School Board members respective districts. Courtesy image.

The Sopris Sun is pleased to present the following candidate interviews for the Roaring Fork School District (RFSD) Board of Education race. Our youth journalism program helped formulate the questions.

1. Why are you running?

2. What is your background or professional experience in relation to education? 

3. What are your connections specifically with RFSD?

4. Do you support the district’s 2021-22 Covid Health and Safety Plan? Why or why not?

5. What are the greatest challenges facing the district?

6. Do you have any pets?

7. How can the district cultivate respect and understanding within the school environment?

8. How can the district respond to mental health concerns among students?

9. Do you support the mill levy override? Why or why not?

District E

Steven G. Fotion

1. I am running because our children are the future. We need to invest wisely into their education in order to provide them the best possibility for success. The current state of the schools is very disappointing from all sides, be it direction, discipline or curriculum. Something needs to change! I believe there needs to be balance from parents, educators and administrators. I believe I can help provide that balance so I am offering my services to that cause.

2. I am a businessman and father to four. I am a product of public schools as well as a Keene State College Graduate in fitness management. I have had over 30 years in construction and management, problem solving, negotiating and budgeting are some of my greatest attributes. I bring a fair and reasonable level head to any situation! With the current state of the world, these talents are desperately required. Most importantly, I am always learning! Exercise the mind and body… Education is never ending!

3. Being a part of the Roaring Fork Valley for over 35 years, I am fully invested in its future. Having three kids graduate from Aspen High School and one getting ready to enter high school in Basalt keeps me invested. I am a gym owner in Carbondale and have been fortunate enough to mentor many of the Valley’s young students. Through the good and bad, that’s my deep connection to the school district: the students and parents.

4. Unfortunately, I cannot support the COVID protocols. The complete data does not provide sufficient evidence! If you cherry pick the data to suit your desired results, that is not using science effectively. To come to the optimum conclusion, much more research is required and knee jerk responses are usually reactive and ineffective.

5. The greatest challenges facing the district are staffing, number one, and the budget. These two issues are interrelated. Without good faculty and teachers, the mass exodus from public schools will continue and perhaps accelerate. This will in turn drop federal funding, which already falls short of the mark. Staffing and maintaining that staff in our valley is rather costly, so affordable housing needs to be the main objective here.

6. We have one exceptionally large (170 lbs.) dog. His name is Grizzly. He is a four-year-old Leonberger. He is a gentle giant with a personality more human than most humans. He is our big grizzly bear.

7. This is an extremely critical, important and delicate question. Respect is reciprocatory, not demanded! Respect is a result of action. It starts within ourselves. It is best taught by example. When our parents, mentors and idols show respect to one another, it leaves a pathway. Far too often today, we see people shouting, screaming and demanding respect to no avail. Presence, posture and demeanor can have ever-commanding respect through the use of these non-verbal cues. For instance, if you carry yourself with respect, you will more often be treated with respect in return. We need to lift each other up, teach confidence and infuse security which will boost self-esteem… resulting in self-respect.

8. The topic of mental health was the driving force for me deciding to run for the school board. Our valley suffers from far too many students who experience depression, hopelessness and thoughts of suicide. The environment, not the physical but the emotional environment, is a great contributor to this state of well being. Question #7 has a lot to do with this issue as well. But the district as a whole has a responsibility to provide opportunity and resources to help combat these symptoms. They need to find a way to instill hope, inspire self-esteem, teach coping skills for life obstacles, lead by example and let students know there is always a solution, and no situation is ever hopeless… sway the tide. They need to pay attention, take action, be compassionate and most of all… be present!

9. Currently, I do not support the mill levy. The reason is because I have not investigated all the options facing the district budget. I do believe in living within your means and this sometimes means making hard choices between wants and actual needs. Being frugal is a wise path when dependent on someone else (like the taxpayer) for your means. If elected, I will do my very best for the students first, and valley residents, by means of providing a fair, rational, reasonable and commonsensical approach to all the issues the school board will face.

