More about Jason Leach

What was the last book you read? Mis-education of the Negro - Carter G. Woodson

What has been your pandemic guilty pleasure?

Ben and Jerry’s Strawberry Cheesecake Ice Cream

What are you handing out to trick-or-treaters for Halloween this year? Full-size candy bars!

What do you think needs to be invented more than anything?

Portable lie detectors.

If you were going to staycation in Aurora, what would you do?

I would camp at the Cherry Creek reservoir.

 

Meet Bill Leach

Bill Leach

Bill Leach is running for a seat in District E. Leach is employed by the state of Colorado in the Office of Information Technology, where he works in the Colorado Benefits Management System. A Montana native, he and his family operated a cattle ranch and farm for 10 years. From 2003-2009 he served as county commissioner for Prairie County in Montana, where he lobbied at the state and national capitol on behalf of rural counties and oil and gas production. He has six students in the school district.

Bill Leach Q&A

Bill Leach

What makes you the best candidate for school board?

I’m running because I think the focus of great public schools should be academic excellence, not divisive political ideas.

With changes looming for curriculum and funding, it is more important than ever before that parents and community members have a voice on the Board that represents them. We will ask hard questions, proactively solicit community feedback and represent parents and the community voices on the Board.

Besides COVID-19 recovery and closing the achievement gap between students of color and white students, what is the biggest challenge facing the district?

One of the biggest challenges is an ongoing issue of funding for our schools. Covid relief dollars can help some short term fiscal issues. The recent increase of property values over time will bring some additional needed revenue to the CCSD.

How do you think the district should address student learning loss from the pandemic?

I believe that the learning loss from Covid is going to have to be a multi-year effort. Slightly speeding up some curriculum, as well as trying to provide extra help via District based resources coupled with out-of-district tutoring efforts such as LEAP (Prop 119) if it passes this fall would be an effective way to catch up our students.

What do you think should be done to close the achievement gap for students of color?

Closing achievement gaps for students of color has been a 20-30+ year talking point for CCSD. I have suggested trying to further drill down into those results to find more root causes of this gap. The new Student-Based funding model can then be applied to some of these potential issues that the data points have identified. In addition, the also-new CCSD Office of Equity, Culture, and Community Engagement should be a great resource for identifying underlying points of concern.

What role do you think law enforcement should play in schools?

School Resource Officers (SRO’s) have a long history of success in the CCSD schools. I am a big advocate of keeping the SRO program in place. I understand that current staffing issues are an ongoing concern, but every effort to continue this program should be considered. The well-trained CCSD security teams are also an important part of the overall safety plans.

What role do you think the school board should play in day-to-day operations of the district, including issues such as what gets taught in the classroom?

School Boards are normally “hands-off” on daily District business by design. The board role does include reviewing and approving policy. A good Board of Education should ask a lot of hard questions, and use community and parental input in their decision-making process, as well as the input from the relevant District teams when considering policy issues.

What’s the role of the school board in regards to the current controversy over “critical race theory”?

Official CCSD stance is that CRT is not being taught in district schools. There are allowances for individual teachers to have the latitude to introduce some of the tenets of CRT, also according to the District. The role of the board for any officially approved policy is to accumulate community/parent/stakeholder input and relay accordingly to District officials.

What can the school board do to increase transparency in how it interacts with district staff and families?

This is another ongoing chronic issue according to many in our community. Full transparency is a critical function of the district and the board of education. This is often easier said than done. Email communication, newsletters, possibly using some agreed-upon social media are all ways to keep our community informed of District happenings.

How well do you think the current board handled the pandemic, and are there things you would have done differently?

I have applauded how the District was able to maneuver thru the difficulty of an ongoing pandemic. Part of the reason it went mostly as well as possible was the constant, timely communications. Testing, quarantines, cohorts, vaccination options were all much needed and well-communicated to families in the CCSD. Even with the benefit of hindsight, I think the District handled that difficult situation very capably.

Do you support the district implementing (or following state/local public health orders to implement) mask and/or vaccine mandates for students and staff?

