From the Chalkbeat Article on Oct. 5, 2017

We asked the 2017 Jeffco school board candidates seven questions. Here are their responses.

Excerpts from the article below:

Q:  Tell us a bit about yourself. How long have you lived in the school district? What do you do for a living?

Matthew Van Gieson

I was born and raised in Jefferson County and have lived here my entire life. I grew up in a trailer park; some would say we were poor, but we had a good life. Education was important to my parents and my mom wanted to me to be close to her during the day. She worked in a hair salon and because of school choice she could take me to school next to her work. My public education positioned me to get a college degree.

I work as a system analyst and project manager, simplifying complex systems and improving results.

My wife and I have four children; our baby is fourteen weeks old and our oldest is seven. We did the math and combined we have nearly fifty years of public education ahead of us. We know that half of Jeffco third graders don’t read at grade level; in our house that would be two of our four children who wouldn’t be ready for fourth grade work. That doesn’t seem right to us.

We are proud Jeffco graduates and want our children to receive the same high quality education that was available when we went to school.

Erica Shields

I am a happily married mom of four children and have lived in Jeffco for over 10 years. I was adopted when I was 3 ½ out of a foster home by two loving yet strict parents, who instilled in me the importance of education and who taught me that education was the key to success and opportunity.

I went to public schools my entire life, and graduated from high school as a Sterling Scholar.  I went on to get my B.S., M.P.H. and eventually my Ph.D in public health education. I have spent my entire career in health and fitness, working with at-risk children and families. Service-learning and community engagement is important to me.

I serve our homeless populations including school-aged children, our active-duty military, and veterans. I recently received the honor of being inducted into the Rotary whose motto is “Service Above Self”.


Q:  Tell us about your connection to the school district.

Matthew Van Gieson

Jeffco schools are important in my life; I met my wife in high school and learned that it is important for parents to be engaged in our schools. My dad worked nights and made time to be a classroom volunteer and active with PTA.

I went to Jeffco schools from kindergarten through high school, attending Lawrence elementary, Drake Junior High and Arvada West. My wife is also an Arvada West graduate. She attended Deane, Stevens, and Swanson elementary schools. (yes, the Swanson which the board threatened to close) She also attended North Arvada and Oberon Junior High.

We live close to schools that were on the closure list and have friends in many of the schools which were threatened.

I volunteered with the backpack program at Pleasant View Elementary and know about the additional services that were provided to students. When it was announced the school was on the closure list again it was like the air was let out of a balloon and parents didn’t seem to have the energy to fight again. Pleasant View served some of the poorest students in Jeffco and no one on the board stood up for the community. That needs to change.

Erica Shields

All four of my children have been through JeffCo public schools; I have two who have graduated and one each in elementary and middle school. I am a very active volunteer and have attended field trips, worked in classrooms, helped with PTA and fundraisers.

I believe it is crucial our students learn to read, so I also spend time reading in classrooms and in our high poverty elementary schools. I have many friends who are district staff members, and I know first-hand how important having great teachers, support staff, and a healthy, safe, and nurturing school environment is to us all.


Q:  Superintendent Jason Glass recently announced a moratorium on school closures. Under what circumstances do you believe school closures, if ever, are correct to consider, and which factors should be weighed?

Matthew Van Gieson

Only the school board can decide not to close schools and my opponent voted to close two schools which serve a high percent of students in poverty. As poor as I was growing up, I can’t imagine my parents having to fight to keep my school open.

As a volunteer at Pleasant View, I experienced the stress and anxiety the community experienced and the distress it caused. These families and those at the 25 schools which will have less than 300 students if sixth graders are moved and may be threatened with closure, need a voice on the board.

I watched as parents learned Pleasant View would be closed. They wondered if their children’s new school would have breakfast before the bell; a holiday shop where they could trade volunteer hours for presents; or the weekend backpacks of food, which helped them feed their families. They wondered why all of the work the community invested in improving student achievement didn’t matter to the board.

The latest research shows achievement doesn’t improve when schools close and I can’t imagine being responsible for breaking up a community. I support keeping small schools open.

