Election 2017: Q & A with Mayling Simpson, Steamboat Springs School Board candidate
October 14, 2017
Please describe any involvement you've had with the local school district or any background or experience you have with education?
My involvement with the local school district is through being a parent of two children who attended school at Soda Creek Elementary, Strawberry Park Middle School and Steamboat Springs High School. My background and experience in education includes a bachelor's degree in biology and education and having taught high school in Maryland. I have also taught at the college level, including Colorado Mountain College. When I worked at the World Health Organization in Geneva and with Catholic Relief Services in East Africa, much of my work was on environmental health at schools, both infrastructure and curriculum. I conducted an evaluation for Unicef of 50 rebuilt schools in Kosovo in 2002 following the Balkan Wars. I supported a K-8 school in Nairobi, Kenya, located in the Kibera Slum, raising significant funds for a new building and equipment.
What do you believe the role of a school board member should be in relationship to administration and staff? To parents and students?
The school board is the governing body of the school district. As such, each member must work closely with administration and staff to learn the needs of the school system, to oversee the budget, to approve the curriculum, to support the teachers and allow them to practice their craft and to ensure our students meet state standards for achievement. We also need to keep our eyes on the future. A school board member should continually reach out to parents and students to hear their suggestions and receive general feedback on how well we are doing. A school board member should foster community participation in school life and in information gathering and decision-making. A school board member should communicate clearly with the public about decisions made and actions being taken so that the public is well-informed.
Montessori and North Routt charter schools are currently serving around 280 students, which has helped with Steamboat's facility capacity issues for the time being. Going forward what is your long-term view of the three public schools in the Steamboat School District?
My long-term view is that our district should embrace these schools and their active parents and help them succeed. Currently, they add value to our system. The North Routt Charter School is already a part of the district system. In my view, Montessori can join our system and offer our community a third curriculum choice. There is no doubt this will cost our school district more, as these schools do not have free transportation for students, and they will have, over time, their own infrastructure needs and needs to equalize teachers' salaries with the larger system. But these things can be done with taxpayer support.
What do you think is the most important issue facing the Steamboat Springs School District in the coming years?
The most important issues facing the school district now are growth and overcrowding. It will take probably another year to come up with a plan that most people will endorse and vote for, and then no doubt construct one or more new schools while upgrading other schools. There are specific infrastructure adjustments at each school that need to be addressed, such as the too small cafetoriums at the middle school and Strawberry Park Elementary school, the lack of enough classrooms at Soda Creek Elementary, the need for new gymnasiums nearly all the schools. We are simply running out of space. Teacher housing may become a bigger issue in the future, if home values continue to rise as they have in the past few years and teacher pay remains low relative to the market. We could begin to lose teachers over the housing issue.
In what academic or programmatic area do you think the school district should focus more resources?
We need to prepare our students to live in a world with new emerging challenges. One of our greatest future challenges will be around societies adapting to climate change. Another will be coping with even greater world population growth and helping our social institutions, such as schools and public health care institutions, keep up with that growth. Thus we need to prepare our children to work and contribute their talents in such a world by training them in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), mental and emotional health and nation-building. Given certain political instabilities in the world today, I would think greater emphasis might be placed on civics, understanding governance and the important role each person can and should play in making their society work.
What would be your top three priorities as a newly elected board member?
My first priority would be to address how we are going to handle future growth as well as current overcrowding. I would like to see a comprehensive plan put in place as soon as possible. Second, I would like to build greater community participation through an enhanced communications program that reaches not only parents and students but also other members of the community who do not have children currently in school. Third, I want to learn how the school board can be more supportive of teachers and principals.
In the last school board election, some of the candidates who were running received money from out-of-town interests. Are you accepting or aware of any special interests funding you or your campaign has received or will be receiving?
I made the decision not to accept any funds from any special interest group. I do not want my name tied to any group. I do not know of any special interests funding my campaign. No special interest group has contacted me nor have I contacted any group. I am completely neutral. I work only for the people of the RE-2 School District. I have no ideological agenda to push. I try to make practical evidence-based decisions and enjoy receiving input from all sides. I am a passionate supporter of public education, which I believe is the foundation of democracy. So far, I have used only my own funds to support my campaign.
How do you think schools should measure student achievement?
The school district is required by the state to measure a portion of student achievement through testing. Testing is one measurement tool. Writing is another. Creating and designing are others. Teachers are usually good evaluators of student progress and achievement by interacting with them throughout the school year. When I taught high school biology, I had a set of criteria by which I measured student achievement that involved small tests, bigger exams, short writing assignments within the classroom, oral reports on science news, completion of laboratory experiments and class participation. Yes, even when I saw increased class participation in discussion, which I noted on each student each school day, I counted that in the achievement score. My students could also see their own achievements and scores through my system and could see where they needed improvement. I might add that when I instituted this open system, I had no discipline problems – they evaporated.
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Open ended – why are you seeking a seat on the Steamboat Springs school board?
I have always been involved in education throughout my career, whether teaching or working in international development and public health. I had been thinking about serving on the school board for the last year or two. When I saw in this election that only one candidate had stepped forward for two seats, I felt that I should step forward also. We simply need an excellent school board, and I believe each of us, at one time or another, should run for public office and serve our communities. I felt this was my time. I have the experience in education, I have held jobs in which I have managed large budgets and served on committees and boards that made significant policy decisions. At the World Health Organization I helped to prepare policy papers for the World Health Assembly to officially adopt. I have worked at the policy level in several different cultures where diplomacy is paramount in achieving your goal. I want to see a school board that is harmonious and makes decisions based on evidence and clear thinking. All ideologies, except a belief in the value of public education, should be put aside.