Boise trustee candidates take questions from EdNews’ Kevin Richert in recorded forums

BOISE — Boise voters will take to the polls Sept. 6 to elect trustees to five seats on the Boise School Board.

Candidates for each of the races up for election gathered virtually Tuesday to share their views during a forum moderated by Idaho Education News Reporter Kevin Richert. The public can view the complete recordings on the Idaho Education News Facebook page. or watch it on our YouTube.

Or, EdNews asked each candidate to complete a 10-question survey. Click here for their unedited answers.

Topics discussed by the candidates during the taped forums included pandemic protocols, critical race theory and indoctrination, and teacher retention.

Registered voters can vote in any and all races. Below are some of the highlights from each discussion.

RACE 1

In the first race, incumbent Trustee Beth Oppenheimer and School Board President Dave Wagers are running against Krista Hasler and Greg Woodard. The top two candidates who secure the most votes will win a seat and serve a six-year term.

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 best respond to the pandemic over the past two and a half years.

Oppenheimer that she appreciated that Gov. Brad Little left it to individual districts to determine the best plan for themselves. The district’s health and safety plan is a guide the board can use to respond to such situations, she said.

“I think that we now have a fairly 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 at the end of the day, we have to make a decision,” Oppenheimer said.

Wagers said talking to local hospitals to understand the impact of a virus on hospital capacity is also important.

Woodard expressed concern that some board decisions are made without concern for parent choice. He said the decision to mask should be left to the parents, and that the board should “look at all sides and consult all experts and physicians and doctors in making their decisions.”

Hasler cited pandemic precautions that have led to more screen time as a cause of diminished student mental health.

“Having kids on screens 6-8 hours a day has played out in a huge way for mental health. We are seeing significant increase in anxiety and depression,” Hasler said. “We have to look at where we are at right now. The fallout from covid is significant. 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 COVID death rates are going up. The virus and how we are reacting to it has shifted. We have to move forward and have a change in perspective.”

RACE 2

In race two, incumbent Andrew Hawes is being challenged by Neil Mercer and Matthew Shapiro. The top vote-getter will serve a four-year term.

Asked about concerns regarding critical race theory being taught in schools and general indoctrination, Hawes said he had “no concerns whatsoever,” but referred to district policies parents can use to opt students out of having to use certain learning materials. The district also has a process in place for parents to raise concerns about curricula for review by a committee and the board, he said.

Mercer agreed that district’s policies should be adequate to deal with any curricula challenges, and said parents being involved “is a great thing.”

“We get their input and are able to make decisions off of what the end user — the parent — wants for their child and for us to provide the best education that we can,” Mercer said.

Shapiro said all parent concerns are valid, and emphasized the importance of addressing them through “openness and transparency.” Part of that involves helping parents understand what is being taught, he said.

“In the area of how we address things like racism, we can’t ignore that,” 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.”

In terms of book banning, all three candidates agreed that they would not generally be in support of the board banning books outright, but that materials brought into question should go through the review process already in place.

RACE 3

In the third race, incumbent Elizabeth Langley, who was appointed two years ago, is being challenged by Nate Dean, Dawn King, and Todd Kurowski. The winner will serve a two-year term.

The candidates had a variety of ideas on how to best support and retain teachers. Langley said the board has worked on putting in place systems to support teachers, such as having teachers who teach the same curriculum have more overlapping free periods so they can give or receive mentorship. She also pointed to supporting teachers with adequate funding, and said that the district is one of the only districts in the state with a year-long negotiation process with the teacher’s union.

Dean, who worked as a teacher in the district and now works for the Idaho State Board of Education, also pointed to mentorship and professional development to help teachers. Teachers should have a say in the professional development activities they do, rather than being given direction from “on high,” he said.

Top-down direction “isn’t something that makes a teacher feel like a valued, independent education professional, and I know staff who have left the district over that,” Dean said, referring to 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 present that to the teachers, and tell the teachers and staff, ‘this is what we’re doing; this is why we’re doing it,’ instead of just being thrown into an uncomfortable situation,” King said.

Kurowski said both of his parents worked as teachers in Idaho, and that he sometimes went hungry as a child because of his household’s lack of income.

“I know that they deserve a lot more pay,” he said.

RACE 4

For the fourth seat, incumbent Steve Schmidt is being challenged by Shiva Rajbhandari, a rising Boise High School senior. The winner will serve a two-year term.

Rajbhandari cited student mental health as his top priority if elected, while Schmidt cited student achievement.

On the topic of pandemic protocols, Schmidt pointed to the district’s adopted health and safety plan and said the district should take into account how the spread of illness is impacting a community’s hospitals while encouraging people to stay home if they are sick.

“We as a community need to recognize that this is more than an individual rights issue, that this is a ‘how can we support our community as a whole?’” Schmidt said.

Rajbhandari said that masking should remain an option to those who want it, and a tool if the district sees another surge. He recalled being sent to the cafeteria because half of his teachers were out with COVID.

“That was not a good pandemic approach,” Rajbhandari said. “So if we have to wear masks, for example, to keep students or to keep teachers safe in the classroom, I think that’s really important that we do so.”

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