A few candidates running for Pikes Peak region school boards in November have gotten out of the gate early, including the first openly gay contender in Colorado Springs School District 11.
While he’s not focusing on his sexual identity, Joseph Shelton said he wanted to get a head start because “I’m young and openly gay, and there are some people who aren’t going to be big fans of that.”
About 15 years ago, the American Civil Liberties Union sued D-11 on behalf of students at Palmer High School, Shelton’s alma mater, after the school refused to recognize a Gay/Straight Alliance club. The federal suit was settled in 2005, with the club winning recognition.
Since then, D-11’s board won a local “inclusion” award in 2014 and in 2016, and Palmer High became the first high school in the region to provide a transgender or “gender-inclusive” bathroom for students.
Shelton, who’s 22 and works as a program assistant at Inside/Out Youth Services, which serves LGBTQIA youth, said he plans to speak about “not who I am but what I’m working for, and why I’m running for the school board — I’m going to work for students, that’s the reason I’m doing this.”
Another millennial, 20-year-old Conner Sargent, is one of three declared candidates running for four open seats on D-11’s board.
Sargent, a Pikes Peak Community College student who’s studying political science and works for El Paso County Parks and as a security guard in Denver, kicked off his candidacy Wednesday night.
“I want to help make D-11 great again,” he said.
When Sargent attended a D-11 elementary school, enrollment was growing. Now, it’s shrinking, and Sargent said he wants to work on reversing that. His ideas include making it easier for high school students who have part-time jobs to attend classes, expanding credit reimbursement programs and providing more online education programs.
Shelton’s interest in serving on the D-11 board began a decade ago when he was in sixth grade at Irving Middle School, one of several schools the district closed under a reorganization.
Shelton and other students arrived at a school board meeting with signs in hand, in opposition of the decision. But, he said they were told their signs were too large and could not be displayed, and they were too young to address the board and express their concerns.
“I was part of the many students who felt somewhat ignored by the Board of Education,” he said.
Shelton is determined to change that.
Board members are “put in place to work for the students,” he said. “We can’t make decisions by ourselves; we have to do it together.”
His platform includes decreasing bullying, increasing teachers, improving diversity training and “bringing more student voices back to the board.”
“We need to work alongside the students to make sure they are being fully heard, that they’re getting a proper education and that their voices actually matter,” he said.
The third D-11 candidate registered with the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office is Parth Melpakam, who chairs the district Accountability Committee.
Two incumbents, Theresa Null and Mary Coleman, have not yet said if they intend to seek reelection. The other two, Nora Brown and Elaine Naleski, are prevent from running again by term limits.
Others who’ve announced they are running for area school boards are real estate agent Rick Van Wieren in School District 49, and Edward Mouchette Montano III in Widefield School District 3.
The office of school board director is non-partisan because members must “represent the entire school district and all the students,” said Cheri Wrench, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, which works with the state’s 178 school districts.
Statewide, more candidates have been running for school boards in recent elections, Wrench said.
“Give the current education environment becoming more complex, there are always multiple views on how to address those issues and that leads to more candidates,” she said.
Wrench calls it “one of the most important volunteer services” in a community.
“Public schools are often the community’s largest employment organization,” she said, “and they have the mission of preparing our future workforce. It’s critical we take these roles very seriously.”
All local school boards have open seats in November, and anyone interested in becoming a candidate should contact the local district for an application packet. Candidates must be at least 18 years of age and a registered voter for 12 consecutive months. They also must live within the district boundaries and have no sexual offense convictions.
Candidates for districts with fewer than 1,000 students must collect at least 25 signatures from registered voters; for district with more than 1,000 students, 50 valid signatures are needed.
Completed packets, including the voters’ signatures, are due to districts by Aug. 30.
For more information, go to the Colorado Association of School Boards website, https://bit.ly/2LOR5AT.
Contact the writer: 719-476-1656