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Meet the 2021 Jeffco School Board candidates: District 1

In November 2021, voters will select from seven school board candidates running for three open Jeffco School Board seats in Districts 1, 2, and 5. All candidates are running for four-year terms that will end in late 2025.

Candidates Danielle Varda and Jeffrey Wilhite are running for the District 1 seat that is currently held by Brad Rupert.

In District 2, candidates David Johnson, Paula Reed, and Theresa Shelton are running for the seat currently held by Susan Harmon.

In District 5, Kathy Miks and Mary Parker are running. The District 5 seat is currently held by Rick Rush, who was appointed in December 2020 after Ron Mitchell resigned in November 2020, citing health issues and a desire to spend more time with family. Rush, who had previous filled a District 5 vacancy from October 2008 to November 2009, chose not to run for the seat this fall.

Neither Harmon nor Rupert were eligible to run, having served one and a half terms already. Jeffco School Board members are limited to serving for two full terms.

Jeffco PEN school board candidate questionnaire

On Sept. 27, Jeffco PEN sent a list of questions to all seven candidates. Three candidates responded, three directed readers to their campaign websites, and one did not respond.

We printed the questions that we sent to all candidates and their answers exactly as they responded, proofreading only for typos or formatting for our website.

Today, we feature the candidates from District 1: Varda and Wilhite. Only Varda responded to our questions.

The profiles of District 2 candidates can be found here. Profiles for District 5 candidates can be found here.

More information about candidates is also available on each candidate’s website. Candidate websites and information about forums are included after the profiles.

Danielle Varda profile picture

Danielle Varda

What can Jeffco Schools do to improve student achievement? What is the best way to measure that achievement?

In order for kids to thrive and achieve academic success, we have to look at the whole child. The research clearly shows that the zip code where a person is born determines 80 percent of their health and mental health outcomes. We are still doing the research to understand that in the education space, but we can be sure that it very similar. That is because the social and economic factors that families face impact their outcomes.

When families do not have access to food or adequate housing, they cannot come to school ready to learn. That means we need to look at the systems that result in inequities, like poverty, and also the upstream determinants of their health and education outcomes. Students have a variety of social and economic factors that influence their achievement. Some have special needs and other have unlimited support and resources. It’s critical that we create environments where kids of all types can succeed, and this requires looking holistically at the various factors that contribute to success.

One innovation that I support is the community school model, which is a place-based strategy in which schools partner with community agencies and allocate resources to provide an “integrated focus on academics, health and social services, youth and community development, and community engagement.” This is where partnerships with community organizations can be leveraged to bring not only resources for teaching into the schools, but also resources for better health and mental health resources, dental services, food options, developmental services, and other resources to support the whole child/family. In communities where these needs are greatest and the most inequities exist, we can bring the resources to the school, as the hub of the community, and support families where they live.

I also believe that the superintendent’s plan to provide more district-level resources that are distributed equally to the schools can alleviate some of the need for school-level funding to provide those resources.

In terms of measuring achievement, I am a strong proponent of mixed methodologies. Everything can be measured with a good research design. As a professional researcher, I design evaluation studies for a living. The best way to measure student achievement is to identify the many factors that demonstrate achievement, and be skillful in the design of how to measure, collect, and analyze these data. Currently we rely almost entirely on test scores. I believe tests can be good assessments, however they are limited in how they measure student achievement. This is evidenced by the elimination of GRE scores as entrance criteria in most colleges and universities (including my own department at UC Denver). In the School of Public Affairs, we have expanded our entrance criteria measures, and eliminated the GRE requirement. This not only helps us better assess a student’s likelihood to succeed, but also gives us a greater understanding of the student. We need to bring this kind of thinking about measuring achievement into our K-12 systems.

Besides student achievement, what are three other priority issues facing Jeffco Schools today and what steps would you take as a school board member to address those issues?

First, it is critical that we focus on the mental health and well-being of our kids, teachers, and families. We need to destigmatize this issue and work collaboratively with community organizations to bring resources and training into our schools.

Second, I’d like to see the expansion of Jeffco’s focus on school to career programming, emphasizing partnerships with businesses, nonprofits, and government. For example, in Arvada, Jeffco Schools has a robust and growing relationship with the Arvada Chamber of Commerce and the Arvada Works Talent Pipeline. These kinds of partnerships are good for kids and brings much needed engagement between the community, employers, and our schools to prepare students for promising futures.

