Election 2021: Littleton school board candidates look to future in forum

Candidates speak on funding, equity and mental health

As Littleton Public Schools nears its third year of educating in a COVID world, candidates for its Board of Education grappled with a slew of issues from funding to mental health. 
During an Oct. 6 forum hosted at the school district's Education Services Center, candidates made their case for how they would tackle the district's current challenges and why they were the best choice for a seat at the table. Five candidates are running for three seats in the mail-in ballot election, which ends Nov. 2. 
Funding hung high over candidates, as community members in attendance pressed each about their knowledge of where LPS gets its money and how they would ensure it is retained. 
Colorado spends far less on public education than many other states, ranking at 39 among the 50 states for per-pupil spending. It's something many of the candidates said they'd like to see change. 
“Understanding different options for how we could potentially revamp the funding at the state level is something I'd be very interested in advocating for moving forward,” said candidate Jon Lisec, a software architect, who said he's spoken with state senators about the need for more money in education. 
Candidate Joan Anderssen, who teaches economics and finance at Arapahoe Community College, said LPS needs to look at multiple funding options in order to stay afloat. 
“If we want to keep this exceptional staff, we really need to look at more financing options,” she said, adding that securing bonds is crucial for shoring up funding where the state falls short. 
Anderssen also pointed to LPS' declining enrollment rates and said better financial stability would be key to retaining students. 
The issue of equality versus equity, and where resources should be focused for students, prompted most candidates to commit to equitable learning.
“There's a huge difference,” said Angela Christensen, the only incumbent who is seeking re-election. “Equality is giving everyone the same thing and equity is giving everyone, whether that's students or staff, what they need, when they need and how they need it in order to be successful.”
Christensen said she has twin children who received different but equitable educations through LPS based on their needs, and said the district needs to meet students where they are.
Candidate Andrew Graham, president and CEO of a medical consulting firm, said students come from a diversity of backgrounds and said all children must be given an equal shot. 
“We need to make a prosperous opportunity for them, regardless of what path that is,” he said. 
Dale Elliot, an electrical engineer and retired member of the Air Force, broke with the other four candidates who made vocal commitments to equity and said he is opposed to “that approach.”
“Equity means we have equal outcomes, and the outcomes are very hard to achieve,” he said. “In our country today we're trying to force that.” 
Candidates were also asked about mental health, especially in the era of COVID-19, which has exacerbated many pre-existing issues for students, faculty and staff. 
Graham said he has seen firsthand the mounting mental health crisis facing students today. He has dealt directly with teen suicide at LPS and his own son was locked in a closet at his school while STEM School Highlands Ranch faced an active shooter who claimed the life of one of its students. 
“We definitely need more front-line support,” he said, adding that all high school students should take therapeutic mindfulness classes to help process such tragedies. 
Anderssen said the U.S. “doesn't look at mental health the way we look at physical health” and said if the district is able to increase its funding it should prioritize mental health resources. 
Though candidates made efforts to avoid controversies that have engulfed many school districts across Colorado and the country, the debate around masks and critical race theory surfaced during the forum. 
While most candidates tiptoed around supporting the district's mask mandate, instead saying that schools were legally bound to follow the health order of Tri-County Health, Anderssen said some people “don't value keeping students safe” by being opposed to masks. 
“We know from natural experiments that having masks on students (makes us) 20% healthier,” she said. “We have to protect all of our students.” 
Critical race theory, a decades-old academic concept that seeks to explain American society through the lens of systemic racism, has been branded by right-wing politicians and media as divisive, with some claiming it is being pushed in K-12 education. 
Elliot, the retired Air Force member, labeled the theory a “cancer” and has staked his campaign on ensuring it is never included in LPS' curriculum. LPS does not currently teach critical race theory and board members have little say over school curriculum, which is usually approved at the state level. 
Lisec, the software architect, said it is important to teach critical thinking and championed a diverse range of thought and viewpoints. 
Graham agreed. 
“Because the decision we're asking our kids to make isn't what their grandfather did,” he said. “It's whatever they're going to be faced with, we want them to have wide eyes and open perspectives.”


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