The League of Women Voters hosted a Candidate Forum Thursday evening at UNM-LA for those running for School Board in three districts (the White Rock districts are not on the ballot this year) and candidates for two separate positions on the University of New Mexico-Los Alamos Advisory Board.
The event also included an overview of Los Alamos Public School building projects, which have been partially funded by previous school bonds and information about the current school bond election by Superintendent Kurt Steinhaus.
The Forum attracted a standing-room-only crowd.
The evening began with a few words about the election from County Clerk Naomi Maestas. She reminded the audience that early voting begins Oct. 8 and Election Day is Nov. 5. Maestas also announced a new polling place, the UNM-LA campus. The Clerk’s Office hopes to attract young voters from the college and eligible voters at the high school. She stressed that this is an in-person election, not a mail-in ballot except for those requesting an absentee ballot
Steinhaus emphasized that the renewal of the school bond would not involve a tax increase. Voting yes would continue the current level of property tax set aside to fund building projects for the school district.
Steinhaus pointed to the use the District has made of past bond funds, including building and remodeling at Los Alamos High School (January 2012), Los Alamos Middle School (October 2013) and Aspen Elementary School (October 2014) in addition to a number of smaller projects. Barranca Mesa Elementary School and Mountain Elementary School are in the middle of major facility improvements, Steinhaus said.
Steinhaus invited the public to tour the newly renovated Barranca Elementary School and the new LAHS music wing Saturday. He pointed out that funds made available by a yes vote in the Bond Election will go to renovate the two White Rock schools, which are more than 50 years old.
First to speak among the School Board candidates were the two vying to represent the Aspen School area, District 3, Morris (Morrie) Pongratz and Christine Bernstein.
“My wife, Cheryl, and I have been involved with our public schools for many, many years,” Pongratz said.
Cheryl served many years as a teacher and administrator in the District, while Morrie himself has been the Kiwanis Key Club Advisor and the public address announcer, the “Voice of the Toppers” for more than 30 years, he said.
“I decided that running for the school board would give me an opportunity to repay education for all it has given us, and our family,” Pongratz said. “So here I am!”
Pongratz pointed to accomplishments of the School Board during his term (2003-2007), including starting negotiations with Los Alamos County on the land that now houses Smith’s Marketplace, among many others.
“My highest priority if elected is to see our students thrive,” Pongratz said. “I’ve spent over 30 years volunteering in the schools to help students feel positive about themselves and develop leadership skills. That will continue.”
Opponent Christine Bernstein is a long-time teacher and currently teaches Spanish at Pojoaque High School. She’s been involved in education for 24 years. Bernstein has three children in the Los Alamos schools and lives in District 3.
“Fifteen years ago, I decided I would serve on the school board,” Bernstein said. “Now the time has come.”
When she’s on the job, Bernstein is immersed in the art and science of learning, she said.
“THIS is education—the kids I teach every day.”
Bernstein stressed her up-to-the-minute, bird’s eye view of education.
“I want to have a voice,” she said. “I have fresh perspective and I want to speak for students and teachers. I have a lot of ideas.”
Candidate Dawn Jalbert is running to represent the Mountain School area (District 4). She is unopposed.
A retired educator, Jalbert has taught nearly every grade, she said. She taught special education for 12 years at Mountain Elementary.
“I have a solid knowledge of our school system,” she said.
Jalbert graduated from Los Alamos High School and has two children who also graduated from LAHS.
“I’m a community member with deep roots in this town,” she said.
Jalbert said communication was her most important skill.
I’m a communicator, a teacher and a community member with a wide ranging view of Los Alamos,” Jalbert said.
Julia Baker and Melanie Colgan are running to represent the Barranca/North Mesa area (District 5). Coincidentally, both candidates are the mother of five children.
Baker is a former teacher. She has lived in Los Alamos for 13 years and is active with the Barranca PTO.
“I know all students in our community have unique needs,” Baker said. “I want to support education practices that allow for diverse paths to success.”
Baker pointed to the difference between striving to be equal and striving to be equitable.
“Giving every kid a book is equal, but if one child is blind, giving her a book in Braille—that’s equitable,” Baker said. “The question to ask is, are we being equitable?”
Baker pointed to the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs, according to which people have five categories of needs: physiological, safety, love, esteem and self-actualization. Once the more basic needs are met, the higher needs emerge.
“We need to prioritize these needs,” she said. “Self-actualization is the cherry on top.”
Colgan is a nurse and teaches nursing at UNM-LA and Northern New Mexico College.
“I know what students need to survive after high school,” she said.
From this perspective, Colgan wants to “find ways to meet the needs of each unique student.”
One of her goals is to support the District’s teachers.
She sees the greatest challenge to the District as the growing student population. It’s uncertain what will happen and the district needs to think of creative solutions,” she said.
When asked what could improve special needs programs, Colgan said better training for educational assistants would be a good move to make.
“I will use my knowledge as a teacher, parent and community member to serve the School District,” she said.
Top from left, Candidates for District 3 (Aspen) Morrie Pongratz and Christine Bernstein; candidates for District 5 (Barranca) Julia Baker and Melanie Colgan; Dawn Jalbert, unopposed in District 4 (Mountain). Photo by Bonnie Gordan/ladailypost.com