Clear divides exist between the two slates running in this year’s Douglas County School District board election when it comes to equity in education and managing COVID-19 in schools.
Candidates in the slate dubbed Kids First have described equity as a distraction from the district’s academic mission. Those in the CommUNITY Matters slate say equity is crucial to ensuring every student has the tools to achieve academically.
Kids First candidates say in-person learning should have always been an option during the pandemic, while CommUNITY Matters candidates vow to follow public health official guidance.
We interviewed all eight candidates for the school board about their goals. Here we look deeper into the views of candidates in these two slates.
> Q&As: Douglas County school board candidates
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In the election for the Douglas County School District board that ends Nov. 2, candidates in the CommUNITY Matters slate are incumbents Kevin Leung and Krista Holtzmann, plus Juli Watkins and Ruby Martinez, who are hoping to secure their first terms.
Martinez, who’s running in District D against Becky Meyers from the rival Kids First slate, said the board’s recent approval of a stipend and its plans to discuss transitioning to a new compensation model are positive steps. But adequate compensation is about stability and lowering turnover, she said. She has extensive background in management that would help her navigate that work, she said.
“I would like to see us examine the structures we are using to compensate everyone, not just the teachers,” Martinez said.
Watkins, who’s running in District B against Mike Peterson, said pursuing a mill levy override is a strong possibility as the district tries to boost compensation. All eight candidates have agreed that an attempt to raise the mill levy is likely.
Watkins believes the district’s leadership has made big strides in recent years to improve morale among employees and teacher retention. She wants to build on that more, she said.
Leung aims to retain his seat in District E by fending off Kids First challenger Christy Williams. He said he’s eager for the board to hear more from human resources this year about the department’s plan to address teacher pay.
“That’s one thing that we definitely, definitely need to address,” he said.
Holtzmann, the District G incumbent, echoed Leung in saying that addressing pay gaps among district staff, and the lag behind neighboring districts, takes time. Staff needed to compile extensive employee data that was not previously tracked, they said. But it’s work the current board focused on prior to COVID-19, said Holtzmann, who is challenged by Kaylee Winegar.
“We went back, and we corrected the pay freezes that happened when we had a board who had frequently been described as a ‘reform board,’” she said.
There’s still work to address disparities that she said a market-based system created, and there are more gaps she wants to target, Holtzmann said.
“We’ve heard really loud and clear that our employees want a system that is more predictable,” she said.
Watkins said the current board has “made huge headway” improving academic performance in the district, citing its status as having the highest graduation rate among neighboring districts.
She’s also impressed with the number of career and technical education programs.
“We have continued to address other avenues than only college-bound students with career and technical opportunities,” she said.
Martinez said one of her top two priorities is getting all students up to grade level. She would start by learning more about what evidence-based teaching the district relies on.
“Reading is a basic. You can’t be successful in school if you can’t read and comprehend and write,” she said.
Holtzmann said student success goes “far beyond academic achievement.” It includes their physical well-being, alongside their social and emotional learning. The district was able to bolster schools’ physical safety with bond dollars and hired dozens of mental health counselors to help students learn in a safe environment, she said.
“An intentional focus on improving the learning and working environments for everyone,” is one of her top priorities.
Leung said improving academic performance in the district means drilling down into data and keying in on students who are underperforming, including students with disabilities and English language learners. It’s a major reason he supports the district’s equity work. Every student has different needs, he said.
Addressing academics also requires understanding grading systems and state standards, he said, which have changed multiple times.
“I know how to get the district back to where it’s supposed to be,” he said.
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