Garfield 16 School Board candidate Q&As |

Garfield 16 School Board candidate Q&As

Editor’s note: The original version of this story misspelled Christina Abbey’s name and left off her photo.

Six candidates are vying for three seats on the Garfield 16 school board.

Seats up for elections include Dr. Kevin Coleman, Vincent Tomasulo and Kim Whelan.

Whelan looks to retain her seat, while Vincent Tomasulo, Staci McGruder, Donald Christopher Jackson, Keith Gronewoller and Christina Abbey are all vying for first terms.

All seats on the Garfield 16 are elected to four-year terms.

Ballots were mailed out Oct. 11. Nov. 2 is Election Day.

1. COVID-19 has created unprecedented challenges for administrators, teachers and students. What is the best way of creating a conducive working and learning environment without compromising health and safety?

Chris Abbey.

Abbey: COVID-19 has created challenges that have stressed districts, staff, students and families due to the unknown circumstances and constantly evolving conditions. Schools have had to adapt quickly. Communication needs to be in the forefront with the ever-changing environment that is affecting and possibly disrupting the educational process. There are a lot of unknowns, and things happen very quickly when outbreaks, quarantines and county and state mandates occur. It is imperative that the community have a sense of trust in the district leadership to communicate when the state and county creates orders that public schools must follow. When that trust is absent, it makes it difficult for the schools to operate in what is perceived to be the best interest of the students and staff. School districts need to listen to the community and understand that families are concerned for their children’s mental well-being, learning loss management and overall wellness. Differences of opinions cannot be discounted, and effective feedback needs to occur in order to ultimately do what is best for children.

Garfield 16 School Board candidate Christopher Jackson.

Jackson: One thing that is certain is that COVID-19 challenges us to continue to evolve rapidly. A plan that addresses a quality work and learning environment while addressing health and safety should include feedback from the community, teachers, staff and the students we are educating. I also believe any plan must consider safety guidelines set forth by the state and federal governments. My background in the medical field requires that I stay up to date on the ever-evolving changes in recommended actions. In my opinion, a committee with the representation from the community, teachers, staff, students and authorities from our health department could address policy in a way that meets everyone’s needs.

Garfield 16 School Board candidate Kimberly Sue Whelan.

Whelan: For the vast majority of students, I believe in-person learning is the most conducive to educational success. I also know that in these challenging times with a wide difference in opinions, no school is going to be able to please everyone. The key is allowing individual families and students to make the best decision for them given the circumstances they face. The job of school leadership is to remain informed by trustworthy and reliable medical resources and to make the best decision they can at the moment, recognizing that the information can change by the hour. Changing decisions or policies is not a sign or weakness or ignorance, rather it is a sign of a person/organization that is able to recognize that health situations are a moving target, and you must move your aim in order to hit the target. This is what scientists do every day.

Garfield 16 School Board candidate Staci McGruder.

McGruder: COVID-19 has created challenges that have put pressure on administrators, teachers, students and the community. The ability to be flexible while still communicating clearly to all stakeholders has proven to be a must. The legal requirements that public school districts are tied to creates a balancing act between the county, school and the community. In uncertain times, trust is the key factor. The community needs to be able to trust that the district leadership is adhering to public safety, while also keeping students, staff and community members safe. The breakdown of trust creates a failing system. The community is not to be unheard when they voice their concerns; it is the district leadership’s duty to hear concerns, reflect and make appropriate changes where available. It is important to remember the end goal is to do what is best for our kids. If a plan does not support the students, their well-being and their academic success, then it needs to be revised.

Garfield 16 School Board candidate Keith Gronewoller.

Gronewoller: School districts have been navigating through uncharted territory with respect to COVID-19. First, I would express my deep respect and appreciation for those working to keep the schools open. My wife served as a health clerk in the district for the past two years, and I was able to observe the Herculean effort required to reconcile policy with constantly changing regulations or responding to unexpected COVID-19 exposures. Moving forward, we need to use the experience we have gained to create a big-picture approach that considers multiple relevant issues. Mask and quarantine policies have been common to combat the issue, but they are not without drawbacks. We need to take measured precautions, but I am against creating policies or mandates because they are easy or expedient. Depression and emotional health have been undervalued; they are huge threats to our children and need to be weighed accordingly.

