BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Los Alamos School members and the community got to hear Tuesday evening from three candidates for a vacancy on the Los Alamos School Board for District 5, Erin Green, Pierce Jones and Nickole Aguilar Garcia, at a candidate forum conducted by the League of Women Voters of Los Alamos. The board is slated to select one of the three for appointment to the board to serve until Dec. 31 at which time the seat will be filled by whoever is elected to serve.
For information on the candidates’ backgrounds, see https://losalamosreporter.com/2021/07/13/erin-green-pierce-jones-and-nickole-aguilar-garcia-seek-appointment-to-district-5-school-board-seat/
Garcia, in her introductory remarks said that when she left Los Alamos to go to college, she found herself wanting to return to the community, not just because it is such a great community but because of the amazing schools.
“Having my children attend the same schools that I grew up with is a huge blessing,” she said.
Garcia said she is passionate about quality education and that the community is very fortunate that the school system is continuously high-functioning. She said she is an avid supporter of extra-curricular activities and athletics within the schools .
“Our teaching staff and our administration are exceptional, so we’re very lucky. We’re also very lucky because our community obviously supports our schools which is a really valuable thing to have. As a parent and community, I understand how important it is to support your local schools, and serving on the board would be another way that I could give back.” Garcia said.
She noted that she has many friends that have children in LAPS as well as many friends who are educators in these schools.
“I am committed to serve them if I’m appointed to this position. I’m an advocate of educating children in a well-rounded environment that offers diversification, special programs and a safe, positive learning environment where our children can be supported and engaged and challenged,” Garcia said.
Erin Green said she is excited at the possibility of joining the school board because she is passionate about making sure the school system effectively serves all children.
“I’m really excited to that the last strategic plan focuses on resiliency, because I believe that the best interest of our students starts with resiliency. I also see that student well-being extends from the classroom to the buildings and all of the areas that school takes place and I’m really committed to understanding the budget in a way that will best serve all of the students in Los Alamos Public Schools,” she said. “I feel really passionate about focusing on the intersectionality of the schools in our wider Los Alamos community,” she said.
Pierce Jones said he believes educational institutions are a people-developing-people type of organization. … to practice emotional intelligence, understanding of cultures, ability to know their strengths and weaknesses and most of all, empathy.
“When we hear the term ‘poverty’, we think of it only as people being broke and homeless. The greatest poverty the world is experiencing today, is those who are unwanted, unfriended and un-cared for. With me you will have a voice that will execute moral and ethical decisions. I will put your needs ahead of mine. I will encourage transparency through our actions as board members and will ensure that there is equity and fairness for every student, staff member and teacher – not just for a select few,” he said.
Pierce said serving on the school board requires much humility.
“Some would say humility is meek but I disagree. It is the confidence to spend more time listening and less time talking. If I am chosen to serve in this board, know that I will hear your voice and represent your values,” he said.
As candidates, what do you feel are the most pressing issues facing the board right now and how would you address these issues as board members?
Green: I believe likely one of the most pressing issues is the transition back to in-person learning in the fall given the current state of the COVID-19 pandemic. I feel that it would be important to listen to the community, stakeholders and teachers and focus on supporting our administrators and staff through that transition. I’m also aware that there are some construction plans – infrastructure – in the near future and I feel that it would also be pertinent to focus on listening to stakeholders and community members in regards to those updates and changes.
Jones: I feel like the most pressing issue is the infrastructure. We built the Barranca Elementary School and the Mountain Elementary School and unfortunately we still have portables. The state of New Mexico is the ony state I have ever lived in where we continue to have portables…. With the state that we’re in financially, there’s plenty of opportunity to forecast how we should build our infrastructure. I think going forward we need great community input from those in White Rock about their schools. Last week they mentioned that $34 million is what it is going to cost to build those schools and we only have $24 million, so it would be wise and efficient with those resources that we have, to make sure we can make those structures available t serve all kids because every teacher deserves a nice room and every student deserves a nice classroom
Garcia: I think one of the most pressing issues that the board will be facing this fall is addressing the learning gaps that I believe a lot of children probably experienced or that I know experienced during the pandemic. Coming on the back side of the pandemic, I believe there’s a lot of work that needs to be done in getting our kids back to the educational levels they need to be at in a safe and healthy environment – not just for the students, but for the teachers and I believe that’s going to take up a lot of our time. We may not know yet how big those learning gaps are, but it’s going to be really important to evaluate and figure out where we need to be so we can put our students first and help to make up some of the loss they’ve experienced over the last year. I agree with the other candidates that infrastructure right now is a really important topic to be looking at. I was fortunate to review a couple of presentations at the last board meeting and was really pleased that was brought forward but it’s going to be a lot of work. It’s going to be something we’re going to have to takie a lot of time into but I think it should be pursued avidly to make sure that our schools are the best for our students.
Given what we’ve learned over the last year and a half about COVID-19 and how it is transmitted as well as the experience that we’ve garnered with in-person schooling, can you please share your thoughts about policies to begin the new school year in August?
Jones: There definitely has to be a policy in place with what defines telecommuting teachers and those who come into the workplace, making sure that every teacher is treated fair and equal. There are some teachers that have chosen next school year to work from home through the remote learning academy and I have no problem with that as long as we give them the correct resources to do such things and they’re not treated differently from their peers. More importantly, I’m hoping we have a policy in place that protects the student. Every student learns differently and no student should be pressured to come back into school knowing that COVID will probably be around for a couple more years.