Kathryn Kuhlenberg

1. First and foremost, I am passionate about our district and the education of our students. My three children are just starting their student careers with 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.

2. 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 more than 50 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.

3. My husband and I own our home in Basalt and we have three children — the oldest is six years old and in first grade at Basalt Elementary, the middle just turned five and will enter kindergarten next year, and the youngest just turned two and will enter kindergarten in 2025. Our kids have many years ahead in our public schools and I am excited to become more involved as they learn, grow, and become further connected and engaged with our district.

4. I fully support our district’s efforts to keep our kids in the classrooms, and I truly feel that this is the driving force behind these policies. Deferring to the recommendations of our local, state and national public health agencies seems appropriate and reasonable to me at this point in time. Obviously, this is an issue that is at the forefront right now, but 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.

5. I could list any number of problems that we all see and feel: budget concerns, staffing, low wages, achievement, mental health concerns, COVID 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.

6. Yes, I have a three-year-old cat named Cheese and a 10-year-old big yellow mutt named Penny. We adopted both at local shelters and they are both integral members of our family.

7. Respect and understanding are the result of trusting relationships that are developed and sustained over time. This cannot be done in an instant and everyone needs to understand that it will be a lengthy process. I feel that it would be appropriate to engage teachers, parents and students to determine exactly where the breakdown is and to then create a plan to address it. As we move forward, communication is paramount. Most problems can be addressed by sitting down with the parties involved and figuring out where there is common ground and working from that starting point. I would encourage open and frequent communication and develop a more comprehensive plan based on the issues identified by stakeholders.

8. As a community, I think we all agree that having a healthy student population is critical — this includes student mental health. The last year and half has taken a toll on us all, but especially on our students and teachers. As a district, it is important that we continue the work that we have already done on providing mental health support for our students and that we engage parents on this topic and fully explain the importance of recognizing problems and offering support as needed. I also think it is important to engage parents because mental health concerns are often the result of several factors and these occur across environments — in the home, at school, in extracurriculars, etc. We cannot look at this issue in a vacuum. Responding to the mental health concerns of students is an issue that I believe takes a village and we all need to recognize and understand the importance so that, as a team, schools and parents can provide students with skills that will help them for a lifetime.  

9. 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.

District A

Chase McWorter

1. Parents are being disenfranchised and outright ignored. If you go on the RFSD website, you can find an organizational chart which clearly outlines that “parents and students” are supposed to be at the top of this chart. I am running to simply put that organizational chart into practice. 

2. My background is not in education. To me, this is about having a board with diverse viewpoints. My professional background is in finance, so I have in-depth experience with how boards should function in an oversight capacity, which I think is the most critical aspect of a proper board.

3. I’m a parent with two young children about to enter the school system.

4. It is not that I support or don’t support the plan, but, back to Question #1, I simply think parents should be more engaged in the discussion and planning rather than being forced into plans.

5. Staffing and the cost of living are problems that all industries face right now. From my discussions with parents and teachers, the greatest challenge specific to our school district is the lack of parent-teacher engagement and autonomy for teachers. Further, teachers are being forced into too many other jobs outside of just teaching their subject.

6. Yes, a dog and four fish.

7. Schools should focus on educating, not managing cultural or political topics. Under the banner of “inclusivity” and “equity,” schools have created division by bringing political topics into schools. Respect and understanding can be cultivated by everyone focusing on the same objective, which is why maximizing student performance should be the core objective in our schools. Political and cultural topics should be left to after-school hours.

8. My initial thought as a critical first step would be getting parents involved to take the lead. Schools should be in a supporting role in this type of situation. Further, since teachers have the most direct contact with students, this is yet another example of why the parent-teacher relationship should be prioritized. While this is an important subject, I question why schools are being tasked with managing these types of subjects.

