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Ogden, Weber school board hopefuls touch on safety, achievement, equity

By Tim Vandenack - | Oct 5, 2022
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Several hopefuls for the Ogden and Weber school boards in elections this cycle took part in a debate Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022, at the Pleasant Valley Branch library in Washington Terrace. They are, from left, Weber School District hopefuls Heidi Gross in District 6 and Kelly Larson in District 1 and Ogden School District hopefuls Jeremy Shinoda and Amber Allred in District 4 and Douglas Barker and Stacy Bernal in District 2.
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Several hopefuls for the Ogden and Weber school boards in elections this cycle took part in a debate Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022, at the Pleasant Valley Branch library in Washington Terrace. They are, from left, Weber School District hopefuls Heidi Gross in District 6 and Kelly Larson in District 1 and Ogden School District hopefuls Jeremy Shinoda and Amber Allred in District 4 and Douglas Barker and Stacy Bernal in District 2.
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Several hopefuls for the Ogden and Weber school boards in elections this cycle took part in a debate Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022, at the Pleasant Valley Branch library in Washington Terrace. They are, from left, Weber School District hopefuls Heidi Gross in District 6 and Kelly Larson in District 1 and Ogden School District hopefuls Jeremy Shinoda and Amber Allred in District 4 and Douglas Barker and Stacy Bernal in District 2.

WASHINGTON TERRACE — Six hopefuls vying for school board posts in the Ogden and Weber school districts touched on critical race theory, student achievement levels, school safety and more at a debate Tuesday as Election Day creeps closer.

It was a civil affair — no flare ups or confrontations — and many of the candidates’ views overlapped. And though questioned about critical race theory, a hot-button topic that prompts hand-wringing and worry among some, none seemed to think it’s being taught in Weber County schools, with several saying it’s a theoretical topic more suited for college academia.

On hand were the District 2 hopefuls on the Ogden school board, incumbent Douglas Barker and challenger Stacy Bernal, and the District 4 hopefuls in Ogden, incumbent Amber Allred and Jeremy Shinoda.

Kelly Larson, the sole hopeful for the District 1 seat on the Weber school board, was on hand, as was Heidi Gross, vying for the District 6 seat on the Weber board. Incumbent District 6 board member Janis Christensen, though seeking reelection, did not attend due to a family emergency.

The Weber County League of Women Voters and the Ogden branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People hosted the event, attended by around 30 people. It was held at the Pleasant Valley Branch library in Washington Terrace.

Ogden School District, District 2: Barker, a teacher at South Ogden Junior High School, said his focus of late as a school board member has been on replacing older schools in the district and augmenting career pathways for kids outside the college track, in vocational occupations, for instance.

Bernal, the mother of two kids in Ogden schools and a substitute teacher in the system, noted her “passion for education” and involvement in local civic matters, including her role on the Ogden Diversity Commission. One of her sons is autistic and she runs Awesome Autistic Ogden, an advocacy group.

District 2 covers part of northern Ogden.

Ogden School District, District 4: Allred emphasized her focus on educators — “I truly support our teachers” — and her passion for volunteering in the community in a broad range of areas.

She has kids attending school outside the Ogden system, brought on by her divorce from the father of the children. But having them in other districts helps keep her up to speed on happenings in other systems, which can serve her in her capacity on the Ogden school board. “I think that helps me be open-minded,” she said, and opens her to a broader range of ideas.

Shinoda noted his involvement on varied Ogden School District bodies, including parent-teacher organizations, and his civic involvement, including his role as a member of the Ogden Planning Commission. He emphasized what he said were lower average achievement scores of Ogden students in areas like math and science relative to the statewide averages.

“I’m not happy with where we are. We can do better,” he said.

Shinoda was appointed in late 2019 to fill the District 4 spot after the prior office-holder, Sunni Wilkinson, stepped down. Then Allred defeated Shinoda in 2020 elections to fill the final two years of Wilkinson’s term.

District 4 covers portions of central Ogden and the city’s East Bench area.

Weber School District: Gross, the District 6 hopeful for Weber schools, recently retired as a teacher in the district and now serves as a substitute. She had sharp words for the current board members, characterizing them as out of touch with the public, which spurred her bid.

“They’ve been in closed meetings. They don’t listen to the public,” Gross said.

Terri McCulloch, president of the Weber County League of Women Voters, read a letter Christensen provided given her absence. In it, Christensen called herself a “strong conservative” and noted that her kids went through Weber schools and some of her grandkids are now in the system.

She noted that the district’s high school graduation rate has increased during her tenure and lauded the system’s teachers. She voted against a hike in district taxes last August, meant to help bolster teacher pay, but not because teachers don’t deserve a raise — they do, she thinks — but rather because of economic uncertainty and concern that now isn’t the time boost taxes.

Larson noted that she’s the parent of a student in Weber schools, unlike the other members of the board. She’s also served in varied capacities in parent-teacher organizations.

SECURITY, EQUITY, BOOKS

Asked about school safety, Barker and Allred noted security systems recently installed in several Ogden schools that restrict access by visitors, requiring them to get buzzed in by school office staff at one main entry point. Securing high schools, though, is more complicated, Barker said.

“They have so many points of entry. How do you really maintain security?” he said.

Shinoda said making schools more welcoming places to kids and parents can aid in school security, a sentiment echoed by Gross. Moreover, Gross said, kids need to be encouraged to advise an adult when they hear something of concern to head off potential problems.

Bernal lauded increased security systems implemented at some Ogden schools but expressed concern at the notion of teachers carrying concealed weapons in the classroom as a means of security. “I don’t think that’s the answer,” she said.

On bolstering equity in education, making sure all students have equal access to educational opportunities, some of the hopefuls noted the import of having resources at schools, like showers for homeless kids and clothes-laundering facilities, to help improve their experience in the classroom.

Shinoda put a focus on relatively low academic achievement scores of Ogden students compared to students statewide. “What we can do is increase the full-day kindergarten and help fill the staff assistant positions in our classrooms,” thus bolstering education, he said.

Bernal noted the importance of reducing language barriers in the Ogden school system, home to a large contingent of Latinos, some coming from Spanish-speaking households. Barker emphasized the importance of making sure kids have access to breakfast at school, if not at home.

“I want all of our students to feel they have an equal chance at education regardless of their background,” Allred said.

The candidates were also queried about the notion of banning books in school libraries, on what sort of guidelines should apply in removing books that may be offensive to some.

Allred and Gross put a focus on the importance of families imparting values to their kids that kids can then use in filtering what they choose to read. If access to books is to be limited, the restrictions should only apply to kids of families with concerns, not all students, Gross added, a sentiment echoed by Bernal.

Similarly, if a book is restricted in one school due to a parent’s concerns, that restriction shouldn’t apply to another school where no concerns have been raised, Larson said

None expressed support for teaching critical race theory in the Ogden or Weber schools, but some stressed the importance of accurately teaching history, at an age-appropriate level.

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