Parental choice on masking, ‘critical race theory’ key issues in district board races

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Parental choice — a parent’s prerogative to make critical decisions about their children’s health and what they are taught in school — promises to be a front-and-center election issue in districts 11, 20 and 49, the Colorado Springs area’s three largest districts.

The issue has sparked heated debate and protests since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when school districts enacted mask mandates in an effort to keep classrooms open. The advent of the coronavirus vaccine helped fan the flames as many parents bristled at the possibility of vaccine mandates. The national battle over “critical race theory,” and whether it should be taught at the K-12 level, served to raise the temperature even higher.

A candidate’s parental-choice stance could make the difference between winning and losing in November’s hottest election races.

Academy School District 20

In the region’s largest school district, 10 individuals — including current board treasurer Thomas LaValley — are running for the three open seats on the board. Tiana Clark, Brian Coram, Nathan Johnson, Nicole Konz, Jackie Lesh, Lindsay Moore, Michael Riffle, Aaron Salt and Jason Silva round out the list of candidates. Of those, seven candidates list parental choice as a high priority.

A major point of concern at the Oct. 5 candidate forum was the mask mandate Superintendent Tom Gregory handed down in late September. The edict, which went into effect Sept. 27, sparked a rash of student walkouts and a protest outside the D-20 administrative building.

LaValley, the sole incumbent in the race, said the issue has “sucked all the oxygen out of the room.”

“I did not support mandatory masking, but I understand why (Gregory) did it. It has to do with the state Department of Health,” he said. “It’s a tough situation.”

Moore said the district’s mask mandate and quarantine protocols are among several “roadblocks” that are hindering students.

“We want every one of our kids to learn at their maximum potential,” she said. “And right now, they cannot do that.”

Critical race theory, which is not currently being taught in D-20, was a key discussion topic at the forum. Each of the 10 candidates was asked if they believed the theory should be taught in schools, and they all answered “no.”

But a handful of candidates contended that the district’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiative is simply CRT under another name.

“DEI is CRT, which, at its core level, is Marxism,” said Jason Silva, who remarked that the initiative was a primary reason he decided to run for school board. “I am 100% against that.”

Colorado Springs School District 11

In District 11, a special general election will be held between incumbent board president Shawn Gullixson and Rev. Al Loma, senior pastor at Victory Outreach Church. Current board members Julie Ott and Chris Wallis will face a challenge from Rebecca Acevedo Kenderdine, Sandra Bankes, John Gustafson, Lauren Nelson and Jennifer Williamson.

Parental choice has been a major campaign issue in the 26,000-student district. Nelson lists it as one of her top priorities, especially when it comes to curriculum.

“Parents know what is best for their children and must have full access to curriculum and information regarding the education of their students,” Nelson states on her campaign website. “The school and teachers misunderstand that they work for the parents, not the unions or administration when it comes to curriculum.” 

Sandra Bankes, a career educator and former District 11 administrator, said academic achievement should be the primary focus of the school board.

“District 11 has fallen, not only in enrollment in the area, but also with our scholastic achievement,” Bankes said in a campaign video. “We want to make sure that children, when they leave our schools, have gained mastery in their skills — reading, writing and math.”

John Gustafson said he wants to hold district administrators accountable for what he believes is a misuse of educational resources.

“We have schools in our district with 50 children per classroom and brand new teachers receiving little to no professional support, all while supporting one of the highest paid superintendents in the state,” Gustafson says on his website.

District 49

Eight candidates will be running for the three open seats on District 49’s five-person board. Jamilynn D’Avola and Fadil Lee will challenge incumbent Dave Cruson for directorship of District 1. District 4 director Ivy Liu will try to foil a bid by Tammy Harold. Elmer Harris, Justin Jakovac and Lori Thompson are running for the District 5 directorship.

The board has a history of supporting parental choice on masking and curriculum. A resolution banning the teaching of critical race theory in D-49 schools was drafted in August, and the district recently courted controversy when it made the decision not to report positive COVID-19 cases despite Gov. Jared Polis’ contention that they were legally required to do so. Board incumbents Liu and Cruson are split on COVID protocols and critical race theory, but they fundamentally agree on an upcoming ballot issue.

The 20,000-student district is asking voters to approve an $8.6 million tax increase to fund a pay raise for teachers and other staff members, and the proposal was a major talking point during D-49’s candidate forum, held Oct. 6.

Six of the seven candidates expressed emphatic support for the measure.

“As a district, we say that we are the best choice to learn, work and lead,” Cruson said. “We need to be the best in paying our professionals salaries that equal their competence, their ability and the great gifts they offer to our children.”

“Nobody likes tax increases,” Liu said. “But I think for the sake of the teachers, and the quality of the teachers that we do have … I say yes.”

Jamilynn D’Avola, an elementary school teacher, was the only candidate to go on record against the tax increase.

“Effective teachers and paraprofessionals must receive competitive pay for the countless hours, blood, sweat and tears they pour into their calling every single day,” D’Avola said.

However, she added, “Our community is stressed already with economics. I don’t think we should vote for this.”

Local school boards emerge as hot races in November election in Pikes Peak region, U.S.