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Jefferson County School Board Hopefuls Stake Out Positions

Candidates for the Jefferson County school board distinguished their stances on charter school funding, a statewide tax increase, transparent negotiations, and student data privacy before a sizable audience last Tuesday.

At a September 17 Wheat Ridge forum sponsored by the Colorado League of Charter Schools, six hopefuls made their case for three of five board positions in the state’s largest school district. The slate of first-time candidates responded to a wide range of questions raised by event organizers, charter supporters, and other attendees. Three sets of contenders are vying for open seats from different areas, though all are up for election by voters across Jefferson County.

While all six expressed general support for parents to exercise educational options within the public system, views diverged on whether the school district should more equitably share extra local property tax dollars with the district’s 16 public charter schools. Charters are tuition-free, self-governing schools with freedom to choose their educational program and personnel while held accountable for student achievement results.

Tonya Aultman-Bettridge, competing in District 1, said that Jeffco already distributes mill levy overrides with charters more fairly than some other school districts “that don’t share at all.” But her opponent Julie Williams expressed her desire that more of the funds be shared.

“Why should more of my money go to a traditional public school than to a charter school?” Williams asked. She also noted that comparably-sized Denver Public Schools has nearly three times as many charter options for students and parents.

District 3 candidate Ken Witt concurred with Williams’ assessment. “The fact is we’ve got a long way to go on funding equity for charter schools in Jefferson County,” he said.

Both Williams and District 2’s John Newkirk based their rejection of a statewide tax increase initiative on the unfair results it would yield for Jeffco. Local schools expect to get back just over half of the amount in new taxes paid by county residents. Aultman-Bettridge was the only candidate to support Amendment 66, while Jeff Lamontagne (running against Newkirk) said he was undecided.

Witt and Gordon “Spud” Van de Water raised their hands to indicate they oppose the tax increase. But Van de Water expressed more concern about the new finance bill tied to Amendment 66 being “very complicated” than the likely inequity it would produce. “Jeffco is a fairly affluent area, and it will lose,” he said. “I am actually okay with that.”

Van de Water also approved of continuing Jefferson County’s practice of holding negotiations with union leaders behind closed doors, noting that “it’s a good way to do business, because it’s very delicate when you’re talking about compensation and working conditions.”

Van de Water’s opponent in south Jeffco’s District 5 disagreed strongly. Witt backs open negotiations when it comes to the use of taxpayer dollars. “Education is a public concern, and it should be transparent,” Witt said.

At the same time, some candidates expressed concern that there might be too much transparency in the school district’s contract to pilot the student data storage system known as InBloom.

“Any time I hear about a central database that wants to collect information on my children, I get nervous,” Newkirk said. He asserted that any such system should be “Jeffco-centric, not national.”

Feedback from more than 100 Jeffco educators has led his rival Lamontagne to take a more sanguine view of InBloom. “The vast majority of teachers believe this tool would help them individualize instruction” and increase classroom efficiency, he said.

Lamontagne’s meetings with teachers also have led him to support the idea of tying at least part of their pay on performance measures.

Jefferson County Students First executive director Sheila Atwell expressed skepticism at the seriousness of claims made like this one. “We’ve heard this all before,” she said. “Union-supported candidates say they support real reforms, but they don’t follow through when elected.”

Lamontagne, Van de Water, and Aultman-Bettridge all have been formally backed by the Jefferson County Education Association, the local bargaining teachers union.

The September 17 event was hosted on the campus of Compass Montessori School and moderated by Debbie Brown of the Colorado Women’s Alliance.

Ben DeGrow

Ben DeGrow is co-editor of Watchdog Wire – Colorado. Contact him at Colorado@WatchdogWire.com to learn how to get involved with citizen journalism in the Boulder State. Follow him on Twitter: @bendegrow

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