ROCK SPRINGS — Candidates running for the school board positions in the Sweetwater County School District met Thursday night in a forum hosted by the Sweetwater Education Association.
Nine out of the 10 candidates made an appearance to respond to a handful of questions and introduce themselves to voters and the community. Questions asked included topics about special education, holding upper management accountable, prioritizing the district’s budget and how candidates would obtain a knowledge of what’s happening inside of schools.
The meeting began with brief introductions of each candidate.
George Reedy was chosen to go first and proceeded to explain his roots in Wamsutter. Reedy also described how he comes from a small community in which he has involved himself in and has kids as the focus of his campaign.
B. Chad Shelley then followed with his opening statements. Shelley explained that he has only briefly lived in the area for four and a half years. Shelley’s wife is an educator and since moving to Wyoming he has heard many concerns about the school board. Removing politics in administration, regaining the trust of the community and holding administration accountable were all reasons Shelly gave in connection to his candidacy.
Fredann Soto, who currently coaches the Western Wyoming Community College Volleyball team, briefed the audience about her work in the school district for 20 years. Soto said that she hoped to see an “effective board that works with students, parents and teachers.” Cohesiveness was also the theme of Soto’s introduction as she believes that without unity existing, a successful board cannot be ran.
Beginning his remarks with 28 years of experience in education, John Betollo jokingly said “I’ve had every job you can have in a school district, except the Head Custodian and the Superintendent.” Betollo said that because his career in education was cut short he had a strong desire to run for the board to use his expertise to help all students and benefit the community.
Jason Brown, a Rock Springs native, described his educational background which includes a Bachelor’s of Science in Geology. Brown said that he believed that skills are not being taught in school and that if elected he would like to see a trades academy begin.
Damon Debernardi introduced himself through his education and occupation. Debernardi obtained his Juris Doctorate in 2007 and currently works for the Sweetwater County Attorney’s Office in which most of his work is done in the juvenile justice system. Debernardi echoed the idea of a united board and wants to see families interact with the school board.
Matthew Jackman said that during his candidacy for mayor he noticed that most of the doors he knocked did not have concerns with the issues of the city, but more so about the school board and the children within the community. Jackman went on to talk about how his background in business would be beneficial to the school board position.
The only other female candidate, Meghan Jensen, described her life living in various parts of Wyoming. Jensen originally was interested in becoming a teacher but then realized that she wanted to do more than just teach — leading her to run for the board position.
With 37 years of educational experience, Michael Lopiccolo introduced himself. Lopiccolo described his educational background which resulted in a Master’s degree. He also talked about his involvement with students as a football coach and was recently inducted into the Rock Springs High School Hall of Fame earlier this year.
The final candidate, David Stauffer, was not present at the forum.
Forum Questions and Discussion
As each candidate had expressed interest in students and giving each child an opportunity at the best possible education, the first question posed asked candidates about their knowledge and experience concerning special education.
The meat of the discussion was based around the lack of teachers in special education and how there was a great need within the community as there are currently 14 open positions that need filled.
Lopiccolo said that special education teachers spend “astronomical” time doing their job. He also added that the district needs to hire and retain in order to have strong, experienced teachers. Betollo also added later on that the district made a mistake cutting Case Managers which has caused teachers tremendous work loads to the point where paperwork is being done late into the night. Soto, who began her career in special education which lasted for 14 years said that a strong special education director is key to success. She also acknowledged that things have changed since then but that there is room for improvement.
The second question of the forum focused on how the board of trustees could ensure accountability for upper management.
Brown stated that “clear communication” was key to holding upper management, specifically the superintendent, accountable. Jackman agreed with Brown and also added the idea that the board has to have a plan in place and that if goals fail to be met, evaluations will need to be made to the position. Shelley said that the board needed to “be involved” and have communication as he believes the board answers to the public. Jensen also noted that research and asking questions are both important aspects of accountability.
The third question required a response pertaining to how candidates would prioritize spending in the school district with the current lack of funding in Wyoming.
Betollo responded first by saying that the district needs to let people know what the money is being spent on and that “complete transparency” would lead to effective prioritizing. Debernardi said that despite the lack of funding, high standards need to be maintained and that his number one priority would be teacher development in order to benefit the kids at the end of the day. Reedy suggested that one place to save on money would be to keep money in the district by having cyber schooling instead of paying other districts to teach along with the accompanied travel costs. Jensen mentioned that cutting on teachers directly impacts students, so having a strong staff would be beneficial for students. Shelly explained that the board should have a clear knowledge concerning the budget and where the money is being used. He gave an example of a recent reading program which was purchased by teachers within the district. Only half of the program was purchased which he said makes it very difficult for teacher’s to use.
For the final question, candidates were asked about what steps they would take to educate themselves about what’s happening inside schools.
Several ideas that were repeated were that being involved and going to the schools were important to gaining an understanding of what’s happening.
Reedy mentioned that he would make it a priority to go unexpectedly to schools to gain a true understanding. Debernardi insisted that “having a presence in the school” is ideal. Soto said that just as important as talking was being an active listener to students, teachers and parents. Lopicollo said that meeting with building administrators and asking specific questions would also help gain a clearer understanding. Brown indicated that he would first go to school secretaries as they are a “great resource.” Jackman agreed with Brown and pointed out that he would speak to other individuals such as the Head Custodian and the Head of Food Services. He noted that these sources would be essential people to reach out to as they have one on one interaction with students’ basic needs.