Education advocates, school board candidates discuss bond proposal, teacher salaries at forum
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — With the upcoming $79.5 million bond, associated mill levy and four open seats on the Steamboat Springs Board of Education, community members on Thursday debated the marketability of the ballot measures to voters and candidates discussed their priorities and what they see as the biggest challenges facing the district.
The forum, held at The Steamboat Grand, was sponsored by Steamboat Pilot & Today, Steamboat Springs Board of Realtors, Routt County Democrats, Routt County Republicans and the Economic Development Council.
In regards to ballot measure 4A, which seeks a 1.231 mill levy override to increase teacher and staff salaries, Jessica Reagon, president of the Steamboat Springs Education Association, argued that teachers are struggling to make ends meet and working multiple jobs. Cost of living in Steamboat continues to increase, and wage increases aren’t keeping up, she said, but are “falling further and further behind.”
Education advocate Robin Schepper said she supports teacher salary raises, but has concerns about the 6% raise that includes administrators.
Community member Steve Hofman said Steamboat doesn’t have a problem in terms of retaining high-quality teachers, and that the staff salary increases should be part of the normal collective bargaining and budgeting process.
Asked about the need for a new prekindergarten-8 school, especially when the projected growth is not as much at the K-8 level, Geoff Petis, with the Yes for Education pro-bond group, noted a short-term dip in enrollment, but said the longer-term population trend is one of continued growth, and that the intent of the new school is to plan for the future.
Schepper said more of the money allotted for the bond’s proposed priority projects should be focused on K-12 education, and not as much on building preschool additions into three schools. She emphasized the need to expand the high school in particular.
“The problem with the bond is that it is an all or nothing proposal,” said Hofman said. The new school alone will cost $150 million in payouts and over the life of the bond, he said, arguing the focus should be more incremental on addressing what the district knows needs to be done now, instead of gambling on a school it might need.
The bond plan is a result of a two-year community process that looked at all possible solutions to address the current overcrowding, Petis noted, and provides a fiscally responsible, long-term solution.
Schepper emphasized the importance of considering what voters will support, given the failed 2015 bond.
Hofman called it “unprecedented spending.” Petis responded that it costs money to build and to borrow money but pointed out that construction costs are only going to go up and now is a good time to borrow.
Petis said he voted against the 2015 bond but has seen much greater community involvement and planning behind this bond proposal. If the bond doesn’t pass, Petis said, it may result in teachers leaving, kids learning in more modulars and construction costs escalating.
Schepper said it wasn’t that she didn’t support building a new school at some point, but the district should first focus on “fixing what is broken.”
In order to best support both students and staff, the bonds are a “package deal,” Petis said. He pointed out that without a new school, the cost of priority projects would increase significantly to meet the current needs for square footage and additional programming.
The seven school board candidates had a chance to introduce themselves to the audience and highlight what assets they thought they could bring to the board. One two-year seat is vacant, along with three four-year seats. They talked about their priorities, the value of vocational and technical careers.
Chresta Brinkman focused on her experience as an educator, volunteer and parent in understanding the district’s most pressing needs. Opponent Andrew Heppelmann focused on the need for data-driven assessment and his methodology experience during his long military career, and the need for an overt and “deliberate decision-making process.”
The five candidates vying for the three four-year seats — Lara Craig, Kim Brack, Tony Rosso, Joey Andrew and Kelly Latterman — talked about what they would do if the bond doesn’t pass, how they would work to support English language-learners and what they saw as the three biggest challenges facing the district.
Rosso talked about fixing a “fractured” district and community and not continuing to “rubber stamp this administration.”
Craig talked about teacher retention, creating a strong vision for every school and closing the achievement gap with a focus on growth for all students.
Latterman echoed the “achievement gap should be a No. 1 priority,” emphasized the need to recruit and retain high-quality teachers and talked about the importance of the social and emotional health of students.
Brack emphasized a need for community buy-in and noted that teachers “should not be using closets for a teacher’s lounge,” referring to an earlier anecdote about space constraints at school campuses.
While Steamboat is ranked among the state’s top 10, Andrew urged a wider look nationally in terms of setting goals and learning best practices.
To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email kharden@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @kariharden.
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