School board races 2021

Some El Paso County school board races have many candidates. Nine candidates are running for four openings on Colorado Springs School District 11’s seven-member board. (Debbie Kelley/The Gazette)

 Board of Education directors for Colorado's 178 public school districts set policies and budgets, hire and fire superintendents, help direct long-term visions and support the role of the superintendent.

Here are some of the candidates running for the office in El Paso County on the Nov. 2 ballot.

Widefield D-3

Population growth is a continuing topic in D-3, which has eight candidates vying for three open seats.

When, where and how new schools will be built to meet multiple new developments planned to the east is a pressing issue. 

Candidate Dolly Handel, a 33-year resident of Widefield and a former school secretary, has raised the most —$2,445 as of the Oct. 5 reporting cycle with the Secretary of State’s office.

She’s campaigning with a focus on “making sure budgets support students’ needs” and being “an advocate for students and all public-school employees.”

Incumbent Susan Waller-Graham, a Widefield High graduate who has served on the D-3 board for the past eight years has supported rebuilding trades training, introducing new science, technology engineering, art and math courses, and reintroducing college and career counselors to the district.

She wants to “ensure that our district keeps moving forward and provides the education our children need to be successful in their lives.”

Donna Walsh worked in D-3 for 28 years before retiring in 2019 and seeks to improve financial transparency, administrative accountability, student safety, quality and equitable education and retaining employees.

“The status quo is just not getting things done,” says Greg Fisher, who as a hiring manager isn’t seeing students being properly prepared and is concerned about academic achievement.

He cites a lack of transparency between the board and the administration and teachers as another problem, as well as “bringing the education back to local control, under the Colorado constitution.”

Maria Dale Peterson-Henderson, a resident for 32 years, has encouraged others to run for school board in the past, but now, others have convinced her the community needs her leadership.

She’s worried about the number of students living in D-3 who are attending schools in other districts, an indication, “that our district isn’t meeting their needs.” 

Peterson-Henderson also wants to address “top heavy” funding, mental wellness of students and employees, communication across the board, and retention and advancement of minority teachers.

Brenda Miller, a crisis and emergency management specialist and longtime resident, believes D-3 is in an academic performance crisis and wants to work on developing solutions to reverse declining student achievement.

“As a school district, we are not meeting our educational goals or the mission of providing academic success for students,” she said.

Dave Dock, longtime Widefield resident who raised his children in D-3, sees the district’s top goal as making a strong comeback after 19 months of the COVID toll on students and staff.

“Over the next year, we simply must regain our in-person learning process, and strengthen our methods, such that we see huge gains in our proficiency levels, especially in the areas of reading, math and science,” he said.

Dock wants to make sure students are being taught “how to think, not what to think,” and would like to revive a character education program.

He also supports “getting to the scientific truth regarding the risks and benefits of mask wearing, along with state quarantine requirements.”

“For our school-aged children, truly ‘the cure is worse than the disease,’” Dock said. “Unless we get to the bottom of the real science of all this, we can never get to the most beneficial treatments and outcomes.”

Sherri Boggess said she has withdrawn from the race.

Cheyenne Mountain D-12

D-12 ranks as the top school district in Colorado this year by Niche, a Pittsburgh-based education platform, under a formula that includes test scores, financials, offerings for students and parental feedback.

The small district has a new superintendent and with the transition in leadership, incumbent Nissa Steinhour says it’s important for the board to have continuity.

She’s running for another four-year term because she believes “the strength of our D-12 school board lies in our strong community connections and our ability to lead with integrity.”

Steinhour wants to focus on keeping kids and employees safe during the ongoing pandemic.

“There are laws we have to follow, within that we get choices, and this district has chosen to put our kids first and keep them safe and our teachers and staff safe,” Steinhour said.

Teacher recruitment and retention is another priority. A 6% pay raise three years ago for two consecutive years, raising starting pay for teachers to $40,000 and other incentives have helped, Steinhour said.

But the district lost several veteran teachers during the pandemic to retirement or moving on and doesn’t have “droves of people lining up behind them to fill those slots.”

While D-12 remains strong in academic performance, Mary Louise Fiddler, who has children in the district, says there’s always room for improvement.

She wants to see an effort to help children understand their responsibility to be good citizens through civics and American Constitution teaching throughout grades K-12.

Fiddler also would like to expand experiential learning, which has included sixth grade campouts and Revolutionary War productions, to other experiences.

“I have some concerns about curriculum that might be coming to the school board and want there to be candidates aligned with constituents, to ensure everybody’s at the table,” she said.

Dr. Rae Ann Weber, a family practice doctor, also has children in D-12 and is advocating for parents to have a viable voice in the decision-making.

“It’s really about parents’ choice,” she said. “Parents need to be involved in their children’s health decisions, education and the curriculum.

"In our district parents get frustrated because they converse something to the board and feel like they’re not being heard. These are people on both sides of the aisle.”

Weber also wants to improve transparency, help people understand the decisions that are made and focus on core academics.