As Supt Chris Smith said, we are educators, not medical professionals. School Board members as currently constructed are also not medical professionals. Our most important goal is to keep kids in-school/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 Minn, University of Louisville, and the CDC via New York Magazine) that should be getting equal attention. I do not support an “absolute” vaccine mandate for students or staff.

Children’s Hospital Colorado declared a “state of emergency” for pediatric mental health in Colorado earlier this year — what role should the district play in addressing this issue?

CCSD has made additional inroads into this very important and pressing need to more fully address mental health concerns. Partnering with Stride Community Health Centers as well as additional school-based on-premises mental health attention will hopefully be that “next-level” step to reducing the severity of the Children’s Hospital declaration.

More about Bill Leach

What was the last book you read? Countdown 1945 by Chris Wallace

What has been your pandemic guilty pleasure?

New bikes. We live by the west edge of CC State Park. It was a wonderful resource for us in those first few months with hiking/bike trails so nearby.

What are you handing out to trick-or-treaters for Halloween this year?

Living near Cottonwood Creek Elementary means kids galore! So whatever we get for candy will be in mass quantities for sure.

What do you think needs to be invented more than anything?

A 100% efficient, 100% clean, 100% reliable, 100% affordable energy source.

If you were going to staycation in Aurora, what would you do?

Stay at the Gaylord property, play a round of golf at Murphy Creek, and go to a HS football game at Legacy stadium.

 

Meet Kristin Allan

Kristin Allan

Kristin Allan is running for a seat in District E. Allan received a law degree in 2002 and has worked as a lawyer in New York, Connecticut and Colorado. She currently operates her own law firm in Greenwood Village. It specializes in insurance coverage. Allan has been involved in a number of Cherry Creek committees, including the school accountability committee at High Plains Elementary School and the district accountability committee, where she currently serves as chairperson. She is a 2020 graduate of the Leadership Cherry Creek Class. Allan has been endorsed by the Cherry Creek Education Association.

Kristin Allan Q&A

Kristin Allan

What makes you the best candidate for school board?

There are three candidates in this race, but voters ultimately have two choices: allow outside special interests to influence Cherry Creek School District (CCSD) and become like Douglas County School District, or elect me, a pragmatic leader with a record of service to CCSD who will work to expand our legacy of excellence.

I am an attorney, small business owner and engaged parent of two kids in Cherry Creek schools. Unlike my two opponents, I have a proven commitment to CCSD through my years of service, including leadership positions on the school and district accountability committees, my volunteer work in CCSD food drives, working with vaccine clinics, letter writing campaigns, and as a classroom parent. I have done, and will continue to do, the hard work as I continue to answer how we better serve our community.

I know how to listen and solve problems. At a recent candidate forum, those running for this seat were asked to raise their hand if they had attended at least three school board meetings and who had sought out leadership roles in CCSD. I was the only candidate for this seat able to raise their hand -- that means I understand the role of this work and I know the issues. I listen to the concerns of stakeholders and understand how our local schools and our home values are directly tied to expanding the excellence of CCSD. The Board of Education must continue to make good on promises made to our community.

There’s a lot at stake in protecting and expanding our dedication to excellence from outside special interests, who are putting political ideology ahead of what’s best for our students, families, teachers, and classrooms. That’s why I am the only candidate in the race who is proudly endorsed by Democratic and Republican elected officials. Additionally, I am proud to be the only candidate endorsed by our local education association and the past four superintendents of CCSD.

Besides COVID-19 recovery and closing the achievement gap between students of color and white students, what is the biggest challenge facing the district?

Right now, one of the greatest issues facing CCSD is the promulgation of misinformation about CCSD by biased and uninformed groups with an extreme political agenda. 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. By doing this,, 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. That includes working for adequate funding and expanding our hiring base so we hire and retain the best teachers, and diversify our teaching staff so our teachers reflect the communities they serve.

How do you think the district should address student learning loss from the pandemic? ​​

During the 2020-2021 COVID-19 pandemic, CCSD pushed for food service, staying in school as long as possible until it was no longer safe to do so, and getting our students back in school as quickly as possible, once it was safe to do so. While this hard work certainly limited the extent of learning gaps, there is more work that must be done.