Erica Shields

I strongly believe that our neighborhood schools are the fabric of our community, and when closed, cause disruption and anxiety to not only the children and families, but to the entire school community.

In 2011, the Superintendent promised there wouldn’t be school closures and then surprised the board, asking them to close Martensen elementary. The board closed the school, which split the community. So I know that the Superintendent does not have the authority to decide schools won’t close. That is a board responsibility. This year, the current board surprised communities threatening to close high quality and low enrollment schools. This scares families, lowers enrollment and creates a downward cycle which isn’t good for communities.

My opponent voted to close a high performing neighborhood school, Stober, which fortunately didn’t close. She also voted to close Pleasant View which did close. The community which served many students in poverty, had just a few months to make adjustments. Neighbors are now attending two different schools, which don’t have the same level of supports for their students.

Communities should never be surprised with the threat of closure. We MUST create transparent processes that fully engages communities so that these surprises don’t happen.


Q:  Another focus of the new superintendent has been to concentrate more on equity issues. What do you think are the most critical equity issues facing Jeffco Public Schools, and what can the district do to ensure better opportunities and achievement for all students?

Matthew Van Gieson

Growing up in a low income household, I know the most important way to deliver equity for all students is to have a strong leader in each school and a highly effective teacher in each classroom. I know students need role models to help them believe they can succeed and define that path. Teachers tell me they need the skills and flexibility to meet the needs of their students.

In Jeffco about one in four third graders who qualified for free or reduced lunch, or had limited English proficiency, met English Language Arts expectations last year. District wide only 50 percent of third graders met these expectations. The issue is much bigger than equity.

It is apparent that there must be significant improvement across the district so all students have access to effective education. It’s also clear there are things that are working in many schools.

I will bring balance to the board, respectfully asking for improvement plans and holding the Superintendent accountable for success. The board must ensure investments are being made in what improves achievement. It would be good to understand how the $50 million it will cost to move sixth graders could be better allocated to improve achievement.

Erica Shields

While Jeffco’s growth scores are improving, 50 percent of all third through eigth graders aren’t meeting the grade level standards in English Language Arts or Math. For our minority students and those who live in poverty their scores are significantly lower, and the gap is not closing. That is just unacceptable.

I know from the hours I spend reading in classrooms all across the district, families want the same things for their children. They want their children to have a great education. We need to take pressures off our teachers and let them have the flexibility to meet the needs of their students. We need to provide the training our teachers and staff need to meet the needs of all of their students.

When the principal of one of Jeffco’s lowest performing schools presented to the board discussing why her students had such great improvement last year, she said it was a result of the things her staff had learned. They were part of a state-wide learning community and refocused their efforts, learning from others across the state and from each other. Jeffco must attract and retain the very best teachers so every child has access to great education.

Q:  What role do you believe charter schools should have in the district?

Matthew Van Gieson

Jeffco has some of the first charter schools in the state. They’ve been successfully serving students for two decades. In addition Jeffco has a range of public choice schools. Like my parents, Jeffco families can decide to send their children to a neighborhood school which is a better geographic fit. They can choose any neighborhood school which has space, or an option or public charter school. Knowing that each student has unique needs, the variety of public school options helps Jeffco serve the needs of diverse students.

Charter schools also give parents an opportunity to help create a community not defined by geography. Jeffco‘s newest charter school will be located in one of the highest poverty neighborhoods and will serve an economically diverse population. Some research shows this is one of the best practices and leads to significantly improved student achievement. Parents can decide this is the best environment for their students. Zip codes no longer have to determine the quality of education.

Charter schools also offer a variety of curriculum choices not available in district run schools and we even host the Rocky Mountain Deaf charter school. All of these choice are important for the families in our community.

Erica Shields

I know first-hand that not all children learn the same, and there is not a one-size-fits-all education solution which can serve all children. In fact, one of my children attended a charter school for a year that best met his needs at the time.

Charter schools in Jeffco offer models and curriculums not available in district-run schools. We have an amazing Waldorf charter, many Montessori and Core Knowledge/Classical charters and even a new Arts Integrated Academy. We also have a charter which serves new immigrants with extended hours that allows students to learn at their pace. These offerings aren’t available in all neighborhoods in our district-run schools and many charter schools have wait lists. Clearly charter schools offer a public school choice to families whose students’ needs aren’t met in district-run schools. This is a crucial role for charter schools.

