LWV School & College Board Candidate Forum Draws Crowd

County Clerk Naomi Maestas presents details on the 24-hour ballot drop box placed at Mesa Public Library. For security, cameras are trained on the box at all times, day or night, she said. Screenshot/LAPD

Los Alamos Daily Post

The League of Women Voters of Los Alamos (LWV) presented a Candidate Forum for Los Alamos Public Schools (LAPS) Board and UNM-LA Advisory Board Wednesday, Oct. 6 via Zoom.

A hundred people had registered for the forum and during the course of the evening, more than 80 people logged on to watch it. Felicia Orth of the League served as moderator.

In addition to opening and closing statements, the candidates answered questions posed by the League. Candidates who did not attend were invited to submit written statements, which all three did.

Los Alamos Daily Post coverage of the Forum has been divided between the School Board and UNM-LA Advisory Board races. The UNM-LA Advisory Board portion of the Forum will be covered in an upcoming story.

Los Alamos County Clerk Naomi Maestas kicked off the Forum with information about how the election is being conducted. Early voting began Tuesday at the County Municipal Building, she said. New to this election is a 24-hour ballot drop box situated at Mesa Public Library. For security, cameras are trained on the box at all times, day or night. The Clerk’s Office is hoping to get a similar box installed in White Rock, Maestas said. She invited voters to visit the County Clerk’s webpage to get their questions answered.

Acting LAPS Superintendent Jennifer Guy spoke on the mill levy question. Voting for the mill levy supports funding for repairs, emergency expenses and equipment, Guy said, adding that one example is new equipment and landscaping for Barranca Elementary School.

“Every principal in the district has told me this [the Mill Levy] is imported for their school,” Guy said.

Guy stressed that the current tax rate would stay the same as it is should the levy succeed. The tax rate of 3.246 percent has been the same for the last several election cycles, she said, and funding for building a new school in White Rock is not part of this levy but is funded through other sources.

School Board Candidate in District 1 (Pinon), Ellen Specter, is an incumbent and has no opponents. She has served on the Board for five years. Specter urged voters in other districts to ask which candidates will ask hard questions while serving on the Board and which of them have served the community in other capacities.

District 2 (Chamisa) candidates Antonio Jaurigue and Stephen Boerigter spoke next. Candidate Paul Jaramillo did not attend citing a schedule conflict.

Jaurigue has three children in the Los Alamos schools. The younger two are students at Chamisa Elementary School, he said.

“I rarely miss a school event,” he said.

Jaurigue said his experience in the U.S. Military taught him leadership skills and the importance of diversity and varying viewpoints in reaching the best decisions possible. 

Boerigter is the District 2 incumbent. He pointed to the search for a new superintendent and continued strategic planning for the future as two of the most important things facing the School Board.

“I have a passion for education,” Boerigter said. “The single most important thing to bring us together is the public schools.”

In his statement Jaramillo wrote that he has been involved with the District as an instructional aide and a substitute teacher. It’s important that all school stakeholders work as a unit, he said.

“I believe in sticking to traditional teaching of reading, math and social studies,” he said. 

In District 4 (Barranca), incumbent Melanie Colgan and Rick Mooday face off.

Mooday said his chief goal is improving the school district. He sees room for improvement, he said. A Navy veteran, Mooday now works at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

“The most important jobs in Los Alamos are not at the Lab, but at the schools,” he said.

Colgan, serves as school board president. She is a nurse and college professor. She has five children in the local schools. Colgan said her experience on the School Board and work with the former superintendent and current interim superintendent will help her choose the right person for the superintendent post.

“The reason I’m running can be summed up in two words,” she said, “the kids”.

District 5 (Mountain) candidate Erin Green spoke next. She is running to keep the seat she was appointed to in July. Green has a first grader at Mountain School and is homeschooling her older child. Green is the leader of two Girl Scout troops and serves on the County Racial and Inclusivity Task force, among other civic commitments. She is pursuing a master’s degree in the mental health field. As a biracial person, Green said she feels she will bring diversity and a unique point of view to the board. Her experience as a homeschooling parent also provides her with a unique perspective, Green said.

Green’s opponent, Nickole Aguilar Garcia, did not attend the Forum but sent a written statement. Aguilar Garcia is a Los Alamos native and has four children in the Los Alamos Public Schools.

