CAÑON CITY – A rigidly formatted forum offered a glimpse Wednesday evening of the six candidates running for the Cañon City School Board, but little depth into the issues they say they want to tackle.
And none of the questions directly targeted controversy surrounding the race that is pitting a slate of three newcomers running under the banner of “We the Parents” against two incumbents and a retired teacher/administrator who are running independently but have campaigned together.
No questions were taken from the audience and the candidates were not allowed to address comments made by others during the 90-minute forum put on by the Royal Gorge Chamber Alliance and the Cañon City Daily Record and sponsored by the Royal Gorge Realtors Association. Moderator Bob Stovall also asked the audience to refrain from reacting to comments to avoid disrupting candidates’ speaking time.
But in the last minutes of the forum, when each candidate was given one minute to make their pitch, “We the Parents” candidate Matthew Alexander used his time to address the proverbial elephant in the room.
“As I said before, I’m running because I wanted to see diversity on the board, and I want to be involved,” he said. “I’m going to take my minute to debunk a bunch of rumors that are running through the Cañon City mill.
“I am not part of an outside interest group, I am not backed by the Koch brothers, I am not a white supremacist-LGBTQ hating-Christian that is set to indoctrinate the children. I am in no way connected to Woodland Park nor have I ever looked at their strategies or plans for my ideas. I don’t live in Woodland Park so their schools are not my concern.
“I live in Cañon City and that’s the beauty of how school boards work – we get to tailor our education system for what works in our community. All kids regardless of race, religion, political affiliation, gender, sexual orientation, or anything else that you want to subcategorize yourself as have the right to the best education possible.”
After the forum, he elaborated on some of his ideas. When asked by an audience member if he wanted to fire Superintendent Adam Hartman, Alexander said: “Absolutely not.”
“I love our school district,” said Alexander, who has served as co-president and president of the Cañon City High School Band Boosters. “I want to work with the administration that is there and come up with some great ideas.
“There is no hidden conservative agenda on our side and no liberal agenda on their side.”
Alexander, along with candidates Graceann Pittner and Thomas Wenzl, began fundraising and campaigning in the spring, months before they could file candidate petitions to get on the ballot.
Incumbents Robin Reeser and Janelle Valladares and candidate Bret Meuli began their campaigns in August when candidate petitions became available. They quickly caught up in fundraising, with contributions for all six candidates topping $41,000 by Oct. 3, the most recent campaign finance filing deadline.
It is by far the most ever raised in a Cañon City school board race. In 2021, the total raised was $13,163; there were five candidates but only three received contributions.
Jointly, the We the Parents hold a slight fundraising edge this year with $20,741, to the $20,260 raised by the other three candidates.
The spring launch of the “We the Parents” campaign coincided with news stories about chaos in Woodland Park after a school board takeover there led to the ouster of the superintendent, curriculum changes and the loss last year of more than 40% of the teaching staff.
When statements were published saying the slate wanted to take control of the Cañon City School Board so “we can make the changes that need to be made,” others in the community grew concerned about what changes they wanted to make and drew parallels with Woodland Park.
A flyer handed out Wednesday night at the door of the Steeple Event Center where the candidate forum was held didn’t help eliminate concerns about the connection. It was paid for by the Truth & Liberty Coalition, a Woodland Park-based nonprofit established by Andrew Wommack, head of Wommack Ministries and Charis Bible College.
The coalition seeks to “educate, unify and mobilize believers in Jesus Christ to affect the reformation of nations through the seven mountains of cultural influence,” according to its website. One of the seven mountains, or so-called spheres of influence, is education.
“Once, our education system unapologetically incorporated biblical principles and prayer into students’ daily routines,” the website says. “Now, our children are being indoctrinated with liberal ideologies, atheistic teaching and postmodern principles in our public schools and even in Christian institutions. We seek to restore biblical truth and Godly morality into our country’s failing educational system.”
When asked about the flyer, Alexander said he is not affiliated with the coalition but did answer questions during a phone survey. He said he was unaware of what organization was calling.
The questions on the survey – about “transgenderism, boys in girls’ sports, sex education, parental rights and social studies/history curriculum” – were the ones he was asked and his answers were reported correctly, he said.
Candidates Pittner, Wenzl and Bret Meuli also had answers listed in the Truth & Liberty Election Guide; incumbents Robin Reeser and Janelle Valladares were listed as having no response.
Valladares said Wednesday night that she saw the guide being handed out, but when she saw who had funded it she put it aside so she wouldn’t be distracted by it during the forum.
With three of the district’s five seats up this November, wins by the “We The Parents” trio of candidates would ensure a majority of the board that aligns with Truth & Liberty’s conservative Christian positions.
This week’s forum was intended to give voters an overview of the candidates’ positions, and Moderator Stovall encouraged people to follow up with individual candidates if they wanted more in-depth information.
It was clear that all the candidates have a passion for education, for serving students and for contributing to their community.
Each tried to highlight what might set them apart:
- Alexander started Moon Rock Landscaping 17 years ago with $68 in his pocket and built it into a successful business. He volunteers on various boards and in the schools, which his three children have attended. “The best judge of my character are the hundreds of kids that hug me and thank me for the time I spent with them and what I did for them. I showed them all love and encouragement.”
- Meuli, who served as a Marine helicopter pilot, said his experience as a teacher and administrator he’s worked with students, parents, teachers and other administrators and knows what schools need. “I’m going to listen to parents, I’m going to ask questions and see what we can get done. We need to grow and expand opportunities for kids.”
- Pittner, who became a teacher at age 40 after years of volunteering in schools, said her varied background and life as a “nomad” give her valuable perspectives on how to work with others, keep dialog open and find solutions. “We need to quit making it you against me and them against us.”
- Reeser, a realtor with a background in education and finance, said her skills include working with the legislature on funding issues and finding creative solutions to challenges such as having a large number of students living in poverty. “It’s hard work and I’m up to the task.”
- Valladares, a wildlife biologist who was appointed to a vacancy on the board 10 months ago, said she spends an enormous amount of time in schools and understands that children have different needs. “I’ve shown I’m a person who doesn’t walk past problems and I’m willing to do the hard work required of school board members.”
- Wenzl, a retired electrical engineer who worked for Black Hills, said he has wide-ranging experiences in project management and communications. He wants the schools to focus on core academic skills and ensure that all children are reading at grade level, as well as improve ways for the school board to communicate with parents. “I want to ensure there is no limit on their (students) future.”
The forum was live-streamed by the evening’s sponsor and a recording is available on the Royal Gorge Realtors Association’s Facebook page.
Ballots will begin to be mailed Oct. 16 for the Nov. 7 election.
Matthew Alexander: https://electmatthewalexander.com
Bret Meuli: https://www.electbretmeuli.com/about
Graceann Pittner: https://www.pittnercanoncityboe.com
Robin Reeser: https://re-electrobin.com
Janelle Valladares: https://www.electjanellevalladares.com/about
Tom Wenzl: https://electthomaswenzl.godaddysites.com