Recently we were able to snag some communication time with outgoing Jeffco School Board member and former board president Lesley Dahlkemper. We wanted to get a clear view from a current board member about what was working and what was not working on the school board. Future board members, regardless of their political stripes, can learn valuable insights from a veteran. As a voter, please consider her wins and losses as you contemplate the types of members you’d like to see on the board in the future.
Ms. Dahlkemper’s top two accomplishments were around budgeting and community engagement. She came in during a time of very tight budget constraints. “The board collaborated with community members, parents, district leaders, educators and the employee associations to make decisions that kept difficult budget cuts away from classrooms,” she said. “This work was tied with walking door-to-door and phone banking with other parents and community members to pass a modest bond package that addressed immediate needs to keep students ‘safe, warm and dry’ as well as a mill levy package to maintain Outdoor Lab, band, class sizes, and other services, which were at risk.” It was a strong, collaborative community effort. It was also bipartisan, and both and both Democratic and Republican parents worked on the effort.
With respect to community engagement, she said, “As board president, I worked with my board colleagues and the Colorado Association of School Boards to draft the policy. An excerpt from the policy states: ‘The board believes that engaging our community is essential to preserving a strong system of public education. The board’s policies and decisions should reflect community values, good educational practice and available financial resources.’ Jeffco is one of only a handful of school boards with such a policy.”
Unfortunately, community engagement takes more than just listening. It takes courage to act according to the wishes of the public. Ms. Dahlkemper explained “My greatest disappointment [over the last two years] was several failed motions during multiple board meetings to fund full-day kindergarten for schools with students on the cusp of free- and reduced-lunch.”
The board was presented with data, many times, about this critical need and impact it makes on children. During her first two years, the former board did approve full-day kindergarten funding for more than one dozen at risk schools, but the current board repeatedly turned down her motions on a 3-2 vote in the last two years.
Not only should the board listen and act according to the public wishes to the degree they can with budget constraints, they should also listen to each other. Jeffco Schools has had a rich tradition of board members with diverse views who have worked together in the best interests of all children.
In the past, they listened closely to our community to identify priorities. They followed board policies that required them to study a proposal and ask questions – with a vote always occurring at the second meeting. “It’s been disheartening to see surprise after surprise introduced at the board table,” she said. “These surprises range from hiring a school board attorney prior to knowing his hourly rate and scope of work to a recent resolution gutting months of work by parent and district leaders designed to better align the district accountability committee to state law to a new compensation system that was never fully vetted with Ms. Fellman, me or employees – as policy requires.”
The message from this outgoing member could not be more clear: “Listen to the community – including those with whom you agree and disagree. Study the issues. Ask lots of questions. Find common ground and build from there. Communicate clearly – and in a variety of ways – to the public about the board’s rationale for its decisions. Work closely with other board members to come up with meaningful, innovative solutions to complex challenges. Always remember that your decisions affect 85,000 children and the quality of Jeffco’s schools. These decisions have implications for us all regardless of whether we have children enrolled in a Jeffco school. Great schools and great communities go hand-in-hand. It is a privilege to serve on the Jeffco school board.”
As for staying engaged in education, don’t worry. Besides her full time job in education, Ms. Dahlkemper is involved in her daughter’s school – both its PTA and school accountability committees. As any parent of a tween knows, being a supportive, present parent is key at this time in her daughter’s life. She will have much more time to do this effectively.
On the fun side, she’ll spend her Sundays reading the New York Times and Denver Post cover to cover in lieu of Board Docs. Most of all she says, “I’m eager to spend more time with my daughter, Grace, and my husband, Mike. It seems like just yesterday we were taking Grace to Rooney Ranch Elementary School for her first day of kindergarten. In two short years, she will be in high school. In six years, she will graduate from high school. Time is fleeting. I want to be fully present for her and for Mike.”