And third, we have a critical teacher and staff shortage right now. We need to address this with more support and fair compensation so that Jeffco is a competitive place to work, raise a family, and build promising futures.

Will you prioritize expanding Warren Tech programming so that programs are available at multiple campuses to reach more students? If so, what steps will you take as a board member to achieve this goal?

While college is a great next step for many of our Jeffco graduates, it is not their only choice after high school. The programming at Warren Tech is a great example of how we can support our students for a variety of careers in the technical fields. As a parent, I am thrilled to see the district’s support for this kind of opportunity for our kids, and as an employer and technologist I know the value of a diverse and comprehensive learning experience. Students graduating from Warren Tech will have an advantage in the workforce, with superb programming and a growing reputation.

As a board member, I will continue to advocate and support this type of programming across the district. With the opening of Warren Tech South we have additional opportunities to experiment with innovative ways to teach kids a variety of marketable skills. We need to be sure we are evaluating these programs, learning from them, and then exploring how to scale the programs (if deemed successful and solvent) across the district.

What will you do to ensure the Superintendent not only follows the recommendations of the CDC, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and Jefferson County Public Health with regard to COVID protocols, but also enforces compliance in our schools in light of the data clearly demonstrating that schools that only recommended masks have higher case counts and quarantines?

It is important to all of us that we do what we can to keep kids in school, safely, with uninterrupted learning. The last few years have been disruptive to our kids, families, teachers, and staff and we all need time and work to renormalize. The CDC, CDPHE, and JCPH have developed and outlined protocols that allow us to meet the collective goal of getting and keeping our kids in school. I think it is important that the Board support these guidelines and explore how best to implement them in the context of our specific district needs. I trust that the superintendent will do what is right for our kids, teachers, and staff to keep them safe with a priority on keeping kids in school. I believe that we all want the same outcomes on this issue, and that as a board we can work collaboratively with the superintendent and other stakeholders to do what is best for our kids, families, teachers, and staff.

How, specifically, will you work as a school board member to address ADA protections and civil rights of at-risk students, specifically our most marginalized student populations (students of color, students with disabilities, LGBTQAI+ students, students living in poverty, ELL, marginalized gender identifies and religions)?

Equity, diversity, and inclusion remains an issue in our schools, which means that ensuring ADA protections and the civil rights of at-risk, especially marginalized students, is of the utmost importance. We need to consider how to address these issues of inequity form a systemic lens.

I would begin to address this issue by better understanding the data related to inequities in our county, and how that is impacting education outcomes. I would also listen to and ask questions of these affected populations, and try to discover what kinds of barriers, challenges, and fears they face, and work in partnership with our community, schools, and board members to address them. Protection of these groups of students — along with advocacy for their rights — needs to continue to be addressed, at all levels of a schools infrastructure. No one entity will solve these kinds of systemic issues alone, but we can work together to create coordinated systems of protection and care for our all of our kids.

Jeffrey WilhiteJeffrey Wilhite

Wilhite did not submit answers to the questionnaire but invited readers to visit his website.

Candidate websites and candidate forum information

Jeffco School Board District 1

Danielle Varda —

Jeffrey Wilhite —

Jeffco School Board District 2

David Johnson —

Paula Reed —

Theresa Shelton —

Jeffco School Board District 5

Kathy Miks —

Mary Parker —

Jeffco School Board candidate forums

Election day is Nov. 2

Ballots will be mailed to Jeffco voters beginning Friday, Oct. 8. Any registered voter in Jeffco can vote for one school board candidate in each district. School board seats are selected through a county-wide vote, though the candidates represent specific parts of Jeffco.

All Jeffco ballots are due by Tuesday, Nov. 2. at 7 pm.

Lisa Cook

Lisa Cook, Ph.D., is a writer, editor, musicologist and Jeffco resident since 1999 with two children attending Jeffco Schools. Lisa earned a BA from Valparaiso University, a Masters in Music from Colorado State University, and her Ph.D. in musicology from the University of Colorado at Boulder. When not working, she can be found running (ideally on mountain trails) with Midnight, her miniature poodle. Please visit our "About Us" page to learn more about Lisa and our other writers.

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