Tomasulo (photo not provided by deadline): The best way of creating a conducive work and learning environment is to tap into all the resources available. That starts with a capable and dedicated staff that is on top of the ever-changing guidelines provided by the health officials and various government entities providing data and other resources. Also, the implementation, communication and execution of internal policies that fit our district’s unique needs. Our team must remain vigilant and flexible. It has learned to change directions quickly. Our district did a commendable job during the 2010-21 school year, as we were one of the very few districts to remain open to in-person learning the entire year.

2. Staffing shortages are always a concern for many Colorado school districts in communities with a high cost of living. What can districts do to attract and retain quality employees?

Abbey: A district’s climate and culture can be the first step in overcoming many of the issues that face staffing shortages. District 16 had a staff turnover rate of approximately 30% last year, and that is a problem. Longtime community members that worked in the district decided to leave. We need to ask why that is happening and make adjustments. If a district wants to ultimately do what is best for kids, they need to make sure they have a trusted, qualified staff that is committed to investing in their community. One of the leading indicators of student success is the retention of qualified and dedicated teachers. Teachers are no longer listing their salary range as one of the most important reasons for continuing in a specific position, but are also looking at criteria such as job satisfaction, a positive culture and climate as well as feeling valued by district administration. Productivity is proven to increase when employees are happy, valued and invested in the community where they work and reside. District 16 is actively seeking solutions to assist with the high cost of living through possible future housing development and increasing the cost of living within salaries, but it definitely needs to work on the climate and culture it offers.

Jackson: Staffing shortages in school districts are a problem across our nation. It is, in fact, one of the issues I would put in question #5. As the housing market and cost of living continue to soar, we need to stay competitive in wages and salaries for our school staff and teachers. I would also write that along with competitive compensation, we need to ensure a working environment that entices people to want to come to our district and stay. In the school board meeting on Sept. 21, it was made clear to me that the school district is already working towards competitive compensation and positive working environments. If elected onto the board, I will continue to work with the team on this issue.

Whelan: This is a simple solution. If we want quality educators that remain committed to our communities, schools and students, we must pay them a competitive living wage. Secondly, our community, administration and parents must support these professionals who are dedicated to educating their youth. They must support them emotionally, physically and verbally. Through your words, face to face, in the home and in the community, they must be shown respect, support and honor. This is the only thing that will retain quality educators in an extremely difficult position.

McGruder: Staffing shortages are a concern for most educational institutions. However, it seems to be even more of a concern for Garfield 16. The number of staff leaving in recent years seems to have increased. In addition to longtime, tenured staff leaving. Research shows that employee stability and retention has a direct correlation to job satisfaction, employee happiness and feeling supported/valued. Garfield 16 does offer a salary scale that is competitive with other local districts, and they are trying to create a plan for affordable housing. However, research shows that people will not stay in a job they are unhappy at, even with higher pay. Building a positive, supportive, collaborative climate and culture is absolutely necessary.

Gronewoller: This is, in my mind, the greatest issue facing school districts across the state. While Garfield 16 is competitive with other area schools regarding staff salaries, we need to get creative and see what can be done to further increase compensation. Funding is limited, and there are no easy answers, but I believe there are three areas that should be focused on. We need to take a hard look at finding ways to create new money or identify other areas where the budget may be reduced to help fund staff salaries. We also need to consider alternative benefits (e.g. child care, housing assistance), and third, we need to cultivate the culture within the district and community to promote appreciation and support of the staff. Community involvement and appreciate is critical to this effort. Teacher retention rates must increase, or the district will continue losing valuable resources to the development of employees who are not retained.

Tamasulo: The districts must work with the community, as a whole, to provide teachers and their families with a safe and vibrant community in which they can live, play and thrive. Many of their needs cannot be met by the district solely. What is within the district’s control are competitive salaries, growth opportunities, a safe environment (both physically and psychologically) and a sense of team and mutual respect.

