Running to fill five open seats on the Albany County School District No. 1 school board, seven candidates discussed their vision for Laramie’s public education Thursday in what former state legislator Mike Massie, who moderated the forum, called an “absolutely superb” display from the candidates in a “high quality forum.”
Massie, who also served on the University of Wyoming Board of Trustees, said the school district is fortunate to have a slate of impressive candidates.
Looking to fill three open spots for school board’s Area A, which comprises Laramie’s city limits, are Beth Bear, Nate Martin, Jason Satkunam and incumbent Jason Tangeman.
School Board Chair Janice Marshall represents Area B — comprising all of Albany County excluding Laramie — and is running unopposed to retain her seat.
There’s one open at-large seat, which can be filled by any Albany County resident.
To fill that spot, Robert Mobley is running against incumbent Lawrence Perea.
Unlike voting for the city of Laramie wards, all voters can cast ballots for candidates in both Area A and Area B.
The Thursday forum was at the Albany County Public Library and was hosted by the Laramie League of Women Voters.
With the school district strained by budget cuts, the candidates were asked how the board should prioritize its budget.
Both Martin and Tangeman stressed the need to prioritize teacher pay.
“That’s where the resources should go first and foremost,” Martin said. “If we don’t pay our teachers, they are going to go elsewhere.”
Tangeman said that, while two more rounds of state funding cuts are on the horizon, the board should still pursue step-based pay raise for teachers, if possible.
He also the district should keep as many of its instructional facilitators as possible.
Satkunam said the district should prioritize maintenance on its facilitates. Replacements for Slade and Beitel elementary schools are needed, he said. Until the state approves a rebuild of those schools, the district needs to keep them maintained “before we face a fairly significant infrastructure crisis,” he said.
The other candidates stressed a balanced approach ensuring cuts don’t affect classroom performance.
“We have to protect student achievement, whatever that looks like,” Perea said.
Marshall expressed interest in prioritizing funding for the board’s recently agreed upon goal of having a 95 percent graduation rate.
“That may take additional personnel … more tutoring funds,” she said.
Bear said it’s important to sustain field trips, special programs and other “things that give (students) a well-rounded education.”
(Digest) Early childhood education
Most of the candidates expressed interest in having the district play a larger role in early childhood education — if funding were made available.
Tangeman said children now need preschool to be kindergarten-ready.
“It always comes down to money,” Mobley said.
While Mobley, Marshall and Bear weren’t willing to describe preschool as an absolute need, all noted the extensive positives formal education preceding kindergarten can have.
“It’s been my dream to have Head Start somehow fall under the purview of the district,” Perea said. “If it wasn’t for Head Start … I don’t think I’d be where I am now.”
Given the emphasis put on the importance of early childhood education in 2017 by the state’s recalibration consulting firm, Martin said board members have a responsibility to pressure legislators to fund relevant programs.
“Not just Cathy Connolly and Chris Rothfuss, because you’re preaching to the choir,” he said.
Marshall said early childhood education sometimes isn’t needed when young children have “support from their families that have opportunities to have educational experiences at home.”
(Digest) Charter school debate
Unlike the other candidates in the race, Martin doesn’t have children who are — or have been — in the district’s schools.
Martin, who operates the liberal advocacy group Better Wyoming, said he decided to run for school board after watching one “dispiriting legislative session after legislative session.”
After living in New Orleans, whose students attend charter schools, Martin said he’s particularly “hyper vigilant” about any encroachment on public schools.
While he thinks Laramie’s charter schools are an asset, it said it’s “almost quaint” for charter school to not be impeding the work of district-run schools.
“In other places, ‘school choice’ is a code word for taking money away from public schools and giving it to private and religious schools,” he said.
The other candidates expressed a whole-hearted pride in the diversity of learning options provided by the UW Lab School, Snowy Range Academy and the Laramie Montessori School.
“It makes us all better to have options for different people,” Bear said.
Massie asked whether ACSD No. 1 should discontinue football amid a growing body of research concerning chronic traumatic encephalopathy, commonly referred to as CTE. All candidates firmly said the idea was premature.
“It would take a huge cultural shift for our community to drop football,” Marshall said. “A lot of conversations would have to happen before we drop it.”
She and Bear expressed hope that greater recognition of concussions by coaching staff will help prevent the neurodegenerative disease.
“We’re much smarter than we used to be,” Bear said. “It’s a parent’s choice. Nobody’s being forced to play.”
Martin and Satkunam both expressed confidence that new helmet technology will help prevent CTE.
It’s important for the district to sustain activities like football that “in many cases … get students coming to school in the first place,” Martin said.
(Digest) Guns in schools
Expect for Mobley, all candidates said they were opposed to arming teachers.
“If you want to get real about this, you’d have the Legislature appropriate tens of millions of dollars and have full security at the front door,” Tangeman said.
Marshall said “training everybody to be vigilant” is a much more effective approach. Satkunam suggested more active shooter training and increased funding for officers in schools.
A teacher with a gun, Martin said, is only likely to “shoot a bunch of little kids” in an active-shooter situation.
As a former police officer, Perea said relying on police forces is a much more responsible approach, especially since response times in Laramie are “relatively short.”
Mobley expressed the most ambivalence and said he would want to see a specific policy — and know the training required — before he would be willing to consider the idea.