Q&A: Summit school board 2-year candidates discuss their views on academics, equity and COVID-19 protocols

Danielle Surette, left, and Kate Hudnut are running against each other for a two-year term on the Summit School District Board of Education.

How will you address falling test scores and parent concerns that academics aren’t a priority?

COVID-19 has highlighted the opportunity gap for our students. We are seeing this across the country, and Summit is not exempt. As we dig into the data from our standardized tests (Colorado Measures of Academic Success, Northwest Evaluation Association, etc.), we see a growing opportunity/achievement gap. This is not OK. Our student population has changed a lot in the past 20 years. Our systems, supports and curriculum need to be evaluated and improved to be responsive to those changes. We have committed to teach every child, every day by providing the equitable supports they need. I am confident that we have talented, dedicated professionals in our schools, and with the leadership of our superintendent, we are setting clear goals and measurable objectives to lean into solutions.

As part of our 2021-22 superintendent goals, the top goal is in direct support of Strategic Plan focus area No. 1: academic and personal success for every student. It includes:

  • Developing and implementing a system to monitor our nine building and district unified improvement plans
  • Developing a system and a timeline to review and create a K-12 guaranteed and viable curriculum
  • Implementing the K-12 social-emotional learning framework

— Kate Hudnut

First and foremost, we need to turn our focus back to academics and avoid controversial issues. We are meeting with teachers and academic officers to determine what we can do as a team to improve test scores. This needs to be a concise, multistep process — no long-term study or evaluation needed. Find the problems and address them with a sense of urgency.

I would study high-performing school districts and learn specific strategies for academic growth. What curricula are they using, and how and why are they performing well? We need to adjust accordingly and be honest about where we are failing. I would also work to tighten up accountability. I understand that teachers are not being monitored in the classroom as often as they should be. This is absolutely important to success. Teachers need guidance and feedback, and if no one is evaluating the teaching process, they donʼt know what to improve upon. We need to target underperforming grade levels and comb through teaching strategies. Once we gather some data quickly, we need to attack the problem and set high-quality goals.

— Danielle Surette

Do you support the school district’s new equity policy? If yes, how will you work to implement it? If no, why not?

There seems to be confusion about what equity means. When I taught children in Zambia, I saw real inequities of opportunity. Those kids had no electricity or running water, so an education was extremely important for them to have a chance in life. This influences my views on equity. I think of it as simply making sure every student has a fair opportunity to achieve their true potential. If that is what is meant in the equity policy, then I am completely on board. Unfortunately, the equity policy feels a bit like it is separating kids into groups that label them, placing blame due to race and lowering standards. I would update that wording.

I believe in inclusivity, tolerance and diversity — not just of cultural differences but diversity of thought, as well. The policy states that white students are overrepresented in gifted and advanced-placement classes because of systemic racism. I think this correlation is extremely misguided. Students of all colors come from very diverse backgrounds, and there are a litany of reasons individual students are not succeeding. I would modify the policy to clearly define equity and include the true barriers that are holding kids back from success.

— Danielle Surette

I am dedicated to the strong foundations and objectives set forth in our newly adopted Just and Equitable Education policy. This includes reviewing our curriculum; providing multiple pathways with targeted supports; improving communication; and striving for workforce equity by improving our hiring, retention and professional learning.

Strategic Plan focus area No. 2 is equity-seeking systems, which are being implemented by our superintendent through the 2021-22 goals:

  • Create a system to implement the Just and Equitable Education policy in a manner aligned with the Strategic Plan focus area No. 1: equity-seeking systems
  • Engage the school and greater community in conversations about the Just and Equitable Education policy

Building equitable systems has been my focus on the school board as well as in my professional career. As a director at the Family & Intercultural Resource Center, I worked to remove barriers for underrepresented populations. This included revisiting budgets to pay livable wages, providing less traditional pathways to leadership positions, and advocating for policies/supports on local and state levels. I will continue to be committed to this important equity work from the board table and in my career.

— Kate Hudnut

Parents continue to be concerned about COVID-19 protocols in schools. Where do you stand on in-person learning, masking and vaccines?

When I reflect back on the 2020-21 school year, I am so proud that our district provided hybrid learning for all of our students in addition to a remote option. Many other districts across the country provided zero in-person learning. This accomplishment was a team effort of staff, teachers, leaders and community partners, and we need to recognize all of the work that went into making this possible. We prioritized safety and partnered with Summit County Public Health to base our decisions on ever-changing data and science. Summit School District also partnered with public health to provide free vaccination to our staff and students in spring 2021. We encourage everyone who is eligible to get vaccinated, so we can prioritize in-person learning for our students.

