Roaring Fork School District Board of Education candidate Q&A
Two candidates vie for each of the Roaring Fork School District’s soon-to-be vacated seats for District A and District E.
Steven Fotion and Kathryn Kuhlenberg are running for the District E seat, currently held by Jennifer Scherer. Chase McWhorter and Kenny Teitler are competing for District A, currently held by Jen Rupert. Chris Becker will remain on the ballot for District E but is not actively campaigning and endorsed Kuhlenberg and Teitler. He was not asked to participate in this questionnaire.
Ballots will be mailed out before Oct. 16 for the Nov. 2 election.
As election day draws nearer, the Post Independent issued a questionnaire to each of the four candidates.
Why are you running for the Roaring Fork School District Board of Education?
Chase McWhorter, District A: We are starting a familiar bureaucratic cycle that needs to be stopped: 1. Problems with performance are blamed on factors “out there.” 2. Increasing revenue via taxes is the only solution. 3. Performance continues to lag. 4. Repeat. Housing costs, staffing issues, changing demographics, etc., are all blamed for why performance lags. We need a board that pushes back on this standard narrative and offers other solutions to these problems that all other school districts across the U.S. face.
Kenny Teitler, District A: During my 26 years working as a teacher in the Roaring Fork School District in Basalt and Carbondale, I often thought how amazing it would be to have a teacher’s perspective on the school board. Having retired from teaching two years ago, I am excited to be able to put to use the experiences and perspective that I gained from being in the classroom. Additionally, having two daughters who attended Carbondale public schools K-12, and who have recently graduated, will allow me to bring a parent’s perspective to this position. I understand how district level policies directly impact schools and teachers, and, as a result, student learning. I will work to help make sure that district decisions will support teacher effectiveness and student productivity.
Steven Fotion, District E: After coming to the conclusion that more parental participation is required, I decided to run for the school board. With the current state of education, a balanced input is critical from both parents and educators. If you are not happy with the direction things are heading, then action is required. The action I have chosen to take is actively participating on the school board if elected.
Kathryn Kuhlenberg, District E: First and foremost, I am passionate about our district and the education of our students. My three children are just starting their student careers in the RFSD, and, as a family, we have about 17 years ahead of us in our public schools. Our district depends on committed volunteer school board members to devote their time, energy and efforts toward our shared community goal of student success. And I have always wanted to offer more to our district. I am now at a point in my own life and career where I have the time and energy to serve the community in this way. Our board needs to be made up of a dynamic group of individuals who can move mountains in order to elevate education. If elected, I will do exactly that.
What are your qualifications, and how do you believe you will benefit the organization?
McWhorter, District A: I believe I have three key qualifications: 1) I’m not beholden to any current staff or agenda, so my loyalties would be evenly distributed to all stakeholders never losing sight of the ultimate objective of improving student performance. 2) I am open-minded yet objective, so I would be willing and able to listen to current board members and staff. 3) I have 12-plus years’ experience identifying operational inefficiencies and improving systems within organizations with an emphasis on finances.
Teitler, District A: During my years teaching, I was involved in many leadership positions that will help me be an effective school board member. I was a member of the school accountability committees at Basalt Elementary School, Crystal River Elementary School and at Carbondale Middle School. I also served on the district accountability committee. I was on numerous principal hiring committees and on a committee for hiring a previous superintendent. I was a teacher representative on curriculum and development committees in math, English language development and reading. I am a good listener, I value multiple perspectives, I create positive relationships with others, and I have a strong understanding of this district and its communities. My decision-making process will be based on what is best for all students.
Fotion, District E: As a general contractor, business owner and project manager, budgeting, scheduling and negotiating are critical skills that I use every day and are a definite prerequisite for this position, along with negotiating, listening and problem solving.
Kuhlenberg, District E: I have an extensive educational background and professional experience related to education, education policy, employment, finance and children. I have spent many years studying education and have been involved in various capacities. I have undergraduate degrees in education policy and child psychology, as well as a law degree with specialties in education policy and civil rights. Professional roles include: teacher, administrator, employment attorney, parent advocate, intern at the U.S. Department of Education, attorney representing students and teachers in a suit against a school district, and attorney advising school districts on aspects of employment. I currently own, operate and teach in a preschool that serves 50-plus families at any given time. My entire life and career have been focused on education. I am ready to use all of this in service to our district.
