A recent Jefferson County school board candidate forum showed the extent to which the hopefuls differ on major areas of education policy.
Whether it’s a tax hike aimed at increasing school funding, a controversial student data gathering system or the always hot-button topic of school vouchers, audience members left Holy Shepard Lutheran church in Lakewood on Oct. 10 with a clear view of where each candidate stands on the issues.
The six Board of Education candidates gave different opinions on the issue of education funding, and whether Jeffco taxpayers should support a statewide ballot question aimed at boosting it.
Candidates Tonya Aultman-Bettridge, Jeff Lamontagne and Gordon “Spud” Van de Water each support Amendment 66, which would create $950 million in new taxes annually to overhaul the state’s school finance formula.
Lamontagne believes that passage of Amendment 66 is necessary because the state “has cut and cut” education spending over the years, resulting in Colorado students getting $2,000 less in per-pupil funding than the national average.
“It puts our state and all of our kids at a great disadvantage,” he said.
But Julie Williams, John Newkirk and Ken Witt oppose the tax hike, primarily because Jeffco taxpayers will end up paying more into the new school finance system than the district will be getting back.
Newkirk believes that Jeffco will only getting back about 55 cents for every tax dollar, while other school districts take in more.
“Show me a bill that returns 100 percent of taxes back to Jeffco, and that’s something I would support,” he said.
It’s true that Jeffco will not get back a total return on investment, under Amendment 66. But backers like Van de Water see the district getting back much more money than what opponents say, perhaps close to 90 percent, when it’s all said and done.
And Van de Water told the audience that it’s important to understand that Amendment 66 is a “statewide school finance plan” and that the measure is meant to help poor rural and inner-city schools get more funding.
“Jeffco is providing that boost and that’s OK with me,” said Van de Water.
The candidates also gave varying opinions on the district’s intention to pilot a controversial classroom dashboard that will collect student information into a single database.
Supporters like Aultman-Bettridge say the system will enable students to get more personalized instruction. She also said that teachers having to bounce from one data system to another “takes away from teaching time.”
“I’m very excited about the opportunity to bring the data together in one place to better personalize education,” she said. “Of course we must secure the data and we must protect privacy.”
But issues surrounding student privacy and security are at the top of the list of concerns of candidates who have yet to embrace the dashboard. The dashboard’s data will be backed by the Georgia-based nonprofit inBloom, a company that has received national criticism for its ability to collect students’ personal and academic information.
The district insists it will only store data that’s already being collected in current databases. But candidates like Williams aren’t completely sold on that. She also wonders how the district will afford the inBloom technology once the start-up funding -- which is primarily being donated by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation -- goes away, after the pilot period ends.
“What happens in a year or two when Bill and Melinda Gates aren’t paying anymore and we’re stuck with the bill?” she said.
Candidates were also asked about the role that sexual education should play in the classroom. They all said that basic facts about sexuality and reproduction should be taught, but that the heavier issues should be handled at students’ homes.
“It’s important that we educate children about the health issues around sex,” Witt said. “But it’s equally important that we keep morals and sexual norms out of the discussion.”
The subject of vouchers also came up, with Aultman-Bettridge, Lamontagne and Van de Water each taking pledges to oppose vouchers, saying that public taxpayer dollars should stay with public schools.
Williams, Newkirk and Witt did not offer pledges to oppose vouchers, though they said they didn’t see it as being an issue they’d have to deal with on the board.
Jefferson County voters will decide on all three open seat school board races on Nov. 5.