Steamboat Springs city council candidate Kyle Pietras speaks during Wednesday's First Impressions of Routt County candidates forum in the Commissioners Hearing Room at the Routt County Courthouse.

Photo by Matt Stensland

Steamboat Springs city council candidate Kyle Pietras speaks during Wednesday's First Impressions of Routt County candidates forum in the Commissioners Hearing Room at the Routt County Courthouse.

Candidates discuss child care, education at forum

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Election 2009

Visit www.steamboatpilot.com/election2009 for complete coverage of this year's races and issues.

— Candidates for local positions discussed their thoughts Wednesday about government's role in early childhood care and education.

All seven candidates for seats on the Steamboat Springs City Council, all three for the Steamboat Springs School Board and one candidate for the Hayden School Board appeared at an afternoon forum at the Routt County Courthouse, hosted by the child advocacy group First Impressions of Routt County.

Each candidate answered the same question: Colorado ranks toward the bottom of the list for state funding of early childhood care and education programs. What should the role of local government be when it comes to these programs?

The candidates' answers were very supportive of early childhood care and education, First Impressions and local government's role in assisting those programs. Many cited their experience with local programs, having sent their children to Steamboat day-care facilities.

Some offered examples of past support as members of local government entities or boards.

Former City Council President Kevin Bennett, who's opposing at-large council member Cari Hermacinski for the District 1 seat, said he supported First Impressions as a council member in 1998, and would continue if re-elected.

"I can think of nothing that is more important to this community than the First Impressions program," he said.

Hermacinski said she would draw on her experience as a council member for the past two years and as a member of the city's Human Resource Coalition, which dedicates city funding to human services organizations in Routt County.

"I'd like to see all children participate in (early childhood programs), no matter what their family's financial situation may be," Hermacinski said, citing the developmental importance of a child's first years.

Walter Magill, who is running unopposed as an incumbent in City Council District 3, said recognition of early childhood development is growing.

"In 1970, 17 percent of children ages 3 to 5 went to full-day kindergarten. In 2005, it was 65 percent of children," he said. "That's because of working, single-parent families or both parents working, but also because people realize how much education takes place in those programs."

At-large council seat

City Council candidate Kyle Pietras, who is running against former City Council member Jim Engelken, said research indicates that children who start behind, stay behind.

"Quality early education programs give them the social, language and a number of skills that they need," Pietras said. "Early education prepares children, especially at-risk children for school. : Children who get a better start are less likely to need expensive special ed. They're more likely to graduate, go to college, get jobs and repeat this process with their own families."

Engelken said he would listen to First Impressions if elected - and then turned the topic to another contentious campaign issue.

"I would look to you folks to tell us what should be done in addition to what is being done. I'd be happy to hear about that," he said to early childhood professionals at the forum. "What I can tell you is I would be far more inclined to subsidize early childhood education, after-school programs or affordable housing programs than I would to subsidize growth and development, which is what the current council is doing."

District 2 council seat

Kenny Reisman is opposing Ken Solomon for the District 2 City Council seat. An educator for 14 years, he said local government needs to do everything possible to keep early childhood care and education programs appropriately funded because of the lack of state and federal resources.

"The Human Resources Coalition has been successful, and we must continue to fund this entity so dollars are used wisely, so organizations like your own and the programs they create can flourish," he said. "We have to collaborate with local facilities that are not licensed, emphasizing the importance of licensing, and assist them through the licensing process, all to ensure our children's safety."

Ken Solomon - whose wife, Susan, runs a home day care service - said he's seen firsthand the growth and developmental skills achieved when a child is given a safe, clean and nurturing environment to make emotional connections with others.

"I believe Steamboat's children are one of our greatest assets," he said. "They will impact our community and our county, either positively or negatively, largely depending on the quality of their day care and their first early years. I feel it's important for local government to partner with other entities, both public and private, to accurately fund programs such as First Impressions so all our community's children have equal access to early childhood care."

School Board

Brian Kelly, who's running against Bill Kennedy for the District 1 Steamboat Springs School Board seat, said a school funding crisis is imminent - as it was in 1993, when he served on a committee for the city's half-cent sales tax for education.

"We as advocates of education, whether it's K-12 or 3 to 5 years old, it's up to us to be advocates for this now, support for the HRC tax and make sure it's successful," he said.

Bill Kennedy worked for 39 years in education in New York, including time spent as chairman of the early childhood education committee for the New York state curriculum committee.

"Early childhood education, early literacy is the most important thing that we can be dealing with, the most important thing we can talk about funding for," he said. "The community's responsibility to fund these programs, I believe is huge."

Denise Connelly, who is running unopposed as the incumbent District 3 representative on the School Board, mentioned collaboration.

"What I think we need to do is have partnerships with the schools, share our facilities, share our resources," she said. "We also have in the half-cent sales tax, a grant writer. If we can have grants that coordinate with both the kindergarten and preschool programs, that would be great."

Vance Fulton, incumbent District B representative on the Hayden School Board, said he would like more information.

"I'm just interested in learning more about First Impressions and looking to hear ideas on help, not just financially, but hearing ideas about how to improve on early childhood education," he said. "It's a huge issue, especially given the economic climate we're in right now."

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