Perhaps unsurprisingly, one topic dominated last week’s debate among the candidates for the Teton County School District No. 1 Board of Trustees.

COVID-19 and the resulting switch to virtual and hybrid learning were top of mind for candidates and the media panelists from the Jackson Hole Daily and Buckrail during the Thursday night forum hosted by the League of Women Voters and Teton County Library. Five candidates — incumbents Betsy Carlin, Bill Scarlett and Kate Mead, and challengers Thomas Smits and Jennifer Zung — stressed the difficult position the school board finds itself in as it balances safety with in-person education.

“The benefit of the four days a week for the elementary schools is maximizing the face-to-face learning for these younger kids that need it so much more, while also trying to keep our teachers and community safe,” said Zung, a civil engineer by trade.

The five are running for four open seats on the board in a nonpartisan race, so the top four vote-getters will qualify for four-year terms. They each hope to be one of seven trustees on a board that provides oversight for one of Teton County’s largest employers and manages a budget larger than either the town or county’s.

Education funding is always a contentious issue in Wyoming. Gov. Mark Gordon has asked districts to cut their budgets by at least 10% due to the economic downturn precipitated by the coronavirus pandemic, though the reductions were voluntary this year.

Next year the picture may not be so rosy, but the candidates insisted they would do their best to maintain current levels of classroom achievement and support. Smits and Scarlett highlighted their backgrounds in finance and banking as key.

“Anytime we’re looking at budget cuts with school districts, we have to keep those cuts the furthest away from kids as we can,” Smits said.

Mead, the longest-serving candidate on the ballot, with three terms of experience, said her years on the board, in which she has seen other threats to school funding, make her qualified to help the district overcome whatever challenges arise. She also pointed out that the district is in a unique situation that gives it an advantage.

“We’ve had significant fundraising for a school district, and that needs to continue,” Mead said.

Just as the pandemic’s relentless impact on daily life can be exhausting, the candidates seemed worn down by a focus on COVID-19, but they perked up at the prospect of talking about what modern education should look like. Many said they support a wider view of postsecondary success, one that includes college, vocational school and workforce readiness.

They also talked about technology, which students must be versed in to navigate any job in the modern world, and the critical thinking capabilities students should leave high school with.

“If you walk away having had an education where you’ve been taught to think and learn and be curious,” Carlin said, “then when the world changes five years from when you graduate, you will be able to learn what it is to be successful in whatever role you’re playing in your community.”

All in all, the candidates didn’t differentiate themselves much on policy positions. They all supported kids getting back into the classroom at a point when teachers can be supported and viral transmission in the community is low, and they all had similar ideas on how kids need to be prepared for the modern world.

They differentiated themselves in the experience they would each bring to the board, though they said anyone on the ballot would make a fine trustee.

“There’s really not a bad choice,” Scarlett said. “‘I’m proud to say that we are in great hands with all five of us.”

Contact Tom Hallberg at 732-7079 or thallberg@jhnewsandguide.com.

Tom Hallberg covers a little bit of everything, from skiing to long-form feature stories. A Teton Valley, Idaho, transplant by way of Portland and Bend, Oregon, he spends his time outside work writing fiction, splitboarding and climbing.

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