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Harrison D-2 board candidates want to continue reform direction

October 31, 2013 Updated: November 1, 2013 at 2:51 am

During their two terms in office, Harrison School District 2 board members faced angry protesters, name-calling picketers and recall attempts from voters opposed to their reform efforts.

Now, four of the five board seats are open, and while it might be hard to imagine that anyone would want the job, several candidates are vying fora spot.

Five candidates are running for three four-year terms, and one appointed board member is unopposed for a two-year-term.

The only veteran board member remaining is Victor Torres, who has two years remaining in his term.

The big question for the D-2 community is whether new board members will retain the many reforms that their predecessors fought to institute.

Will they steer the district in the same direction, or will they have different agendas?

The district, in southeast Colorado Springs, has a general fund budget of about $68 million, and more than 70 percent of its students are impoverished; some schools have more than 90 percent of students considered to be "at risk."

Eight years ago, the board was faced with the district's academic probationary status handed down by Colorado Department of Education.

Mike Miles, the new superintendent at the time, and the board were determined to show that at-risk children could succeed academically. There would be no excuses, they said, even though many nationwide academic officials at the time wrote off such students.

The D-2 board fired and forced out teachers deemed ineffective and adopted a pay for performance system, the first of its kind in Colorado.

The board also put in place a policy to hold back all third graders who can't read and started an academy for repeat eighth graders to help them get a better foothold in high school. It changed the governing system so that board members could govern policy and leave day-to-day operations to the superintendent.

The efforts paid off.

The district was removed from academic probation, and last year met or exceeded the state average in 22 of 27 assessment measures. In 2005-2006 it met none, officials said.

Deborah Hendrix, the outgoing board president, believes the new board will have an easier time.

"There will be challenging issues," she said. "But they won't have to face what we faced. We had a very unhealthy district and it is healthy now. Of course, there are still people who don't like what we have done, or some teachers who don't like the systems in place, but that happens anywhere."

But they can't let their guard down, Hendrix said.

"We tell our teachers don't come here if you don't want to work hard and don't put kids first. And I'd tell board candidates the same thing," she said.

Candidates say they are up to the challenge. Here are their thoughts on maintaining the district's success and handling controversy.

Candidates running for four-year terms:

- Joyce Leigh: We have made great gains and I don't want that to change. I was part of the teaching staff that had to deal with pay for performance. I supported it before I retired. We needed the changes. But I would like to strengthen support of our teachers with mentoring and professional development.

- Doriena Longmire: I see the progress, the scores going up. You can't argue with that now. I think the third grade retention plan is good. There's always room for improvement and it will take some time to see what reforms need tweaking. I love the governance plan for the school board. It gives board members a way to collaborate more with administration so there is not so much rubber stamping on both sides. The reforms I'd like to see would be more programs that raise the graduation rate to 100 percent.

There is often controversy, but I'm ready to face it. When people are afraid of change you have to prove to them that it can work.

- Steve Seibert: The district isn't broken anymore. Any radical change would take us off course. I wouldn't radically change the board's governance style. It is working. The reforms are still new. There are probably a lot of policy and program bugs to work on. Mike Miles did excellent things and some not so excellent. We need our constituents' voices. But the litmus test is how things affect our kids.

- Aaron Simpson: I was one of those who jumped up at meetings and asked what the board was doing. In response they talked me into being on a special education advisory committee. The more I got involved, the more I saw what they were doing was right. So I think when there is controversy there should be empathy, communication and effort to get parents involved. We have a lot of single mothers in our district who work three jobs and want the best for their children. We also have many grandparents raising grandkids, we have to find a way to reach them

- Ryan Thompson: When all the controversy took place, I just listened. I understand it. Parents get frustrated if they feel the administration isn't listening to them. But other times, there were no parents at the meetings. That's when I get concerned if they are not there at all. Pay for Performance needs a couple more years to see how well it works. The problems I've seen is that some teachers come into jobs very excited but become complacent for many reasons. So merit pay and professional development helps. I'm for the policy of retaining third graders if teachers, administrators and parents agree. It gives kids more chances. We need more work on graduation rates. You can't write off the 30 percent of the students. And I'd like to see more safety and security with more support personnel around the schools.

Candidate running for two-year term:

- Eileen Lynch Gonzalez: (appointed to the board last spring)

Frankly, you can't argue with the results the reforms brought about. I'd like to see a new board maintain that momentum to ensure the district continues to improve. I'd look critically at the reforms to make sure they are doing what they're supposed to.

We need to make sure people feel heard without having to shout. We need more community involvement. Some teachers and families felt alienated. Also we need to establish a culture that would allow our transient population to feel our schools are their home.

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