Vouchers the topic at school forum

Candidates for the District 51 school board listen as Mike Lowenstein, second from left, answers a questiion during a forum Thursday at the Grand Junction City Hall auditorium.  From right to left are John Sluder, Greg Mikolai, Tom Parrish, and Lowenstein. At far left is John Ballagh, who sat in for candidate Pat Kanda, who was unable to attend. Candidate John Williams was also unable to attend the forum.



Vouchers, teacher pay based on performance and other education reforms dominated discussion at Thursday’s District 51 School Board candidate forum hosted by Freedom! Colorado.

Candidates were asked four times about their views on vouchers or Douglas County, where that school board voted in 2011 to create a system that allowed students to use vouchers to attend private schools using public money. Due to a lawsuit, the system has not taken effect there.

District 51 candidates Mike Lowenstein in District D and John Sluder in District E did not confirm Thursday if they definitely plan to push for vouchers if elected. But if a voucher system were implemented here, they each said the system should allow parents to pick any private school they want.

“I think competition is what allows schools to be better,” Sluder said.

District D candidate Tom Parrish said he is not in favor of vouchers and questioned a comment from an audience member who said vouchers would improve the district’s bottom line by moving a student and the state money the district received for that student to pay for private school tuition.

“It’s like me saying give me all your money in your pocket and me saying it helped your bottom line to give it to me,” Parrish said.

School Board President and District E incumbent Greg Mikolai said he went to parochial school while growing up but believes it was his parent’s responsibility to pay the tuition. He said he spoke with the principal of Holy Family Catholic School, the largest of the 10 Mesa County private schools, all parochial, that reported enrollment data to the state last year, and found the school had room for only about 20 to 30 extra students.

Enrollment at local private schools ranged from nine to 389 last fall, with 1,064 total students attending private schools locally.

“With 20,000 students in District 51, how do we decide who gets to use the voucher system?” Mikolai said. “We are relegating only a few students to that instead of creating a better system for all 20,000 students?”

In response to a question about which reforms in Douglas County, including vouchers, candidates like, Sluder said that county has had good and bad reforms but he wants to look for good examples to emulate nationwide.

Lowenstein, who said earlier in the forum he wanted board members to “go to other districts and find out what’s right,” said he has heard Transitional Colorado Assessment Program scores went up in Douglas County. According to the Colorado Department of Education, Douglas County improved its reading proficiency from 80 percent in 2011 to 81 percent in 2013, while math and writing proficiency remained at 70 percent and 69 percent, respectively.

District 51 reading scores went from 68 to 69 percent in that time frame, while math proficiency went from 51 to 53 percent and writing proficiency went from 50 to 51 percent.

As for other reforms, Sluder said he is in favor of students moving through school at their own speed instead of through grades and said he wants teachers to be paid according to their evaluations. Lowenstein said he wants to scrap the district’s math curriculum, implemented four years ago.

Mikolai said the district is just starting to see positive results from the math change. He also refuted a comment by Sluder that Senate Bill 191, which mandated new educator evaluations that could kick a teacher to probationary status if evaluated as ineffective two years in a row, was passed because “the legislature is getting involved because there’s not equitable pay for equitable performance” by teachers.

“Senate Bill 191 has nothing in it about pay for performance. This is a misconception of 191. It addresses teacher effectiveness,” Mikolai said.

Parrish said he supports the district’s math curriculum and wants to explore more options in schools.

“We have to understand sometimes things change,” he said.

This was the final forum before ballots are mailed Tuesday. No candidates from District C participated in the forum.


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