BOISE — Voters in Boise will head to the polls Sept. 6 to elect trustees for five seats on the Boise School Board.
Candidates in each of the races in the election came together virtually Tuesday to share their views in a forum moderated by Idaho Education News reporter Kevin Richert. The public can view the complete recordings Idaho Education News Facebook page. Or, EdNews asked each contestant to complete a 10-question survey. Click here for their unpublished answers.
Topics covered by the candidates included pandemic protocols, critical race theory and indoctrination, and teacher retention.
Registered voters can vote in all races. Here are some of the highlights from each discussion.
In the first race, outgoing administrator Beth Oppenheimer and school board president Dave Wagers race against Krista Hasler and Greg Woodard. The top two candidates with the most votes will win a seat and serve a six-year term.
The candidates differed on how the board should respond if faced with a COVID surge or a new pandemic.
Wagers and Oppenheimer pointed to the district’s new health and safety plan, approved by the board Monday night, as a product of the district learning how to better respond to the pandemic over the past two and a half years.
Oppenheimer that she appreciated that Governor Brad Little left it to each district to determine the best plan for itself. The district health and safety plan is a guide the council can use to respond to such situations, she said.
“I think we have a pretty good playbook now, from lessons learned and how we move forward, continue to rely on experts, continue to listen to a variety of stakeholders, and ultimately account, we have to make a decision,” Oppenheimer said.
Wagers said it was also important to speak to local hospitals to understand the impact of a virus on hospital capacity.
Woodard expressed concern that some board decisions are made without regard to parental choice. He said the decision to mask should be left to parents and the council should ‘look at all sides and consult with all experts, doctors and physicians in making their decisions’.
Hasler cited pandemic precautions that led to more screen time as the cause of declining student mental health.
“We can’t just say everyone is going to mask up again, and we’re going to keep kids out of school again because COVID numbers will probably go up, but that doesn’t mean the rates of COVID mortality is increasing,” Hasler said.
(In previous outbreaks, when COVID-19 has spread rapidly and large numbers of people become ill, more patients with more severe symptoms end up needing hospitalization, as previously reported by the Idaho Press. And some Idahoans who survive COVID are living with lingering complications, as reported by the Idaho Capital Sunshine.)
In race two, incumbent Andrew Hawes is challenged by Neil Mercer and Matthew Shapiro. The top voter will serve a four-year term.
Asked about concerns about critical race theory being taught in schools and general indoctrination, Hawes said he had “no concerns,” but pointed to district policies that parents can use to prevent students to use certain learning materials. The district also has a process in place for parents to raise concerns about curriculum for review by a committee and the board, he said.
Mercer agreed that district policies should be adequate to address all program challenges, and said parent involvement “is a good thing.”
“We get their input and are able to make decisions based on what the end user – the parent – wants for their child and for us to provide the best education possible,” Mercer said.
Shapiro said all parents’ concerns are valid and stressed the importance of addressing them through “openness and transparency.” Part of that is helping parents understand what is being taught, he said.
“In the area of how we deal with things like racism, we can’t ignore it,” Shapiro said. “There are issues in our society that our students see and need to learn about and need to be equipped to talk about.”
Regarding the banning of the books, the three candidates agreed that they generally would not support outright banning of the board, but that the documents in question should go through the review process already. in place.
In the third race, incumbent Elizabeth Langley, who was nominated two years ago, is challenged by Nate Dean, Dawn King and Todd Kurowski. The winner will serve a two-year term.
Candidates had a variety of ideas about how best to support and retain teachers. Langley said the board has worked to put systems in place to support teachers, such as making sure teachers who teach the same curriculum have more overlapping free time so they can give or receive mentorship. . She also highlighted supporting teachers with adequate funding and said the district is one of the only districts in the state to have a year-long bargaining process with the teachers union.
Dean, who worked as a teacher in the district and now works for the Idaho State Board of Education, also highlighted mentoring and professional development to help teachers. Teachers should have a say in the professional development activities they carry out, rather than being directed “from above”, he said.
Top-down leadership “is not something that makes a teacher feel like an independent, valued education professional, and I know staff who left the district for that,” Dean said, referring in his time with the district.
King, who also worked as an educator in the district, said board transparency with new programs would help with teacher retention.
“I think they need to bring this to teachers and tell teachers and staff, ‘This is what we’re doing; that’s why we do it,’ instead of just being thrown into an awkward situation,” King said.
Kurowski said both of his parents worked as teachers in Idaho and he was sometimes hungry as a child due to his lack of household income.
“I know they deserve a lot more pay,” he said.
For the fourth seat, incumbent Steve Schmidt is challenged by Shiva Rajbhandari, a rising high school student from Boise High School. The winner will serve a two-year term.
Rajbhandari cited student mental health as his top priority if elected, while Schmidt cited student success.
On pandemic protocols, Schmidt highlighted the health and safety plan adopted by the district and said the district should consider the impact of the spread of the disease on hospitals in a community while encouraging people to stay home if they are sick.
“We, as a community, need to recognize that this is more than a matter of individual rights, that this is a ‘how can we support our community as a whole?’ said Schmidt.
Rajbhandari said masking should remain an option for those who want it, and a tool if the district experiences a new surge. He remembers being sent to the cafeteria because half of his teachers were out with COVID.
“It was not a good pandemic approach,” Rajbhandari said. “So if we have to wear masks, for example, to guard students or to keep teachers safe in the classroom, I think it’s really important that we do that.”
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