Transactional and advice attorney Lynne Stadjuhar Platt, a second-generation Cheyenne Mountain High graduate with two children in the district, says she’s watched the D-12 school board “make changes that are, at best, unpopular with the school community.”

She mentions new school start times, remote learning, a different mascot, mandatory masking and difficulty in changing daily schedules at the high school as a few.

“The complete lack of transparency regarding the actions of the current board coupled with severely limited school community involvement have highlighted the need for change,” Platt said. “Board meetings have evolved into a presentation of carefully selected information that the board allows the public to hear, not a true and accurate examination of the issues on the agenda.”

If elected, Platt said she wants to “truly represent the school community not dictate to them,” have an open-door policy and be transparent.

“I want to be the voice of reasonable compromise,” she said. “In our over-politicized environment, there is a notable lack of reason and true listening to ideas that may differ from ours; nowhere is that more dangerous than when it comes to kids.”

Hanover D-28

Ed Sweazy has been on the D-28 board for six years and wants to retain his seat to help “keep the district afloat.”

Things are looking up, he said, a trajectory he wants to see continue.

“We’ve been working hard to get better classes and studies for the kids,” he said. “For a while, it seemed like that we’d be swallowed by districts around us.”

But this year, D-28 is one of the few districts in the Pikes Peak region that increased enrollment, Sweazy said, based on a recent meeting he attended with area superintendents and board members.

Four candidates are running for two open seats in D-28. Sweazy is the only incumbent. Challengers are James Bolish, Matt Grove and Thomas Lippert.

Securing more money to support the district and improving inclusive efforts for Spanish-speaking students are top issues Sweazy identifies.

“We’re a poor district, we’ve got a lot of area to cover, and I feel the state shortchanges districts like ours,” he said.

Fountain-Fort Carson D-8

Kenneth Coffee was appointed to the board in May and wants to keep his seat for another four years.

“I just want to support the schools and give back to the district,” he said.

Coffee hopes to work on maintaining the federal impact funding the district receives because some of its schools are on Fort Carson property.

“I hope to continue our ability to offer quality services and help the district grow and serve our community better,” he said.

Four of five seats are open in D-8. Incumbent Michelle Massaro also is running for two open four-year terms, along with Shirley Martinez.

Rose Terrell is running unopposed for a two-year term.

Harrison D-2

Five candidates are running for three open seats. None are incumbents, but several are well-known community leaders.

After more than 40 years of providing behind-the-scenes administrative support for six superintendents, one chief executive officer, and numerous Boards of Education in urban, suburban and inner-city school districts, Janice “J.J.” Frazier says she wants to share her experience and be a part of the decision and policy-making process to ensure academic achievement and success for all D-2 students.

Frazier's two children attended Harrison schools, and she cites as a top issue public perception and lack of corporate investment in D-2, where about 75% are students of color.

“Due to the high percentage of students of color in Harrison School District 2, we either get a bad rap or are overlooked,” Frazier said.

“Our school district has excellent programs and services, great leadership, outstanding schools and good test scores, however, because our school district encompasses the southeast section of Colorado Springs, we don’t receive the recognition we deserve because of public perception.”

She pledges to positively promote the district “with hopes that more local corporations will invest in our students and our school."

With a daughter who graduated from Harrison D-2, Michelle Wills-Hill says she’s a strong proponent of the public education system, and being an engaged parent helped her realize the benefits of establishing collaborative relationships with teachers and administrators.

“I have become very familiar with the challenges and decisions that the district is facing in the mission to ensure quality education and provide the necessary means to ensure college and career readiness for all students,” she said.

If elected, Wills-Hill said she will “add value, bring new ideas and strategies, ensure governance processes and procedures are followed, demonstrate the values of integrity, trust, civility and honesty, and contribute for the growth and betterment of the HSD2 community to the best of my ability.”

In adhering to her platform of “putting students first,” Wills-Hill said she wants to work on school funding through local community engagement and district reputation, championing the good in D-2.

Keesha Lewis says her three daughters have been well served in Harrison schools, so she knows what the district can deliver.

She wants to increase graduation rates, help students obtain more grants and scholarships for college, improve test scores by getting teachers the supplies they need, raise money for students to go on field trips, address bullying and "understand what are the backgrounds and homes our children are in" to better serve all students.

Joyce Salazar, a 1982 Harrison High graduate, her children and her grandchildren have attended D-2 schools. 

She believes her family experiences, extensive work in manufacturing and logistics planning, and volunteer positions focusing on child advocacy and enrichment, combine to help her to support students in reaching their greatest potential.

Kimieko Lei Otamura comes from a family of literacy and higher education and has experienced the positive effects of opportunity.

She seeks to work together to build a better school community through inclusion and new opportunities for students.

Ellicott D-22

Two incumbents, Matthew Amendt and Michael Ferguson, were facing write-in challenger Amanda Miller, but she said she has withdrawn from the race.

Coming Thursday in The Gazette: Profiles of the Big Three: Academy D-20, Colorado Springs D-11 and School District 49 candidates.

Also: Teller County's school board candidates

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

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