Candidates for this seat should operate with integrity and publicly tell voters where they stand on the issues of masks and not play political games. When elected, I will always be upfront with constituents, even when we disagree, and not play political games. We must keep our kids safe and healthy, so they can learn. Our decisions must be grounded in data, research and science. Masks protect children under 12 who cannot be vaccinated at this time. Exemptions can be utilized, when appropriate -- but this is not the time to move back and we must protect the rights of others to teach and learn in a safe environment.

We must ensure that students lacking fundamental skills, necessary to advance, are quickly supported. I recently attended a CCSD BOE study session, and learned about how the district is doing just that. Over the summer, the Leadership Team created an aligned assessment program, “Fast Bridge.” The system provides interim and benchmark assessments on all students, on an ongoing basis. CCSD does not have to wait until the Colorado state high-stakes testing to identify and cover the learning gaps. The reports generated within Fast Bridge identify students who needs support, based on national, district and school priorities. Fast Bridge also summarizes a student’s performance across different assessments and provides the specific intervention a struggling student needs.

Fast Bridge is one more example of hope CCSD continues to be cutting edge in its approach to education and the well being of the whole child.

What do you think should be done to close the achievement gap for students of color?

I am proud to have the endorsement of elected and community leaders on this issue like Senator Janet Buckner, Rep. Iman Jodeh, Brian McKinney, Kalisha Carter and UnSuk Zucker. CCSD has a 15% achievement gap between white students and our brown and black students. Closing the gap requires a multifaceted approach (in no particular order, as all elements of this plan are vitally important to closing the gap):

Expand initiatives and efforts to hire and retain teachers of color. It is well documented that if students have even one teacher of color or a teacher who looks like them they are 39% more likely to graduate from high school.

Address the reading proficiency problem. In Cherry Creek, the reading proficiency rate by third grade is 49%, but boys, Black and Hispanic students, and students from low-income families all scored lower than the district wide average. Failure to teach our children to read is one of the root causes of the school to prison pipeline. As a board member, I will work to ensure the changes to the Reads Act, which require structured based reading curriculum with proven success rates, is properly implemented,

Implement promotional programs which expose student groups who are the subject of the achievement gap to challenging curriculum courses which inspire these students and provide them the opportunity to strive for specific educational metrics.

Begin educating student groups on the types of advanced courses (AP, IB Program, AVID) at an early age (5th-8th grade) so these students know about all of the opportunities available, if rigorous academics is their pathway of purpose.

Implementation of student-centered funding, as planned in CCSD. Student-centered funding allocates resources based on student needs, not schools or staff. The student centered funding model creates opportunities for all students to thrive. And the model is a powerful tool for expanding CCSD’s core values of equity and excellence.

What role do you think law enforcement should play in schools?

During my listening and learning tour, I spoke with SROs from Greenwood Village, the Arapahoe County Sheriff, and many parents, teachers and students about SROs in schools. The District Accountability Committee, which I am proud to now chair, began looking at this issue 3 years ago. An SRO taskforce consisting of a broad and diverse coalition of community members were tasked with studying the issue. They spent two months establishing a collective statement about their work. At recent board of education study sessions and DAC meetings, information was presented that illustrated the challenges of collecting that data across all the different jurisdictions in the Cherry Creek School District. There are clear recommendations from these stakeholders on the need for faculty and staff to do a better job knowing when to call the police and when to call for other support. As a board member, I will ensure our district follows the recommendations, and continue to engage the community on these complicated matters.

We want SROs who interact with out students. We want every student to feel safe. What that means for every family looks different.My responsibility as a board member when we consider SROs is to determine whether and how SROs are utilized aligns with our board policies, our dedication to excellence, and our promise to keep every child safe.

What role do you think the school board should play in day-to-day operations of the district, including issues such as what gets taught in the classroom?

The role of the CCSD BOE in day-to-today operations of the district is to hold District Leadership Accountable for carrying out the Board’s vision. The Board acts as a conduit between the community/parents and District Administration.

The first role of the BOE is to ensure curriculum selection aligns with Colorado law. Academic standards and requirements are established by the Colorado Department of Education. Colorado law requires school Policy and Curriculum to align with Colorado law. If the district does not do so, CCSD risks losing funding.

