Kiwanis Club Hears From School Board Candidates

mORRIE.jpgSchool board candidate Morrie Pongratz is running against Christine Bernstein in District 3 which is the Aspen Elementary School area. Photo by Maire O’Neill/

Julia Baker Kiwanis.jpgSchool board candidate Julia Baker is running against Melanie Colgan in District 4 which is the Barranca Mesa Elementary School and Los Alamos Middle School area. Photo by Maire O’Neill/

Christine Bernstein Kiwanis.jpgSchool board candidate Christine Bernstein is running against Morrie Pongratz in District 3 which is the Aspen Elementary School area. Photo by Maire O’Neill/

dawn jalbert.jpgSchool board candidate Dawn Jalbert is running unopposed for District 5 which is Mountain Elementary School and Los Alamos High School. Photo by Maire O’Neill/


Four candidates for the Los Alamos School Board, Morrie Pongratz, Christine Bernstein, Julia Baker and Dawn Jalbert spoke to members of the local Kiwanis Club Tuesday. The fifth candidate, Melanie Colgan, is slated to speak at a later date due to a prior commitment.

Pongratz and Bernstein are facing off in the Aspen District, while Baker and Colgan are in opposition in the Barranca District. Jalbert is running unopposed in the Mountain District.

Pongratz, member of the Kiwanis told the group that when he was named a Living Treasurer in 2011, he thought, “OK, stay out of the public eye, like my Kiwanis hero Steve Stoddard, and just ride off into the sunset”.

“Then last summer, those rascals on the Los Alamos County Council, then Chairman David Izraelevitz and Vice-Chair Chris Chandler, called me asking if I would fill an unexpired term on the County Council,” he said. “Well, that went pretty well, and since Cheryl and I have a long record of service to the Los Alamos Public Schools, 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; so here I am!”

Pongratz listed some of what got done during his former term on the school board.

“We found a way to ensure the Department of Energy $8 million without Assistance Payments, which our delegation found hard to support. ·        We commissioned a study of the school facilities which led to the GO bonds that funded construction at the high school, the middle school, Aspen and Barranca,” he said.

Pongratz said he worked with former Municipal Court Judge Allen Kirk and former Los Alamos Police Chief Rich Melton to create the Juvenile Justice Advisory Board, and that the board at that time founded the Los Alamos Public Schools Foundation to give the community a 501 C(3) way to contribute to the schools’ operational costs.

“My highest priority if elected is to see our students thrive.  I’ve spent over 30 years volunteering in the schools to help students feel positive about themselves and develop leadership skills.  That will continue,” he said. “Our school district has become the best in the state by changing to meet needs, such as the School of Choice, which recognized different learning styles, and Saturday School, to provide extra academic help.”

He said the school district recognized the need to shelter entering ninth graders and started the Topper Freshman Academy.

“And soon we’ll see enhancements at the middle school.  LAPS has also added elementary reading coaches.  Anyone who attended the LAPS budget hearings would know that the system is directed by an administrative team, led by Dr. Kurt Steinhaus, that is anything but status quo,” Pongratz said.

He said he is also very supportive of the Healthy Schools Initiative to ensure that students and staff are safe and healthy and that he meets monthly with the Youth Resiliency Committee to promote the initiative.

“Another thing that I would like to do if elected would be to follow the model of one of my other Kiwanis heroes, Don Casperson, and encourage citizens, specifically retirees, to volunteer in the classroom like Don does,” he said.

Bernstein asked the group to imagine they were joining her standing in a room looking out at an education committee that is making decisions and have asked educators from around the state to come and speak.

“So, I’m there in this room and I’m excited and I’m very proud and empowered to be able to stand there and talk to this committee about education. There are hundreds of teachers there and I have the microphone and I say my piece and I pass the microphone on. I go up to the gallery at the Roundhouse and I watch the rest of the proceedings and I feel this overwhelming sense of pride. It feels amazing to be a part of a whole group of teachers around our state lobbying for education,” she said. “Now come with me again. It’s Monday morning and I’m in another room and I’m in this room. It’s a small room and there’s about 20 faces looking at me and I’m standing there and I realize that these faces looking at me – this is education. This is what I do, That these kids in this room – I don’t know what they go home to. I don’t know what happens to them after school but I know what happens in the classroom.”

She said she knows that everything that happens in the room is what education is about and that although she had that place at the Roundhouse and spoke to that committee, she realized that those people making those decisions are not there in the classroom and they don’t truly understand what it feels like and what it means to be a student in our state.

“I’m Christine Bernstein. I’m a mom. I’m a teacher. I’m a community member. I’m an advocate and I’m also a learner. My opponent (Pongratz) has done amazing things for our community and for our system here. We have an amazing school district. I moved away from Los Alamos and I returned to put my children back in school here. I have three children at school right now,” Bernstein said.

She said she has been a teacher for 24 years and she continuously as a professional, wants to advocate for children, for students and for teachers.

“I feel it’s important that the people making decisions about policy know what’s happening. The students I teach today are not the same students that I taught 20 years ago. They are entering a different world and we do an excellent job in this district to work with our children,” Bernstein said. “I’m an idea person and a problem solver and when I see things that need to be changed, I have ideas. I know how to get things done. I’ve been doing this for a long time.”

