Candidate forum reveals differing views of Steamboat school board candidates

Candidates for the Steamboat Springs School District Board of Education, clockwise from top left: Chresta Brinkman, Ken Mauldin, Katy Lee and Chris Waters.
Shelby Reardon/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Editor’s note: This story is the first of three about Steamboat Pilot & Today’s Election Forum held Oct. 4. A story about Steamboat Springs City Council candidates in Districts 1 and 2 will be published Thursday and candidates in District 3 and at-large Friday.

Candidates for the Steamboat Springs School District Board of Education staked out clear disagreements Monday as two current school board members running for reelection and two challengers answered questions at the Steamboat Pilot & Today Election Forum.

At the heart of the disagreement among candidates is how the current board has dealt with COVID-19 for the past year and what it will do to boost student performance that has declined — particularly in math — since the start of the pandemic.

But candidates also disagreed about what role the district should play to address the local housing and child care crises, as well as how much freedom teachers should have in the classroom when teaching about topics like equity and social justice.

There are two board seats on the Nov. 2 ballot, and voters will choose their top two candidates of four that are running. Candidates are nonpartisan and are not paid for their service.

Chris Waters, a father of two children in the district, said decisions the board made about students returning to school last year is what made him pay closer attention to the board and pushed him to run for a seat.

“We’ve had wonderful experiences with our teachers, up until COVID,” Waters said in his closing statement. “When I paid attention, I realized the board’s composition and disposition looks alike, acts alike, thinks alike and votes alike. We need more diversity of thought and diversity of ideas on this school board.”

The other challenger, Ken Mauldin, said he believes the board has abdicated its responsibility to provide oversight to the district.

“They just kind of throw their hands up and say, ‘Oh, we don’t have any control over that,'” Mauldin said, in response to a question about the school board’s role in educating students. “I think that the best thing the school board can do is meet their statutory responsibilities of specific duties of a school board member.”

In her opening statement incumbent board member Chresta Brinkman, who was first elected in 2019 and is now pursuing a four-year term, listed navigating the pandemic and making necessary adjustments as one of her accomplishments since being elected.

“Moving from a pandemic to an endemic world is going to be one of the greatest issues that we face as a school district,” Brinkman said, in response to a question about the district’s top issue. “Not only do (students) need to recuperate, but they also need to be able to build upon and reinforce those skills. Kids are so resilient, and we need to give them the credit that they have, but we need to give them the tools to do so.”

Current school board Vice President Katy Lee, who is also seeking reelection, said she feels now is the time for the board to switch from reacting to the pandemic to one that takes a longer look at the direction the district is headed.

“I will do my part to move us from the firefighting mode that we have been in to executing a community backed, long-term plan that takes advantage of the competence we’ve gained to adapt quickly and gives us the best outcome for our growing community,” Lee said in her closing statement.

Mauldin and Waters both said the top issue facing the district was student performance, highlighting some state standardized testing scores from this spring that are lower than previous years. For math — where students generally struggled most — achievement in fourth, sixth and eighth grades all declined, with only 50%, 41% and 52% of students meeting grade-level expectations, respectively.

“I think that should be an emergency for our community,” Mauldin said, in response to a question about the district’s top issue. “We could do a lot to improve our academic performance. I think that we need a more open, collaborative system though.”

“We have federal stimulus monies that expire in one year, two years and three years that we need to spend to recoup the losses from the COVID pandemic,” Waters said. “What is the plan to do that? This board has not been transparent.”

While lower when compared to the district’s recent track record, the scores were better than the state as a whole that also declined in 2021, and Steamboat’s English Language Arts scores for third- and seventh-grade students actually increased in 2021 over prior years.

In May, before state scores were released but after the district review internal assessments, district officials said they were working to hire more interventionists to help students who are struggling, reinstitute after school programs that lapsed during COVID-19 and had 15 teachers signed up to teach summer school.

When state scores were presented in September, district officials said they were also adding an assessment at the middle school, are using software to better identify gaps and are rolling out new math curriculum in some grade levels.

“I think we have resources in place to help them deal with the COVID gaps that we have seen,” Lee said. “Our single biggest issue coming forward is the housing and child care crisis.”

Lee said these two issues are a large part of why the district has so many open positions currently, as candidates who are offered positions need to turn them down when they cannot find one, the other or both.

“It’s this circle that is going to cause us to really have a lot of high turnover, and that’s something that we haven’t had before and has really detrimental effects,” Lee added

Brinkman said she felt the district is a stakeholder when it comes to housing locally, and it needs to work with the community to come up with creative solutions, potentially even using district property to add workforce focused housing for teachers.

“I like to see creative problem solving like using district property to create housing for staff to be able to not only attract but retain staff,” Brinkman said. “Other districts do it that are comparable, and I think that is a very viable option.”

For Waters, he feels the board has a more indirect role in tackling these issues but felt that supplementing teacher pay with stipends to address the cost of living is a potential solution.

Mauldin said the board’s role in housing should be to advocate for higher teacher pay, so that they can live in one of the most expensive small towns in America.

“Pay exceptional teachers and exceptional compensation package, and I think that will resolve a certain amount of that,” Mauldin said.

In 2018, Steamboat voters widely approved a ballot measure specifically meant to increase teacher pay at the start of the 2020 school year, Steamboat ranked 17th of 178 districts in Colorado for teacher pay.

When asked what they think about the districts efforts to support student’s mental health needs, Brinkman said the district’s efforts to hire more counselors have been hampered by the local housing crisis, and the district needs to find creative ways to fill these positions.

“It is an absolute goal and focus and was prior to the pandemic, and now more than ever that we figure out how to provide adequate and incredible emotional, compassionate support for mental health for our students,” Brinkman said.

Lee said the district needs to hire more counselors, as well, but they also need to prioritize what they ask the counselors to do on a daily basis, hopefully having them spend less time on paperwork and more talking to students.

In response to the same question, Waters criticized the school board’s decision to spend surplus money on bonuses for staff this spring, saying that he would have saved that to address mental health concerns. He said he believes masks are leading to poorer mental health outcomes for students.

“If we’re concerned about mental health for our kids, get the mask off their face,” Waters said.

Mauldin agreed, saying the fastest way to improve mental health would be to remove the district’s mask mandate and let families make their own decisions. He also questioned whether the district should have any healthcare or mental health responsibilities.

Candidates differed in how much freedom teachers should have in the classroom when teaching about politics, civic responsibility, diversity, equity and inclusion and social justice.

“I think teachers have a very limited role in teaching those subjects. Those subjects do not belong in the classroom; they belong to parents,” Waters said. “As such, teachers should respect that parents are responsible for the moral and cultural upbringing of their kids.”

“I believe we do have a responsibility to think about what the whole child is learning,” Lee said. “I do also believe that we should be teaching critical thinking about where we are with equity and how our systems interact with equity.”

“I’m a lot more concerned that 50% of our eighth graders aren’t performing math at grade level,” Mauldin said. “I think that if we can get through those processes of teaching them how to think critically, and we leave it to them to assign their own values to the question or the subject at hand.”

“I feel like for our students to learn about how policy is shaped, how everything through law and application appears in our society is so important,” Brinkman said. “I do not support teaching our students what to think or how they are to feel, but to teach them how to be able to think critically.”

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