7 men vying for seats on school board
The seven men running for three District 51 School Board seats only became official candidates this week. But already, some local groups are choosing sides.
Mike Lowenstein, a substitute teacher, 500 Plan tutor and former District 51 School Security and Safety Work Group member and former District 51 teacher and administrator Tom Parrish are seeking the District D board seat held by Board Vice President Leslie Kiesler, who is term limited.
Board President and Rocky Mountain PBS Producer Greg Mikolai will face Western Colorado Community College assistant professor John Sluder in the District E election.
Pat Kanda, Lonnie White and John Williams will vie for the District C seat, held by Harry Butler until he died in June.
Kanda, Williams and four other candidates vied for an appointment to Butler’s seat in July but the board was unable to reach a majority decision about who should be the new member. Board members Ann Tisue and Jeff Leany favored Kanda and candidate Art Gardner, while Kiesler suggested Williams.
State statute requires that a school board president break a tie if board members cannot get enough votes to make an appointment. Mikolai appointed Williams to the District C seat in August.
Mesa County verified each candidate had at least 50 valid signatures from constituents Thursday and Friday after they turned in their petitions, ahead of the official 4 p.m. Friday deadline. Before that deadline, Mesa County Republicans had already scheduled Kanda, Lowenstein and Sluder to speak at a luncheon Sept. 20. The trio also was invited to a Mesa County Republican Women event Sept. 8.
Mesa County Republican Women President Linda Gregory said Kanda, Lowenstein and Sluder alone were invited to the events because “this is the slate that the Republican Party have decided to back.” Gregory said the decision was made based on the positions of the candidates, not because of their political affiliations. Gregory said the party looked for candidates with knowledge of the school system, an awareness that the system needs some changes, and ideas for improving it.
“We do believe in conservative values and we found the people we thought follow our way of thinking. It is a non-partisan election and I don’t know how they’re registered,” she said.
Local parent group Save Our Students, which has been involved in school board meetings and issues for nearly a year, also is seeking to promote a slate of candidates. Group member Amy Agapito said politics should be kept out of a school board election, but the group is looking into candidates’ political backgrounds “because that’s what the other side is going to do as well.”
“We know Mesa County is a fairly conservative place and there are obviously quite a few Republicans in this community. I guess kind of what we were hoping to find is someone who is sort of moderate who would appeal to both sides of the aisle,” Agapito said.
Agapito said the group plans to be active in this fall’s school board campaign and rally around the candidates they believe support teachers and students, understand current issues in the district and public education, and are willing to work with other board members cooperatively.
White and Williams did not immediately respond to calls for comment for this article, but other candidates shunned the idea that politics motivated them to run for office.
Kanda said he wants to return to the board, which he served on from 1993 to 1997, because he has a passion for kids and wants to make them better citizens. He said anyone who comes on the board with a political agenda will likely learn that agenda is small in the overall picture of serving on the board.
He added board members need to collaborate because “you can’t force people to do things they aren’t comfortable with.”
“The politics of this (race) are a lot more than I anticipated. I didn’t get into this for politics. I understand both sides of the aisle,” Kanda said. “Our whole society is permeated by politics and it’s too bad. Public education is one of the arenas where politicians have made things worse.”
Parrish said he’s “picked up on” an air of partisanship in the school board race but he’s not interested in it. Instead, he has an agenda of promoting procedural efficiency, preparing students for post-high school life whether they’re going to college or not, and providing more educational choices.
Lowenstein said he hopes every candidate is more concerned about the good of the students than political leanings. He said he chose to run because he’s concerned about the school system and maintaining local control of curriculum.
“I’m what you might call a back-to-basics person. What we did for 200 years in the school system worked and we started experimenting with it and things have gone downhill ever since. Good teachers know how to teach and they don’t need a committee in Washington telling them how to teach,” Lowenstein said.
Curriculum is a focus for Sluder as well, who said he wants to see a balance of rigor for students and bringing real world relevance to the lessons and skills students learn in school.
“I don’t think this needs to be a partisan race,” Sluder said. “It needs to be about improving education for our students and improving our scores. This was a personal decision I’ve been thinking about for three years now.”
Mikolai said he wants four more years to work on energy efficiency projects and a “learning pathways” system that would send children through grades based on proficiency instead of age. He said he’s not surprised to have a challenger but he was surprised to hear some people have been urging support for candidates based on their party affiliation.
“I am aware that it’s becoming that kind of race and it does concern me because it’s supposed to be a non-partisan race: that’s the way it is in statute and that’s how it’s written on the ballot,” he said. “I think there is an agenda involved and it isn’t an agenda that’s about what’s best for students.”
Kiesler said she doesn’t know the political affiliation of any board members or candidates and she doesn’t want to know.
“I am so disheartened and so upset because it’s a non-partisan election, it’s an unpaid position, and it should only be about the kids and their education. Nothing else should matter,” she said.
Board members Jeff Leany and Ann Tisue did not immediately respond to calls for comment. At an April rally sponsored by a Tea Party group, Leany told the crowd “liberal” groups are well-represented at school board meetings while conservatives are largely absent from the meeting audience. He encouraged more people to attend the meetings and vote for conservative board candidates this fall.
“It’s up to us to get involved,” he said, referencing the three board seats on the Nov. 5 ballot.