What do you see as the most important issue facing the school district?
McWhorter, District A: Student performance. Voters need to decide whether performance in RFSD is on the right track, and this goes back to leadership. Staffing issues, demographic changes and budgets are problems all school districts face, and often these become scapegoats for falling performance. Going back to question No. 1, we need to get out of this cycle, otherwise we will be hearing the same problems/solutions every four years. Leadership needs to be more accountable and resourceful in serving students. It all starts with leadership.
Teitler, District A: I believe the most important issue facing the school district is to ensure academic success for all students. Our district has a diversity of learning needs, and we need effective programming in place to meet all of those needs. The district needs to continue to expand offering advanced placement courses and concurrent enrollment classes through CMC. The district needs to offer effective programming to close the achievement gap for our second language learners while continuing to promote programs such as the Seal of Biliteracy and native language literacy that value bilingualism. I also would like to see the district continue to explore more vocational education opportunities for its students. On top of all that, teacher recruitment and retention are important for ensuring positive student growth.
Fotion, District E: Funding and staffing.
Kuhlenberg, District E: I could list any number of problems that we all see and feel: budget concerns, staffing, low wages, achievement, mental health concerns, COVID-19 learning loss. But, that wouldn’t be what I have repeatedly heard from parents and teachers as the most pressing concern. It is difficult to identify this problem, but it is representative of our society at large. There seems to be a deep division in our district and a breakdown of communication channels. This has impacted our ability to communicate and work together toward solving the more commonly identified problems. As a school board member, I will work to resolve this issue by rebuilding trust from the top down. I will reassess how the board is gathering input and disseminating information. I am committed to developing clear, consistent and frequent channels of communication so that we can mend the divide and move our district forward together.
In 2018-19, 55% of the student population in Roaring Fork schools identified as Hispanic. Per the 2020 census, the Latino population increased in Glenwood Springs, Rifle and Silt, though it declined in Carbondale and Basalt. How do you plan to educate yourself on and serve the Hispanic student body?
McWhorter, District A: As a starting point, I’d listen to parents, teachers and my fellow board members on what has been done to date and what they believe is needed moving forward. As a general perspective, it often appears these are the types of issues that are addressed in echo chambers. I want to listen to what has worked and what has not worked and make decisions accordingly.
Teitler, District A: I have had a lot of hands-on and educational experience that would benefit our district’s Hispanic student body. I have an undergraduate teaching certificate in linguistic and cultural diversity, and my master’s degree is in reading with an emphasis on second language learners. I have taught English as a Second Language classes throughout my career, as well as having taught in bilingual classes in both Basalt and Carbondale. I am fluent in Spanish and have led many Spanish-language parent meetings throughout my career. I know how important language and culture are to each other, and will work hard at making sure that the parents of our Hispanic student population feel comfortable participating in school activities and decision-making processes.
Fotion, District E: We need to find out why they are being treated as second-class citizens on the basis of educational opportunities and if they actually feel as if they are being treated this way. We need to work on communications and solutions that would allow them the same opportunities as the rest of the student body. … Their potential to contribute is far underrated.
Kuhlenberg, District E: Anyone seeking this position needs to either have or develop a thorough understanding of the needs of our Hispanic student population. I have some experience acting as a legal advocate for Hispanic students and teachers challenging changes to curriculum, but I have not had those experiences here in our valley. As a board member, I will seek input directly from students, parents, stakeholders and organizations already established and committed to supporting this portion of our community and student body. I will work tirelessly to remove barriers, close the achievement gap, and facilitate equitable outcomes for all students.
Are you in favor or against the mill levy override? Why?
McWhorter, District A: This is clearly a trap question since the mill levy is “for the teachers,” so to be against it would mean you are “against increasing teacher pay.” I’d support it this time, but here is where I would focus my attention as a board member after it is passed: How much is going to retention vs. how much is going to bringing in new teachers from outside the district? In general and in the future, I believe cost cuts should be exhausted before jumping to a mill levy override.
Teitler, District A: Yes, I very much support the mill levy override! Teachers are the lifeblood of our district, and they deserve to be compensated accordingly. According to the RFSD’s homepage, the Roaring Fork School District has the third highest cost of living among Colorado school districts, but district teachers have only the 37th highest average salary among Colorado school districts. The vast majority of this mill levy override is dedicated to raising teacher salaries. This mill levy override will help the district stay competitive in recruiting and retaining high quality teachers.