Charter schools are the ultimate in locally controlled schools as parents and teachers govern them and can ask for flexibility from state and district policies to better meet the need of their students. The role of charter schools, like all public schools, is to educate our students and prepare them for college or career.


Q:  Do you think the district should reconsider a ballot measure to ask voters for a tax increase for the school district? Is there something the district should do differently if they do ask?

Matthew Van Gieson

Property taxes are already rising by 10 to 20 percent across Jeffco and we have many seniors on fixed incomes already stressed about how they can afford to stay in their homes. Additionally as long as a majority of voters don’t trust how their money is being spent and don’t see that their taxes are being invested wisely so student achievement improves, they won’t vote to raise their taxes.

Voters tell me they don’t understand how the board continues to say there is a lack of funds and yet they are continuing down the path to spend $50 million forcing sixth graders to move out of elementary schools and into middle schools. They don’t like that this limits choice in places like Manning which will have less seats for each grade. They don’t like that millions need to be spent to expand Creighton, Ken Caryl and Summit Ridge and there is no plan to address how this will happen.

They don’t understand why these funds aren’t being used to build a new school and eliminate temps. Asking for more money in this environment is just a waste of the quarter of a million dollars it costs to run the election.

Erica Shields

What community members are telling me is they won’t support increasing their taxes until they know how the nearly billion dollar budget improves student achievement. They are disheartened that in all grades nearly 50 percent of students don’t meet grade-level expectations. They don’t understand how the increases in spending on things like a new math curriculum have improved student achievement. I am also hearing that they don’t understand how the board brought them a bond proposal that would cost a billion dollars to pay back but had so little allocated to fixing facilities.

They didn’t like closing small elementary schools and building large schools. They don’t support moving sixth graders to middle school and building classrooms when there are already many empty seats. They don’t want $50 million to be spent adding onto middle schools. They want money to go the teachers, the classroom, and toward updating schools that need it like Wheat Ridge and Green Mountain High Schools. It is important that we be responsible with our budget and obtain community support before we ask for tax increases. As a board member, I wouldn’t support increasing taxes if the community as a whole doesn’t.


Q:  What do you see as the biggest issue facing Jeffco schools today and how do you hope to have an impact on that issue as a school board member?

Matthew Van Gieson

The biggest issue facing Jeffco is the need to have balance on the board. There are very simple differences in what the community wants and the path the board is forcing.

It would be very simple to put a hold on forcing sixth graders out of elementary schools, stop spending $50 million and instead invest in improving student achievement and build a much needed school without debt. It is very simple to support small neighborhood schools, keeping them open and keeping sixth graders. This gives a dozen schools enough enrollment so the board shouldn’t threaten closure.

It is very simple to set achievement goals for the Superintendent so he and the board are focused on improving student achievement. It is very simple to be transparent with the budget and spending and to get answers about how large investments are improving student achievement. It is very simple to focus resources to attract and retain great teachers and staff. It is very simple to see enrollment in district schools is declining while the number of administrators has grown by over 10 percent.

With 50 years of combined education ahead for my family I ask for your support to bring balance to the board.

Erica Shields

The biggest issue facing Jeffco is the need to significantly increase community engagement. Far too many people tell me the board is moving forward with plans the board set without listening to communities.

Community members want the board to focus on improving student achievement. They want to know how their tax dollars are spent each year and why only 50 percent of third through eigth graders aren’t meeting grade-level expectations. I will ask how the dollars we spend improve achievement so we are investing in programs that work. I will ask for spending transparency so the data is presented so it can be understood. I will ask that we set student achievement improvement goals.

I will engage communities and respectfully bring their wishes to the board table. I will take the time to listen, hear and integrate community ideas into the district’s plans. I seek to focus the board on what our students need to be successful. Having children still in Jeffco schools and two who have graduated, I know how important it is for students to be career and college ready. I want to make sure EVERY student has access to a great public education.