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Voters ask Colorado Springs D-11 candidates about reform at forum

October 13, 2015 Updated: October 13, 2015 at 9:53 pm

So what exactly would three education-reform candidates change in Colorado Springs School District 11, if they were elected to the school board?

That seemed to be what many D-11 voters wanted to learn at a Tuesday evening candidate forum.

But some in the audience of about 125 parents, teachers, administrators and interested community members left with more questions than answers.

"I don't think a lot was said that set the candidates apart. I wanted to see how reforming the reform candidates were, but I didn't see that," said D-11 parent Reed Carlson. "I'm going to have to do more research and information gathering."

A slate of three reform-minded candidates has banded together in the sea of seven candidates vying for four seats in the region's largest school district. That has concerned some because of a bad experience 10 years ago with a reformist board and problems other Colorado school districts have had.

"My concern is what wasn't said or asked - what does the slate of reformers really mean by reform?" asked state Sen. Michael Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, who attended the forum.

Whether the district needs to be reformed was one of the many questions the candidates fielded. All seven candidates said reform means change.

Charter school executive Dan Ajamian said various school boards have "demonized" reform, but he thinks D-11 needs higher standards and accountability, a focus on local control and support for school choice.

"That's part of the elephant in the room," said retirement community owner Karla Heard-Price, adding that under-resourcing, minority graduation rates and academic achievement could be targeted for reform.

"Do you reform for the sake of reform? Education is not a petri dish; this is an opportunity to make sure we are the best we can be," she said.

Military veteran and landscaping contractor Jeff Kemp said he prefers the word "growth."

"Reform has been a problematic word," he said. "Do we need to take a hard look at our outcomes? Sure, that's what the leadership is challenged to do. Should we throw out the baby with the bath water? Of course not. That's stupid."

Other contenders are military veteran Theresa Null and Colorado Springs Police officer Martin Herrera, and incumbents Nora Brown and Elaine Naleski, who have been on the board for four years.

Herrera said the district needs to look at the "whole picture" and "identify what needs to be fine-tuned."

Brown, Naleski and Null said D-11 is constantly changing and will continue to do so. But Naleski, a former D-11 teacher and administrator added, "I was around many years ago when we had people who called themselves a reform slate, and what we got instead was chaos."

While some wondered whether there might be fireworks between the reform slate, the two incumbents and the other two in the race, the forum progressed "smoothly" and "politely," as Merrifield said.

"No real bombs; everyone was on their best behavior," he said.

Two members of the reform team sit on boards of local charter schools. A question about whether candidates who are on charter boards should resign their charter positions if elected to the D-11 board drew a "no" from all seven candidates. Although it was supposed to be a "yes" or "no" question, each added a similar caveat that it would depend on whether the situation presented a conflict of interest.

A question about whether the candidates support the long-standing master agreement between the teachers' union and the school district brought unequivocal support from Herrera, Null, Naleski and Brown. Reformists Kemp, Ajamian and Heard-Price had slightly different responses.

"What has come before is a great groundwork. As we move ahead . what are the teachers wanting, what is the community wanting so that it feels fair?" Heard-Price said.

Kemp said his primary focus is the relationship between parents, students and teachers and his "fidelity is to the teachers."

"What's fair? Are we still beholden to an agreement that we can't adapt and move forward? We need to maintain fidelity to our word."

Ajamian said, "Whatever we do, there needs to be transparency, common sense, reason and a focus on students."

Asked whether the district should privatize some services, Brown and Naleski said attempts have failed in the past.

"We've been there and done that, and I really don't want to go there again," Naleski said.

Heard-Price said she would like to see "working directly with something like Metro Transit to get a strong relationship going to see who's best in the community to help the district and the budget." She also likes the idea of giving more control of money and decision-making to the schools.

Brown and Naleski touted a new literacy curriculum instituted this year to provide earlier intervention for struggling readers and said they stand behind teachers.

Null said she brings new ideas and concern about student achievement, responsibility and accountability.

Herrera said he wants to help make D-11 a "model district" and ensure safety and security.

Ajamian said as a Palmer High School graduate, he wants to make D-11 better with improved outcomes, innovation and fighting Common Core standards.

Kemp said he wants to take lessons learned at the charter school his children attend and apply them district-wide, adding that he's "skilled at entertaining difficult conversations and not making them personal."

Parent and Palmer High graduate Gloria Neuder said she was encouraged by the forum.

"They each have unique and different strengths - business, education, youth, vocational," she said. "I wish I could vote for them all."

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