One of the biggest issues facing CCSD’s District E is the impact of new housing developments that have already caused concerns about overcrowding at Summerlin schools, according to Lola Brooks, who has represented the area since 2016 and is running for re-election this year.
She’s facing challenges from two CCSD teachers — Indian Springs High School English teacher Alexis Salt and Red Rock Elementary School second grade teacher Elysa Arroyo — as well as realtor Tiger Helgelian. Three other challengers — Christopher Craig, Tracey Lewis and Cristina Robertson — did not return interview requests from the Review-Journal.
First elected in 2016 — and elected board president in January 2019 — Brooks said she’s proud of the work the board has done in the last four years, including creating a new evaluation system for the superintendent and undertaking the first evaluation in years, as well as creating a new system for tracking trustee requests for information.
“We’ve made a lot of progress. I wish we had made more,” Brooks said. “I didn’t know how tough it would be.”
Asked what the general public may not know about the school board and how it works, Brooks said she’s heard that some people say that the board has yielded too much of its authority to Superintendent Jesus Jara. But the board’s role is to hire the person who runs the school and provide oversight, while adhering to the balanced governance model, Brooks said.
Much of the work of being a trustee is done behind-the-scenes, with people who aren’t in the boardroom, she said.
“You can’t just make decisions based on what’s in front of you,” Brooks said, offering school closures during the pandemic as an example.
As a data analyst at Beacon Academy Charter School, Brooks said she’s seen even a well-equipped and connected school like hers struggle to shift students to a distance education-only model. What’s lacking is the interaction that high-needs students require, she said.
Looking ahead, Brooks said that if any budget cuts come before the board, she’d like to keep them as far away from staff and classrooms as possible. She sees her role on the board in part as a keeper of institutional knowledge, and said she worries that some of that could be lost if there are four new members on the board instead of only three.
Indian Springs English teacher Alexis Salt said District E families are not immune to the challenges of equity seen throughout CCSD, and may even feel compelled to hide their financial struggles. Some area schools were also recently stripped of Title I funding for schools that serve low-income students, she said.
“Are your kids usually fed? Yes. But they have 15-year-old textbooks and 45 kids to a classroom,” she said. “They’re not quite poor enough to get much of anything, but they have needs just the same.”
Salt described the district’s handling of school closures as frustrating, adding that she believes teachers could have prepared lessons and schools could have deployed technology had they known that closures were imminent.
Still, she said she believes closures have put the spotlight on food service workers and teachers who have kept essential services going despite the circumstances. Now it’s important for the district to create a game plan for the first day back, including how to close achievement gaps and provide trauma-informed instruction on everything from bullying and threats at school and dealing with poverty and violence at home, as well as keep in contact with students should another wave of the pandemic hit, she said.
“We have to nail the return to schools,” she said. “We don’t have time to mess around.”
Salt, a 14-year veteran of the district, added that one thing she would have done differently had she been on the school board this year is probe the district’s purchases of curriculum and testing programs.
“We have people on a teacher’s salary in a curriculum and professional development capacity, and we’re still spending money on curriculum,” she said. “I probably would not have purchased most of what we purchased.”
Red Rock Elementary second grade teacher Elysa Arroyo said she believes she has specific qualifications for the trustee role, including master’s degrees in education and public policy and experience serving on her school’s organizational team.
She said she’s been saddened to see her fellow educators have to fight for pay raises or dip into their own pockets for supplies for their classrooms.
“I as an educator have never been asked by my district what I or my kids need,” Arroyo said.
She said she’d like to see more accountability and transparency at the district, including a forensic audit of the budget to determine where money is spent. At school board meetings, she said she was disappointed by instances in which the board capped the first public comment period at 30 minutes, or, in one case, adjourned because of threats allegedly made against trustees, as it deprives the public of its right to participate in the process.
“The superintendent should be answering to the board and I don’t feel like that’s happening,” she said.
Arroyo said that while school closures were necessary, they were done in a reactive rather than proactive manner. She said she would have like to see the district set a target date for closures in order to allow teachers and students to prepare for the transition online.
“The fact that we’re barely rolling out Chromebooks now is ridiculous,” Arroyo said.
Realtor Tiger Helgelien said that with three children in CCSD schools, he was tired of sitting on the sidelines as the school district struggled to provide a quality education.
“Twenty years ago, the conversation was that our schools weren’t doing a very good job,” Helgelien said. “That conversation hasn’t changed much.”
He’s running for the school board seat after serving for four years as a parent representative on the School Organizational Team at Palo Verde High School, a group he characterized as collaborative and respectful even when differences arise. Helgelien said that he believes he can bring this experience, as well as small business sense, to the school board.
“As a business owner you face ups and downs all the time,” he said. “You have to adjust, adapt and overcome.”
Pointing to a recent school board meeting wherein the board considered a $200,000 professional development program for just a handful of teachers, Helgelien said that item should not have been a topic of discussion during the COVID-19 crisis.
Helgelien said he believes his constituents would strongly oppose any talks of a tax increase for schools and that he’d like to see a forensic audit of the district before tax hikes are even considered.
More important is to be efficient with existing dollars, he said, in order to find a way to reduce class sizes, offer substitutes a pay raise and improve safety and security on campuses. He said he would support a look at breaking up the district into smaller districts instead.
“The bigger the bureaucracy the more waste there is,” he said.