3. What are your thoughts on creating more opportunities and more technological accessibility for students?

Abbey: Education is one of the only sectors where almost every citizen has completed a 12-year internship. People tend to have a preconceived opinion on the traditional education system based on their personal experiences. With the rapid changes occurring with technological access, education needs to embrace change in major areas in order to keep future citizens competitive upon leaving public education. It is imperative that schools continue to evolve and take advantage of technological advancements in educational programming and accessibility so that students are able to learn the necessary skills to become productive citizens. Widespread structural changes to the educational model may be needed in order to adapt in a rapidly evolving and fast-paced environment. Curriculum and resources need to reflect those evolutions in society, and schools need to be prepared to step outside the box so that each child has opportunities to learn in a personalized capacity.

Jackson: Our school district has done a tremendous job over the past few years in ensuring more technological accessibility to our students. The district, with the help of some grant monies, upgraded all the fiber optic lines in their facilities to support faster internet service. This district has also invested in several computer programs and equipment to enhance the students’ and staff’s experiences. I would continue to support taking advantage of opportunities to increase the students’ exposure to technology. Tech is in our lives now and will continue to be a larger part of society; we need to ensure our students are ready for life after school.

Whelan: I am not an expert in the field of technology, but from my perspective, our schools have done an excellent job of building programs to enhance this accessibility for all students. In my experience with other districts, many much larger and more financially strong, we have given students what they need to be successful in any field of technology.

McGruder: “Opportunities” seems a bit ambiguous, but the answer is yes. Opportunities for students in all realms is ideal. The traditional school system has always done a decent job with creating opportunities for students in traditional tracks: universities, colleges and postsecondary education. However, as we prepare students for the ever-changing future, for jobs that haven’t even been created yet; opportunities in areas that support technical school, trades, alternative pathways, etc, would help support large student populations who don’t follow the traditional path. Along with opportunities comes the ability to access and be successful in those opportunities; technology allows students this success.

Gronewoller: This is a critical challenge that the district will face in the coming years. While reading, writing and arithmetic will always form the foundation of education, the world is advancing at break-neck speeds when it comes to technology. Preparing students to be agile and flexible to constantly changing technology is crucial to developing them to succeed in life after school. I am greatly in favor of any programs or opportunities to challenge students with new technologies, and I feel this should be a top priority of the district.

Tomasulo: This is something the district has been actively pursuing for quite some time. Every student in Garfield 16 has a district issued Chromebook. The district has also, recently, installed a fiber optic network connecting all their buildings for improved speed and connectivity. There are more steps to be taken to ensure every student in the district has internet access from home. It is critical our students and staff are up to speed, as much as possible, with the rapid changes in technology and means of access to available learning tools.

4. There are simply not enough Spanish-speaking instructors in a county that boasts at least a 30% Hispanic population. What are your thoughts on this issue, and what will you do in your power to ensure all students are properly being reached?

Abbey: As with technology, our educational systems need to evolve with the rapidly changing demographics we are seeing within our communities. Schools need to make sure they are fostering an environment that teaches to all students and not just the students that fit well in a traditional model. Schools and communities need to invest in their Spanish-speaking community members to encourage their participation in the community and hopefully encourage their bilingual citizens to remain in and reinvest in the schools and community. Schools need to ensure they are personalizing educational needs and providing resources for students that may normally struggle due to language barriers. Districts can partner with their community liaisons to provide mentorships and support to students that may be English-language learners. Districts need to invest in this area to ensure they are not only helping develop productive citizens but productive bilingual citizens as well.

Jackson: Being able to communicate with your student is, in my opinion, foundational to a successful education. In emergency services, when we encounter Spanish-speaking patients, we often rely on the children in the household to communicate with their families, because, oftentimes, the child is the only one who can speak both English and Spanish. I am currently learning to speak Spanish now, because I realize the importance of communicating to our Spanish-speaking community. I am in support of providing training and even hiring bilingual employees to address this barrier.

Whelan: Teachers do not need to be given one more responsibility. As a teacher, I invested my personal time and continuing education to improve my Spanish language. I desired to connect with my students’ culture and language and to show them I was interested in them personally by being able to communicate somewhat successfully in their native language. However, that being said, I do not think this is a necessity. It is not the job of the classroom teacher to speak Spanish to their students. It is our job to respect and accept their language/culture and show interest in them as students. It is also our job to improve their use of the English language, including spoken, written and reading. The job of a second-language acquisition teacher is the same. We are very unique in that in our area, we typically deal with only one additional language or culture. Schools across the world are exposed to multiple languages and cultures within their walls. Would we expect our teachers to be fluent in Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Russian, Finnish? Of course not. Our teachers need to be loving, caring and accepting of all students and content experts in the field that they are assigned.

