Boise school board candidate Branden Durst attempted to position himself as an independent-thinking outsider during a candidate forum downtown Tuesday.
All six candidates vying for a seat on the board debated the issues during a one-hour forum sponsored by the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce. Many of the candidates agreed on several hot-button education topics, including support for early childhood and pre-k education, increased funding for school budgets and teacher pay, board teamwork and the qualities school board members should possess.
Durst touted his experience as a former legislator and his ability to work with Republicans. But he never mentioned that he served as a member of the Democratic Party and then resigned from the Legislature early after a local journalist caught him splitting his time living outside of the state.
Durst kicked off the debate by rejecting moderator Molly Lenty’s opening question about the strengths and challenges of diversity and inclusion as “probably not on point, frankly.”
Instead, Durst said he wanted to create a unique pathway for each student to succeed and maintained that when you ask “regular voters” and “regular folks” what matters to them is student success, not diversity.
Meanwhile, candidate Alicia Estey painted a picture of how Boise’s demographics have changed over the past two decades as the city grows. She pointed to the district’s refugee student population, the increase in students who identify as Hispanics or Latinos and the more than 85 languages that students speak in the state’s second-largest school district.
Estey said that the district’s community schools provide wrap-around services for the district’ students and families.
One of the recurring themes of Tuesday’s forum was early childhood education.
Incumbent school board member Troy Rohn said the district’s partnership with the city to launch pre-k pilot programs in two different elementary schools is yielding positive results and could provide a blueprint for future collaboration efforts.
“When we work with the city to do what is best for kids, we can be really successful,” Rohn said.
Incumbent Maria Greeley also highlighted early childhood education, and said she would work with the Idaho Legislature to push for increased funding.
“Clearly, we’d like to see better funding of our teachers, as well for early childhood,” Greeley said. “It’s really important to ask for funding and ask for those decisions to be made at local level.”
Candidate Jim Tooman agreed, and highlighted his experience working with Head Start and Madison Elementary School.
“I’d be strongly for expanding pre-k programs, as well as full day kindergarten,” Tooman said.
Candidate Shari Fernandez said pre-k is an extremely important factor in helping young students show up prepared and ready to learn in kindergarten. With a background in public relations and community engagement in real estate, Fernandez said her strengths are her ability to communicate and engage diverse groups including parents, taxpayers, business leaders and other policy makers.
“What I would do is put a megaphone up to reach more people with all the awesome things we’re doing to engage more community members,” Fernandez said.
About 60 people attended Tuesday’s forum, including several local business and chamber executives, Boise Superintendent Don Coberly, state Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise, current school board members Beth Oppenheimer and Dave Wagers and retiring school board member A.J. Balukoff.
The school board election is set for Sept. 4. The top three vote-getters will be elected to a six-year term. More information about the election is available on the district’s website.