Bernstein said she could give the group her resume, that she has served on committees, volunteered for JJAB years ago and helped get the Teen Center going.

“I’m now here wanting to make an even bigger impact on what’s happening in our schools in Los Alamos,” she said.

Julia Baker sad she is running for school board for a variety of reasons.

“That’s usually the first question I get asked when I’m out canvassing, is why I am running,” she said. “And a lot of times I think they’re just fishing for what is your problem with the school board, what is going on, what is your bone to pick. I have to tell them it’s really not because of anything like that. It’s because of something that happened in fifth grade.”

She went on to tell a story about the first and only time she every cheated, when she was supposed to write a book report and didn’t read a book.

“And so I decided to tell them I read ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ because my dad had read that to me every year probably since I was a little kid. The way the teacher responded to this after he figured out that I obviously hadn’t read the book was with kindness and a way of letting me know that the change that I needed to make was already inside of me. It wasn’t something he needed to do for me, it was that I needed to look at me differently,” Baker said.

She said because of this experience she was able to go through school knowing that she was a good student and that she didn’t need to cheat or make decisions that were against her nature just to fit in. She went on to teach fifth grade, she said, because it’s an amazing time in a student’s educational career.

“I loved teaching and that’s why I’m moving on to the school board also because I see the examples of people that have done amazing things for our schools. We were at Mountain for about five years and then we moved on to Barranca. During that time I served on the PTA at Mountain and the PTO at Barranca. I’ve seen the educators that we have in the schools today and I’ve seen the things that they’re doing and I want to be a part of the school board so that I can make sure that the policy decisions are enabling them to continue on whatever path they are on,” Baker said.

She said she wants to give the teachers a chance to be able to have the autonomy to teach in the way that they need to, to teach in the way their students need them to. Baker said she has five children with three in the schools right now.

“Each of them has their own learning style and each of them has different needs, and I am always amazed that those different needs are being met by teachers in our community,” she said.

Baker said she is a huge fan of the Healthy Schools Initiative.

“I think we need to be looking at our children’s social learning, their emotional needs, which is why I’ve gone back at school now. I’m getting a Masters in counseling because as I taught school, those were the things that I could see mattered. That’s the thing that my fifth grade teacher way back when I lied about a book I hadn’t read, could see in me, that I needed some social and emotional support which made a huge difference throughout my life – the easy way that he changed things for me,” she said.

Baker said she looks forward to what’s happening in the school district.

“The priorities for me are communication – making sure that we’re communicating between the students, the teachers and the parents, making sure that we know what the staff needs to do their jobs. And the other priority is to support many types of success for our students, whether they’re going to college, whether they’re going straight into a career, whether they’re going to own their own businesses, that they’ll have these tools, that they feel happy, that they can be successful,” she said. “We’re trying to get our kids to self-actualization which is knowing their place in the community, knowing that they’re an important person and so our district’s job is to make sure that they have those steps that are leading them to the top of this pyramid.”

Baker said it’s not a huge change that needs to be made.

“It’s to make sure that we’re going up those steps. Are our schools safe? Do our children feel secure and loved in our wonderful town? And does our staff feel secure and know our school board cares for them?” she said.

Dawn Jalbert, who is running unopposed in the Mountain Elementary District, said she is running for school board because she is a community member who has been here a long time. She and her husband are both from Los Alamos and graduated from Los Alamos High School in 1978.

“I believe I have a deep understanding of Los Alamos Public Schools,” she said.

She said she and her husband moved back to Los Alamos because of the schools and that her children thrived in Los Alamos Public Schools.

“Los Alamos Public Schools meet so many needs for so many children, however, I believe the average kids, the kids that don’t have special needs they require, or the kids that are really excelling and are superstars on the other end are kids that we pay a lot of attention to. Those kids in the middle, which is where my kids sat, those kids often feel a little ignored, a little overlooked, and I’d like to see Los Alamos Public Schools find a way to better acknowledge their importance and their successes,” Jalbert said.

She said she was a special education teacher at Mountain Elementary for most of her career. Then moving on to the Administration for several years, she started out as a curriculum director, then did a very short stint of about eight months at Chamisa Elementary as an interim principal. She returned to her curriculum director position and then decided she really missed working with kids.

“So I went back to the high school and taught English and history to special education classes. Those kids are very often kids that we are losing and I would like to see us better able to address some of those needs that are not being met, not necessarily through education. Sometimes those kids feel disengaged not because their IEPs are not being met, or their educational needs are not being met, or there’s not enough diversification in the classroom for them but because they don’t feel connected or tied to the community very well. I think we could do a better job with pockets of education within the community,” Jalbert said.

Having said all that, she said Los Alamos Public Schools do overall an excellent job.

“I would love to be an advocate for teachers as I been so proud to have such incredible and amazing colleagues who do so much with really so little when you look at overall budgets across the state, education does not get the lion’s share of the money. So I’m amazed constantly at the amazing job my colleagues have done and I would love to advocate for them and for students. I would love to advocate for parents and I believe that requires listening as much as talking,” Jalbert said.