9. As a general philosophy, I don’t support any tax increases unless cost cuts have been exhausted. Based on my review of RFSD financials, I have concerns about current spending habits. That said, since this mill levy is being branded as “for the teachers,” if I were to be “against” this mill levy, it would mean I am “against increasing teacher pay.” With that as background, one of my first priorities will be tracking EXACTLY how much of the mill levy is making its way specifically to teachers.

Kenneth “Kenny” Teitler

1. During my 26 years of working as a teacher in RFSD 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.

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, student productivity and academic achievement for all students.

I am also running to help with the difficulty associated with recruiting and retaining great teachers, to help close the achievement gap that exists between our Anglo and Latino learners, and to be a bridge between the community and our schools. 

2. In addition to my 26 years of experience in the classroom, my educational background is also pertinent to being on the school board. 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 also have had a lot of hands-on and educational experience that would benefit our district’s student body. I have taught “English as a Second Language” classes 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 Latino student population feel comfortable participating in school activities and decision making processes.

Currently, I teach GED classes two nights a week at Colorado Mountain College (CMC). 

3. During my years teaching in RFSD, 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, and I served on the district accountability committee. I was on numerous principal hiring committees and on a committee to hire a previous superintendent. I was a teacher representative on curriculum and development committees in math, English language development and reading.

Additionally, I have two daughters who recently graduated from Roaring Fork High School after attending Carbondale public schools K-12. Having participated in the school system as a parent gives me another perspective to bring to the school board. Since my children have already graduated from the school system, I will be able to objectively look at issues, and won’t be making decisions based on what is best for my children, but rather what is best for all children. 

4. Yes, I support the district’s COVID Health and Safety Plan. I believe the first sentence of the plan summarizes well what is trying to be achieved. It states, “Our goal for responding to the pandemic this year is to strive to return to normal while prioritizing health, safety and in-person learning.” 

With this summary statement in mind, I support the district’s plan to encourage vaccinations and to require indoor use of masks for students and staff until specific criteria are met to safely return to normal. These criteria are outlined in the plan, and are specific and measurable.

5. 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. 

6. My wife and I do not currently have any pets. A few years ago, we lost our cat Pahca, who lived to the age of 20. Having recently retired, we like to travel, camp and explore, which often has us away from home for days at a time, so we have decided to hold off for now on getting another pet. 

7. Respect and understanding come from building community. This is done by showing an appreciation of others’ perspectives and experiences. It is essential for RFSD to foster an environment of empathy, and to celebrate its diversity. We learn respect and understanding by listening to others, valuing the thoughts and opinions of others who think differently than ourselves, and by building consensus.

As a good listener who values multiple perspectives, I will help create positive relationships with others, and strive to promote respect and understanding. 

8. Good mental health is critical to a successful school experience. By providing responsive mental health services, students learn how to be resilient and how to build positive connections with other students and adults. This in turn helps create a positive school culture in which students feel safe and empowered.

I believe that the district needs to continue to strengthen the support that it offers through its prevention specialists and family liaisons, and to continue to identify at-risk behaviors. At the higher grades, it is important that student surveys are analyzed for trends in behaviors that can be met with early intervention and appropriate educational programming. 

Additionally, we need to expand the on-site model of mental health centers that the district has in Basalt and Carbondale and create this type of program in Glenwood also. Removing barriers to allow students access to mental health services is paramount to students receiving the help that they need.

9. I very much support the mill levy override! Teachers are the lifeblood of our district, and they deserve to be compensated accordingly. According to RFSD’s homepage, the Roaring Fork School District has the 3rd highest cost of living among Colorado school districts, but district teachers only have the 37th highest average salary amongst 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.

The Roaring Fork Schools and Roaring Fork Community Education Association co-host a Board of Education candidate forum from 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. at the Carbondale District Office (400 Sopris Avenue). Seating is limited and masks are required. The public can share their feedback on questions posed to candidates through a form available in English and Spanish. The forum moderator will curate questions based on community feedback. The forum will also be streamed on YouTube via GrassRoots Community Network. The regular Board of Education meeting begins immediately following the forum at 6:30 p.m. and will be held in-person only.