Re-1 board candidates sound off on Hemmen dismissal and mill levy |

Re-1 board candidates sound off on Hemmen dismissal and mill levy

Heather McGregor
Post Independent Editor
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado – A three-hour Issues and Answers forum Thursday featured Roaring Fork School Board and Colorado Mountain College trustee candidates. The forum also covered local and state education-related tax questions.

In a lively and friendly debate, the five candidates for three seats on the Roaring Fork School Board fielded questions from a media panel and the public about the district’s handling of the dismissal of Principal Sonya Hemmen, the mill levy override ballot question, the charter school being proposed for Glenwood Springs, student testing, cultural sensitivities, and allegations that there’s an atmosphere of fear in the district.

The forum featured District B candidate Matt Hamilton, District C candidates Terry Lott Richardson and Phil Weir, and District D candidates Daniel Biggs and Myles Rovig. Of the five, Rovig is the sole incumbent.

Hamilton called the handling of Hemmen’s dismissal “a communications disaster” that failed to help parents understand why the popular principal was abruptly suspended in March and later fired. Biggs called it “an extraordinary act to remove her at that moment.”

Lott Richardson said the controversy over Hemmen’s dismissal and the widespread feeling that parents weren’t being listened to is what prompted her to run for a school board seat.

Weir said he understood the school board couldn’t explain the reasons for the firing. “But there could have been better public relations to explain things in a better manner,” he said.

Rovig, one of the three board members to confirm Hemmen’s dismissal in a 3-0 vote (two of the five board members were absent from that meeting), said board members were put in a difficult position of not being “able to reveal what was going on” because of rules restricting public information on personnel matters.

“When you folks get on the board, you will be put in a similar situation at some time,” Rovig noted.

Biggs, who serves as the human resources director for Valley View Hospital, said, “I don’t know what happened, nor should I. But there is a way to take the high road, and it seemed like there was great effort to avoid doing so. There was an opportunity to do this differently.”

Of the five candidates, Hamilton, Lott Richardson and Weir strongly support the mill levy override on the Nov. 1 ballot. Hamilton and Weir are volunteering on the campaign working to win voter approval for the property tax measure, which is aimed at raising an extra $4.8 million per year for the district to offset cuts in state education funding.

Rovig and Biggs hold different positions, and were asked to explain their thinking. Biggs says he opposes the measure. Rovig says he sees the need for the override funding, but argued for the school district to hold off on putting the request before voters until 2012 or 2013.

Biggs said his opposition comes down to family economics.

“I feel strongly about my position for families to have the money they desperately need these days. I am concerned about more money being taken away from the students we are supposed to serve,” Biggs said.

“The educational experience foundationally is in the home,” he said, and families need to keep as much of their earnings as possible.

“I’m not saying I would never vote for a mill levy override, but right now is not the right time,” Biggs added.

Rovig said he tried to convince the board to postpone the question.

“I felt we needed to be respectful of the people who pay these taxes. I thought we should take our bumps now, and then go for a mill levy in 2012 or 2013, depending on conditions at that time,” Rovig said.

“It is a good way to solve the problem on a local level, but not this year,” he added.

Parents from the Roaring Fork and Garfield Re-2 school districts have begun a process to create a charter school in Glenwood Springs to serve students from both districts.

“I think charter schools are a great idea,” said Rovig. But he would prefer the school be formed as part of the school district, like the Carbondale Community School. “I wish they had come to a school board meeting and talked to us about it.”

Biggs agreed. “I’d love to see a charter school program run through the district, but parents need to have confidence,” he said, in the district’s willingness to collaborate.

Lott Richardson and Weir expressed the worry that a charter school would cut into the per-pupil funding that the Roaring Fork district receives from the state.

“At this point, with education funding so critical, it could have a damaging effect,” Weir said.

Hamilton said the proposal raises a larger question. “As a district, how are we missing the mark? How do we meet the needs of all those parents in the future?”

“Kids are being tested nonstop,” said Hamilton, whose wife is a Roaring Fork classroom teacher. “I understand the focus on data and improvement, but testing nonstop is not delivering what our teachers do best.” He called for setting clear goals for educating children and then stepping back to let teachers teach.

Lott Richardson described talking with her children about what they do at school each day, and feeling frustrated that so many days of school are devoted to testing.

“There’s pre-test work and post-test work, and I ask myself, are we learning anything? There’s too much minutia and information-gathering, I just wish we could go back to teaching. I’d like to see less data collection and more freedom to be imaginative.”

Weir disagreed. “I have two kids at Sopris Elementary, and I don’t think I could find a better school. I don’t see kids being tested too much.”

The candidates struggled to answer a question with confusing wording about the presence of Latino students and cultural sensitivities to certain subject areas. Most of the candidates discussed the importance of closing the achievement gap between Latino and Anglo students.

Lott Richardson addressed the question more directly, focusing on cultural differences related to teaching sex education.

“It’s not just Anglo and Latino differences,” she said. “My kids are Cambodian. But if everyone is in this school district, and sex education is in the curriculum, then it should be taught, in the home and the school. We shouldn’t divide who learns what.”

In the wake of the Hemmen dismissal, some critics allege that the district fosters an atmosphere of fear, that teachers are afraid to speak up for fear of losing their jobs, and parents don’t feel they are being listened to by district administrators.

Lott Richardson said she has heard about this as she campaigns. “I feel teachers are worried about speaking out, that they don’t feel their ideas are heard or considered.

“I am thinking, should you be worried about your job or your lesson plan?” Lott Richardson asked. “As a board member, I would be open to avenues for honest and open dialogue, and I’d like to see more opportunity for forums for faculty to feel free to speak about things.”

Weir said he, too, has heard that teachers are fearful of speaking up. He suggested two options: that teachers speak at school board meetings, or that they write anonymous letters that could be read by a teacher representative if the subject is sensitive.

Weir also noted that if elected, he plans to spend a lot of time visiting classrooms and listening to teachers directly.

Hamilton said fear of speaking out “is an issue we need to address.” He blamed committee meetings for absorbing too much of administrators’ time and dampening broader conversations between teachers and administrators.

Biggs disagreed with Weir’s suggestion of anonymous comments.

“We shouldn’t settle for anything less than an atmosphere of safety. People need to have that safe voice, and that has to start with us,” Biggs said, referring to the school board. “The bottom line is about listening. There’s a saying in human resources that you run to criticism, chase it down, be active about it, and be responsive.”

Rovig said fellow school board member Debbie Bruell has been raising the issue for the past four years, and it’s been ” dealt with in a number of ways. We have encouraged hearing from people, but that doesn’t always come to play.”

Rovig said the school district plans to conduct a communications audit next year to figure out how it can communicate better, both internally and externally.

Forum to be rebroadcast on Channel 10

The forum, held at Glenwood Springs City Hall, was organized and hosted by the Glenwood Springs Chamber Resort Association. Ron Milhorn, news director for KMTS radio, served as the moderator.

Community access Cable Channel 10 will rebroadcast the forum at 7 a.m., noon, 7 p.m. and midnight on Oct. 18, 19, 23 and 31.

The forum was sponsored by the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, Cable Channel 10 and local State Farm Insurance agents Jeff Leonard and Dee McCown.

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