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Garfield 16 Board of Education candidates talk issues and COVID in public forum

From left to right, Garfield County School District No. 16 candidates Chris Jackson, Vincent Tomasulo, Keith Gronewoller, Staci McGruder, Kim Whelan and Christina Abbey participate in a public forum at Grand Valley Fire Protection District Station 1 on Oct. 6.
Rich Allen / Post Independent

The six candidates for three positions on the Garfield County District 16 school board faced public inquiry on Tuesday night at the Grand Valley Fire Protection District Station 1 in Parachute.

Questions provided by the local Kiwanis Club — which put on the event — and the public prompted the candidates for responses on issues facing the district, their qualifications and operating a school district during a pandemic. Incumbents Vincent Tomasulo and Kim Whelan were joined by challengers Christina Abbey, Chris Jackson, Keith Gronewoller and Staci McGruder in front of a group of roughly 20 locals.

Moderator David Blair, Kiwanis Club president and Grand Valley Fire chief, asked six questions before turning it over to the public for three questions before the two-hour cap expired.



The candidates as a whole agreed that staffing and retention is one of the most prominent issues facing the district. All six made mention of retention and its impacts on the school district.

“We can’t have quality education, quality programs, quality curriculum, quality anything unless we have these staff, and we have to retain staff,” Whelan said.



Garfield County School District No. 16 candidates Kim Whelan, left, and Christina Abbey participate in a public forum at Grand Valley Fire Protection District Station 1 on Oct. 6.
Rich Allen / Post Independent

She noted that the resources that go into training new staff members is a strain not only on the students for not being able to build lasting relationships, but also on the veteran staff that assist with the training and mentoring. She said the routine of training new staff knowing they’ll be leaving soon was demoralizing. Whelan taught at Grand Valley High School for nine years but placed her involvement with the school at 12 years.

Gronewoller noted the importance of filling positions with quality people despite the difficulties of cost of living and housing. McGruder focused on the benefits of a sustained relationship with students throughout their educational career, and Abbey noted that students remember their educators fondly before they remember a course or a unit. Jackson highlighted the staff members that have persevered and stuck around.

Tomasulo said that, beyond affordability, the community’s culture and services have to “provide more of a 360 life” for its residents and make the area a desirable place to live outside of work. McGruder’s response showed some difference of opinion, saying the district’s pay scale is competitive and teachers are leaving because they’re unhappy.

Garfield County School District No. 16 candidates Keith Gronewoller, left, and Staci McGruder participate in a public forum at Grand Valley Fire Protection District Station 1 on Oct. 6.
Rich Allen / Post Independent

The candidates were also asked, “How do you see the COVID-19 pandemic affecting the school district’s ability to function?”

Several of the candidates focused on the mental health aspect, with Gronewoller taking the strongest stance.

“I can tell you as a parent, if it comes down to looking at COVID or depression, I’d rather my kid have COVID,” Gronewoller said.

McGruder also made note of the mental health component while emphasizing how helpful each student having a computer was when the pandemic hit. Whelan said it was humorous to think that there was much to be done about controlling the virus, adding that the school can only do the best it can. Abbey said she had a student tell her they liked the masks since no one could see their face, concerning her. Jackson found the positive in the discipline learned from having to learn independently and remotely, especially in preparation for higher education.

Tomasulo highlighted the district’s flexibility and commended it for being adaptive. He noted the district was one of 15% in the state to stay open the entire 2020-21 school year. Candidates were also asked about potential strategies for bridging the gap between the classroom and home, with many answers coming back to retaining quality staff that maintain a relationship with students and parents.

Ballots for the three Garfield County school district board races and ballot questions are to be mailed out by the county Clerk and Recorder’s Office on Friday. Voting in the election ends Nov. 2.

Candidates for the Garfield School District Re-2 Board of Education (Rifle, Silt and New Castle) are set to answer questions at a forum from 6-8 p.m. Thursday at the Silt Branch Library, sponsored by the West Garfield Education Association. The forum will also be accessible via Zoom [https://us02web.zoom.us/j/88216389908?pwd=eDJYeDd4Q1VSZC9vME5XY2NkaDY0UT09].


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