Fotion, District E: My knee jerk response is no. However, much more information is required. The mill levy should not be changed until all cost savings and budgetary analysis have been thoroughly surveyed.
Kuhlenberg, District E: I fully support the mill levy override and will work diligently to ensure that every dollar is spent effectively and efficiently. Our valley’s public education system is in the midst of a major crisis — our schools are critically underfunded. There simply aren’t enough dollars to support the level of education that we want and need to offer our students. Colorado currently ranks 47th in the nation on per pupil funding; we receive almost $3,000 less per student than the national average. At the same time, the cost of living in the Roaring Fork Valley is more than 30% higher than the national average. Our teachers need and deserve wage increases that correlate with the cost of living in this valley. Beyond that, we need support staff that will be there for our children — to make them lunch, to drive them home, to keep our schools clean. We can’t do these things without people, and we can’t attract and retain these people without money to pay their wages. Providing quality education is directly dependent on recruiting and retaining a high quality, professional and committed workforce.
What do you believe is the best way to solve the staffing crisis?
McWhorter, District A: This is a large/complex issue that all organizations are facing, so I don’t think there is a quick fix or a “best” way. I’m not just going to say something catchy like “increase teacher pay.” I can say the starting point would be getting multiple stakeholder perspectives on the root cause when it comes specifically to our school district. Is it as simple as housing costs and pay or is that just what teachers who go to other districts tell us? I’ve spoken with many teachers who have left the RFSD for other reasons other than pay/housing.
Teitler, District A: The first thing that is important in solving the staffing crisis is to raise teacher salaries. Too often teaching positions are offered to great candidates, yet these prospective teachers turn down the position when they realize the cost of living in our valley. Also, we need to continue to work on supplying teacher housing. In addition to district teacher housing, we need to continue to collaborate with outside organizations. A fine example of this is the work that went into creating the Basalt Vista Affordable Housing Community. We also need to look at ways of continuing to work with Colorado Mountain College and other universities also, to return our graduating high school students to the valley as certified teachers.
Fotion, District E: Affordable housing, income adjusted to allow prime teaching candidates to afford to live here in our valley.
Kuhlenberg, District E: Attracting and retaining high quality, professional educators is imperative for our students and our district. We are only as good as our teachers. The district needs to open lines of communication between the board, staff and administrators to determine how we can best support one another. I will work with all stakeholders to develop a comprehensive plan outlining how we can better support staff in their roles and improve morale and school culture. Additionally, the district needs to work hard to pass the mill levy override and use those funds to pay our teachers a wage that correlates with the cost of living in our mountain community. As a board member, I will look at this issue creatively and collaborate with community partners to create housing and other local benefits for teachers.
How do you think Roaring Fork School District should approach mask-wearing for students?
McWhorter, District A: First, mandates like masks should not be driven by financial incentives from state or federal government. Second, do we anticipate masks will be a four-year topic/problem that will be relevant the entire four-year term? Masks have become a partisan distraction from the core mission of educating. Leadership, budgets and curriculum should be in focus this election. From a decision-making process, I do think there should be a more transparent, democratic process rather than dictating to families and taking a one-size-fits-all approach as students range in age, health needs and ability to process information.
Teitler, District A: I believe that the Roaring Fork School District should follow CDC and Colorado Department of Health guidelines that determine when masks should and should not be worn in school.
Fotion, District E: Freedom of choice! This topic being very controversial needs intense, non bias research to come to a safe and effective conclusion. I do strongly support the parents’ rights to choose, since the risk assessment threshold is different for every single individual. I am vehemently opposed to mask wearing mandates.
Kuhlenberg, District E: It isn’t ideal that our kids and teachers are masked — it’s uncomfortable, it’s hard to manage, and it’s another reminder that we are battling a pandemic. As a parent and as a school board candidate, my top priority is keeping kids and teachers in classrooms. We know the benefits of that, and we know that we all need it for our mental health, our students’ learning and achievement and for so many other reasons. So if masking and vaccines are what we need to be in classrooms and they are what is recommended by our local, state and national public health agencies, then I defer to them. There are so many other pressing issues facing our district, and I believe those are the issues that deserve the majority of our time and attention.
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