Aspen school board hopefuls find common ground at forum
October 6, 2011
ASPEN – The three candidates for the Aspen Board of Education seem to have a lot in common: they agree that the Aspen public schools are excellent, they admit that budget challenges loom, and they know open communication is key to a success.
But Carmen Dowley, Sandra Peirce and Sheila Wills also claim to be the single best person to fill the two school board seats up for grabs in the Nov. 1 election. Two of them will replace Fred Peirce and Laura Kornasiewicz, who must step down because of term limits.
Dowley, Peirce and Wills squared off in a 90-minute, moderated question-and-answer session Wednesday night before a crowd of three dozen.
Dowley, an Aspen High School graduate and former teacher who now has three children in the Aspen public schools, positioned herself as an advocate for preserving tradition. She said, “I truly believe in tradition and what the Aspen School District has been in the past and what it can be in the future; we cannot lose sight of this even with budget cuts.”
Peirce, mother to a high school freshman and recent AHS graduate, called herself the “homework” candidate.
“I think that over the last 11 years, I have really become educated and done a lot of homework,” said Peirce, who has served on numerous school district committees. “I have a depth of knowledge that will serve the district well.”
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Wills, an educator, attorney and businesswoman with one son at Aspen High, touted her diverse background as a reason for electing her to office: “I have acquired a lot of skills over the last 30-something years that I can bring to the table, and which may be able to help the school system through these difficult times. In the end, it’s all about service for me.”
All three fielded questions – with similar responses – about the school board’s model of policy governance, how to handle complaints from stakeholders, and areas in which the local schools might improve.
But when it came to addressing the bottom line, the candidates took slightly different tacks.
Dowley believes the answer to the schools’ funding crisis might lie in direct donors, saying that, “If you don’t ask, you don’t get”; Peirce said she had no “unconventional” ideas about increasing funding but said an open dialogue with school staff and administrators might hold the answer; Wills posed the idea of an increased sales tax, and also suggested a campaign to reform Colorado school finance might be in order.
Pie-in-the-sky ideas aside, however, all three candidates recognized that the buck stops with board members when it comes to balancing the school budget.
“At the end of the day, you have to know that those hard decisions were made with the best interests of all the kids in mind,” Peirce said. “It’s difficult, but that’s the filter that everything must be processed through.”
Dowley agreed, acknowledging that “we will have to make the tough decisions. We will have to roll up our sleeves, stick by our word, and face the music.”
“What you have to do is sit down and put the whole budget on the table. You’ve got to prioritize, just like you do with your own budget at home,” Wills said. “We have to decide as a district what the priorities are and fund those, and then take the big hit everywhere else.”