For the 2021-22 school year, our superintendent and leadership team continue to make decisions in collaboration with public health. Our mask requirement for students and staff has lowered COVID-19 case rates in our schools and allowed us to minimize quarantines, according to a recent report from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. We will continue to be committed to making data-informed decisions to protect our students, staff and community.

— Kate Hudnut

We need to be focused on keeping kids in school with as little interruption as possible, but I do believe that we should end the mask mandate as soon as safely possible. I would ask the medical community to set criteria for when students can attend school without masks. I know COVID-19 has been very difficult for everyone, and it is hard not to be emotional. But I do think we need to try to take the emotion out of it as much as possible when thinking of what is best for the kids. We should be taking a hard look at the data and what it says about the risk of COVID-19 for kids. Ultimately, I think vaccines and masks should be up to the parents, but I am not a medical professional, and I would lean on data and their advice.

— Danielle Surette

How will you work to address the district’s staffing issues, including everything from teacher retention to hiring bus drivers?

Teacher retention is a huge issue in our community. I have been meeting with teachers individually to talk about solutions. It seems that pay is always the No. 1 concern. I would also send out surveys so we can understand other quality-of-life issues they are experiencing. We should look at the feasibility of developing housing for staff on the open land that Summit School District owns. Better decisions need to be made on the expenditures of funds, such as repeated superintendent searches and adding administrators at a much higher rate than teachers. If we can better manage the budget, we can reallocate that money to increase pay for teachers, bus drivers and other staff. Additionally, we need to get creative with the current challenges we face. A simple example another school uses is a kid carpool app with families in the area. Also, many kids are not allowed to ride the bus because they canʼt commit every day due to extracurricular activities. We could set up a method where students could reserve time on the bus for when they need it. This would alleviate the all-or-nothing busing option and provide more opportunities for all students.

— Danielle Surette

Our education system is driven by people. Roughly 90% of our board-adopted budget is for salaries and benefits. Our board committed to 8.1% increases for teachers for 2021-22 and an additional 4.8% for the 2022-23 school year. These increases combined will bring the base pay up to $50,000 per year, which is one of the highest starting salaries for first-year teachers in our state. With that said, Colorado is one of the lowest-funded K-12 systems in the country. We must fix the broken funding stream so we can pay livable wages.

In addition to raises for our teachers, we are committed to offering competitive compensation for our support staff. This fall, in addition to the 8.1% raises, we invested an additional $2 per hour plus bonuses to attract and retain bus drivers. We are aware that this driver shortage is a huge problem nationwide. Summit’s leadership team will continue to work with local- and state-level partners to find solutions for our transportation shortages.

We will continue to prioritize attracting and retaining amazing educators throughout our district. I will continue to pursue better solutions for K-12 funding from state, local and federal levels.

— Kate Hudnut

If elected, you’ll sit on the board that selects the next superintendent. What specifically are you looking for in that position?

The Summit School District policy manual outlines the process for selecting the superintendent: “The appointment of a superintendent is a function of the board. The board shall take steps to find the person it believes can most effectively translate into action the policies of the board and the aspirations of the community and professional staff. The board may seek the advice and counsel of interested individuals or of an advisory committee, or it may employ a consultant to assist in the selection. It may also, at its discretion, determine that an external search is not necessary due to a qualified internal candidate. Final selection shall rest with the board after a thorough consideration of qualified applicants.”

The board that is seated after the election will be leading this process, likely with the guidance of search firm McPherson & Jacobson since it is under contract as part of a previous agreement. The board will likely direct the search firm to conduct community listening sessions and/or surveys to identify the key characteristics for the next superintendent. This process was used in spring 2020, which identified these characteristics: leader, visionary, diversity, communicator and visible. These characteristics would be updated based on community input.

— Kate Hudnut

There are several qualities I would look for in a superintendent. First and foremost, I would want them to have a proven record of success. They should be academics focused, passionate about education and have a strong work ethic. I also believe that possessing effective leadership, organizational skills and strong communication and interpersonal skills are absolutely key to having a successful superintendent. I would also want a superintendent that has a vision of high expectations and integrity, one that is aware of the challenges but seeks to overcome them with a can-do attitude.

They must have a proven record of turning around a school district that is struggling academically.

— Danielle Surette

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