Once a curriculum has been selected by District Leadership, the educational professionals charged with selecting the curriculum, it is the board’s role to ensure the Leadership and teachers have the resources needed to implement the curriculum. A third role of the Board in regard to curriculum is to determine if the curriculum is reaching kids. If it is not, then the BOE starts asking hard questions about why our students are not meeting state and CCSD standards, and how to address those gaps.

What’s the role of the school board in regards to the current controversy over “critical race theory”?

The Colorado Department of Education sets history requirements. Colorado law requires teaching inclusive history. CCSD Policy aligns with Colorado law. CCSD does not teach a critical race theory curriculum, and it is the Board’s role to communicate this fact to the community . I support teaching accurate and honest history lessons -- all the good and all the bad from America’s past so our students have an education based on facts so they can compete in the global economy. We should not be rewriting or censoring our textbooks or history lessons if we want our children to be able to compete in the global economy for jobs of the 21st century.

What can the school board do to increase transparency in how it interacts with district staff and families?

There are several simple steps the school board can take to increase transparency, as parents seek more information about board decisions. These include such things as monthly emails announcing school board meetings and video shorts from District Leadership discussing new CCSD business. The BOE Meetings can take place jointly with District Level Committee meetings, such as PASS, DAC, SEAG, G&T, IPAC and Parent’s Council, so they can engage more with parents who are active in the district. And the CCSD BOE can address misinformation spread at BOE meetings publicly, perhaps at the next BOE meetings.

Historical data posted on the CCSD’s website shows that since 2014 through the August 2021 BOE meeting, the average number of parents and community members making comments at Board of Education meetings is 6.9 people per meeting. The school district serves 55,000 kids and 300,000 people. If we don’t show up, we cannot later say that the board is not acting with transparency.

How well do you think the current board handled the pandemic, and are there things you would have done differently?

During the 2020-2021 COVID-19 pandemic, CCSD pushed for food service, staying in school as long as possible until it was no longer safe to do so, making sure every student had a computer and internet access when school was moved online, and getting our students back in school as quickly as possible once it was safe to do so. We knew what to expect and why, as we received weekly updates from our superintendent. The strength of CCSD’s ability to make independent decisions backed by science and in the best interest of all of our students was shown during the 2020-2021 COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic is not over. I support CCSD’s continued decisions on how to keep our kids safe and healthy, as the pandemic persists.

Do you support the district implementing (or following state/local public health orders to implement) mask and/or vaccine mandates for students and staff?

As it stands now, scientific research tells us masks should be worn in school. Universal mask wearing reduces the risk of COVID-19 from spreading. Masks are a key way everyone can help contain the pandemic.

Children’s Hospital Colorado declared a “state of emergency” for pediatric mental health in Colorado earlier this year — what role should the district play in addressing this issue?

CCSD’s core values are focused on the well-being of the whole child. The pandemic has underscored the importance of investing in mental-health support. Even before the pandemic, CCSD implemented a forward-thinking model of how we provide mental health support for our students. CCSD follows a 3/2/1 approach to mental health professionals: 3 in each high school, two in each middle school and 1 in each elementary school. Each CCSD school also has a full-time registered nurse to assist with any physical or mental health issues. CCSD also passed a bond in 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, supported by 79% of voters, to build an on-site mental health treatment facility. As parents look to schools more and more to support the mental health needs of their children, CCSD’s role in addressing these issues has responded.

More about Kristin Allan

What was the last book you read?

“Becoming” by Michelle Obama

What has been your pandemic guilty pleasure?

Reading beach novels on my comfy recliner chair

What are you handing out to trick-or-treaters for Halloween this year?

Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups

What do you think needs to be invented more than anything?

A cure for cancer!

If you were going to staycation in Aurora, what would you do?

I would enjoy some time at Stanley Marketplace, try out different breweries across the city, spend time with my family at the Cherry Creek State Park, paddleboard at the Aurora Reservoir, and take the family to pay our respects at the Colorado Freedom Memorial. There are so many places to eat and things to do and explore in Aurora. Do I have a week?!

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