McGruder: The Colorado Department of Education is currently in the process of creating a requirement for licensed educators to have an ELL certification added to their license renewal requirements. This will hopefully support this population of students, not only in Garfield county but statewide. In addition to the CDE requirement, it would be beneficial to have more access to translators to help with communication.

Gronewoller: This question is very highly tied to the previous question regarding staffing. We need to take a hard look at how we can recruit and retain talent to address all concerns, including language barriers. As with any profession, teachers and support staff learn and improve year over year, and it is important that our district is not simply a training ground for young teachers before they move on to other areas. Teachers of all disciplines need to be trained and retained so that their knowledge and professional growth can benefit our children every day in the classroom.

Tomasulo: More effort is needed in recruiting capable, bilingual teachers, administrators and paraprofessionals so that we provide the structure many of our students need to master the English language and navigate through the educational system as a whole. The language barrier inhibits their learning at all levels. In addition, resources for parental outreach are needed for these students so that they can get the support they need at home, too.

5. What are the biggest issues you think the district faces on a regular basis?

Abbey: Education has become a thankless and often politicized area that affects every sector of our society. Less and less people want to become teachers each year. Without good teachers, you will not have qualified physicians, business owners, leaders or any other important role in society. Potential education-minded students see that teachers are undervalued by society, overworked, subject to abusive leadership, students and mandates. Their favorite teachers are often stressed, tired and overburdened with administrative tasks that detract from their day-to-day interactions with helping students. This is not how we advertise for future educators. Districts need to stop piling on duties as assigned and concentrate on creating a culture that makes students and staff never want to leave. They need to foster an environment that places value on the people that deliver the necessary curriculum while establishing valuable professional relationships with students that result in higher graduation rates, better educated communities and reinvestments into our society as a whole.

Jackson: One of the biggest issues that this school district is facing is addressed in question # 2. As our housing market cost and cost of living rapidly increase, there is great concern with hiring staff and teachers at a salary where they can afford to live. Student success in their education is another big concern for any school system. Creating and running a system that gives the student everything they need to succeed will always be an issue that has to stay in the top priorities. Funding will continue to be a big issue for our school district. As our oil and gas economy continues to decline, so will the assessed valuations that make up a portion of the budget. Our school district will have to continue to find any available resources, as they have been doing with their grant work, etc., in order to stay progressive. Another pressing concern for this district is informing the community on the recent legislation passed that now requires school districts to raise their mill levies over a period of time or they lose money. I believe there will be some angry voters, and it will be a huge task to inform the voters of this requirement and why it is happening.

Whelan: 1. Teacher recruitment and retention.

2. Mental health of the student population.

3. Family stability and support at home.

McGruder: By far the biggest issue that Garfield 16 faces on a regular basis is staff turnover. Student success is tied to knowledgeable, qualified, staff who are established in the district. Creating a climate and a culture that supports staff and their professional development would be beneficial in staff retention.

Gronewoller: Three of the biggest issues have already been addressed, those being COVID-19, staffing and keeping up with the advancement of technology. One other topic that I would point out is a focus on greater community input, involvement and support. The school board directors hold an elected position and, as representatives of the voting base, should seek public input to properly represent those who elected them. Increased public involvement in board meetings, focus groups and surveys are all productive ways to accomplish this.

Tomasulo: One of the biggest issues the district faces on a regular basis is change. The COVID-19 epidemic is a perfect example. Plans were implemented before the 2020-21 school year, and all was turned upside down in the blink of an eye. This district has also, over the past couple of decades, dealt with cyclical changes in the oil and gas industries and the “boom and bust” cycles. As a result, our district has learned to be nimble and flexible. We’re also affected by funding pressures. The cost of everything is going up as funding gets more difficult to find and justify. A great deal of effort goes into managing our finances and seeking additional resources to provide the salaries our teachers need, the tools our students require and the level of education our community expects for their children.

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