Garcia: I believe that we need to have policies in place that do protect the rights of each student and each teacher. I also think we need to be very open about discussions that need to happen. I feel like we be allowing our students and teachers to be able to communicate as to how they field so that we can take into consideration how everybody is going to be feeling going back into school full-time. I think the policies that need to be put into place need to protective of everybody’s rights, whether it’s mask or not, vaccinations or not. We all to look at that and be very open to how that’s going to affect different people in different situations and make sure that the students and the teachers all feel safe and comfortable going back into the classroom. There in particular should be policies in place that protect against against bullying in a COVID situation so that people do not feel threatened or uncomfortable in expressing how they feel if they’re uncomfortable in a certain situation.
Green: I believe that we have excellent public health officials and they partner so efficiently with the New Mexico Public Education Department that it would be very important to listen to those guidelines that some forth from the PED in our state and to incorporate those guidelines into any policies regarding Los Alamos Public Schools. I also think that it is very important to listen to our teachers and their feelings on any policies regarding COVID-19 because without our teachers we would not be able to facilitate sustainable education, whether it be in-person or remote learning. I also fee that it would be very pertinent to invest in PPE, cleaning supplies, all of those sorts of things and make sure they’re readily available for administrators, staff and students at any point in time should they feel they need something like that.
What aspects of the strategic plan do you feel the district is meeting well and what does the district need to improve on with regard to the strategic plan?
Garcia: I feel the district does a very good job at providing excellent curriculum for our students. I feel like the district also keeps in mind moving forward with infrastructure projects that will improve our schools. I feel sometimes there is a disconnect between the learning capabilities and the curriculum that does come through so I feel a closer look at certain aspects for certain grades would be important and I feel getting a plan in progress to move forward would help our students continue to learn, especially coming off of COVID. I feel at this time that we could also improve on making sure our teachers are put in a position where they have the ability to openly communicate.
Green: I especially like that the strategic plan focuses on resiliency and respect. I feel that the mission and goals and commitments are all very well laid out and I especially appreciate the emphasis on mental health and socio-emotional wellness with regard to our students and teachers. I would love to see an expansion on that socio-emotional wellness especially with the mental health services that are provided in the schools. I do have an understanding as a counselor of the roles and tasks of school counselors and I would really love to see policy that supports them doing their work; students reaching out to school counselots when necessary and not only students but administrators – making sure that the load of mental wellness is evenly distributed so that we all can support each other.
Jones: I think one of the good things we’ve done on the strategic plan is communications. During my four years with the district we did a good job with social media and website reachout, newsletters, School Messenger was used, PowerSchool was used between students and teachers. Google Classroom helped out. They did a really good job with communication. As far as communications, in my opinion, fiscal responsibililty still needs to be a little more transparent. We received close to $8 million from the Department of Energy and $2.2 million in rental fees. And how we spend that money, we need to make sure it’s applicable across the board for all schools and all teachers and all programs. So I would probably work on a more transparent process for where that money is going.
Our school board has a good working relationship with the union. What is your experience with collective bargaining and how would you support collaboration between the school board and the union?
Green: I have anecdotal experience with unions. My mother was/is a member of the union; she works for the phone company… and I grew up in a pro-union house so I was able to experience first-hand experience with how the union supported the workers and how important that was for their well-being and protection. In feel that open communication and transparency would be very important. When it comes to collective bargaining, I feel that supporting a thriving rage offers opportunities and that listening to our teachers and staff, really deeply hearing their needs, would also contribute to a healthy and authentic communication between the school board and the union.
Jones: I have had some personal experience in the public sector and the private sector with unions. I have no problem with unions whatsoever. In face, unions are good; they hold people accountable on both sides of the fence. The previous union president for Los Alamos Public Schools was a great lady. She was fair, she was open and honest. I hope the new president does the same thing and I believe that the administration has been fair and honest as well. You have a great relationship – better than most school districts I’ve been a part of. Continuing that good relationship will take a lot of equity and fairness on both sides to make sure that the pay is fair and that nobody is being underpaid compared to other forms of employment within our school district. My personal opinion is if you give out 3 percent pay increases to your teachers, you should give no more than that to your administration staff.
Garcia: My experience in working with collective bargaining and supporting collaboration comes from my experience working in the prvate sector with Los Alamos National Laboratory. I continuously work with multiple teams across the organization and work with senior management, all who have different goals within the same project and I try to view the school board and the teachers’ union in the same way. We all have the same goal within the project of educating our children and we have different aspects that we represent. So working together to create a positive working environment, keeping good relations with the union as they provide support for our teachers, resources for our teachers, is a positive thing because they are our educators in our classrooms with our students every day. So I find it extraordinarily vital to keep an open mind, to keep a positive attitude and to continue areas of process improvement with the union and within our school administration.
Other questions and answers from the forum may be watched on the Zoom recording at https://drive.google.com/file/d/1-rNFqY6JsRcvDTFwH7-BTDMW_WtUtYKj/view. Questions and answers not included in this story begin at around the 50-minute mark on the recording.