Education quality is important, Aguilar Garcia said, and she would like to see test scores in reading and math proficiency rise. Also high on her list is the retention and recruitment of qualified teachers. She would like to see attention to trades programs at the high school. Aguilar Garcia said the District has done a good job addressing LGBTQ issues.

During the question period, the candidates were asked about their goals for the District.

Specter said she wants to promote the students and staff becoming lifelong learners who can think critically. We’re in an age when facts are easy to access and hard to verify, she said.

Jaurigue said his goals include improving student mental health and a focus on social and emotional learning. He promised to be in touch with parents and teachers and speak for them as well as himself.

Boerigter’s goal is to set policy for long-term success, he said.

“I believe in strategic planning and investment,” Boerigter said. “Planning for the future will make us the best district we can be.”

Mooday said one of his goals is to improve academic performance. Boys are being left behind and that needs attention, he said. Mooday also said he feels parents have been “crowded out” of decision making for schools.

In his closing remarks, Mooday went on to decry what he said was use of “Critical Race Theory” in the state’s social studies curriculum and said separation and division were stressed. He said he wants to “return the district to a better direction”. 

“I want to do something about the insidious effects of grouping people and things,” Mooday said. “It’s divisive.”

Colgan said she wants to see the District provide a “well rounded education”.

Although high achievers and special needs students are well served in the District, “we need support for the missing middle,” she said.

Colgan also said she would like to introduce students to learning opportunities outside of school in the broader community, as well as promote vocational training in the schools.

Green said she would focus on the District’s strategic plan.

“A child learns best when they feel safe and secure,” she said.

It is Green’s goal to include parents, students, teachers and staff in planning for the District’s future.

The next question concerned the project of building housing on North Mesa land owned by the District.

Boerigter believes housing is “the best use of a valuable asset”.

“I see it as a win-win-win,” he said. “The schools have continuing revenues, the community has more housing and the Lab has housing prospects for the many employees who want to live here and can’t.”

Jaurigue said he is concerned that the planned “affordable housing” will not remain affordable, “as has been the case with other projects”. He said he wants to make sure school employees aren’t outbid for houses by higher income people.

Mooday said he is concerned that coordination to the County Council is lacking and must be improved.

“Affordable housing must be a goal,” Mooday said.

Colgan said receiving funds for the schools is the main goal of the project. She said the County and the District must “work with the pros” to make sure the proposed housing is affordable. Colgan also said she  is concerned about increased traffic on North Mesa and with safety.

“If the current cross country course goes away, it must be replaced by the County,” Colgan said.

The schools can be a leader in working toward sustainable, affordable housing in Los Alamos, Green said. She pointed out that affordable housing would allow school employees to focus on their jobs and permit them to live in town.

Specter agreed that the proposed housing must remain in reach of middle income homebuyers. She sees the project as a source of significant income for the schools.

When asked about populations that face special challenges at school, the candidates pointed to a number of areas.

Colgan said “each group as a whole and each individual student” must be considered. She said “safe spaces” for groups such as LGBTQ students are important.

Mooday said special education students, such as those coping with dyslexia, low-income students, second language learners and students who live “off the hill” are groups that face special challenges. He said programs to address bullying and programs for second language learners would help students facing challenges in those areas. He said he would like to see the District “team with parents” at a higher level.

Statistically, people of color, LGBQT students, those with mental health challenges and special needs kids are uniquely at risk, Green said.

“We need to honor their experience and highlight the importance of the diversity they bring,” she said.

Specter said the schools must strive to support and educate the whole child. She said the Healthy Schools Program has made a lot of progress and that discretionary funds might be used on pilot programs to meet the needs of at risk students.

Jaurigue said out of district students have issues around transportation and with being involved with the District and their fellow students. He pointed to Native students as another group who might face challenges the District should address.

In his answer, Boerigter focused on “the earliest of learners” aged three through early elementary school.

“Let’s use our resources to create a good foundation,” he said.

In answer to a question on removing SAT and ACT scores from students’ high school transcripts, all the candidates said it was an idea worth exploring, but needed more investigation and coordination with the New Mexico Public Education Department.

The candidates used their closing statements to reinforce their previous statements and drive them home.