The three candidates running for the District 5 position on the Silver Consolidated Schools Board of Education answered questions from a small audience gathered in the auditorium of the Besse-Forward Global Resource Center on the campus of Western New Mexico University on Monday night.
Daily Press reporter C.P. Thompson and Publisher Nick Seibel also asked questions during the second and final Daily Press school board forum ahead of the Nov. 5 local elections.
Mike McMillan, an athletic trainer with Southwest Bone and Joint Institute, has been on the school board for four years, having originally been appointed to the position when the previous District 5 school board member stepped down six months ahead of the 2015 election. Incumbent McMillan faces Ricky Villalobos, a patrolman with Western New Mexico University law enforcement, on the ballot, as well as write-in candidate Tasha Donaldson, a stay-at-home mom who runs a small cattle operation in Cliff.
District 5 is a large — and largely rural — portion of the Silver Consolidated School District that includes the community of Cliff, and the Cliff School that was — as Seibel noted — subsumed by Silver Consolidated Schools about 70 years ago. Residents with children in the Cliff School — which runs from kindergarten to 12th grade — often say they don’t feel their interests are looked after as well as those of Silver City’s schools.
Donaldson — whose name must be physically written onto the ballot, “and spelled correctly,” she noted — brought her Cliff credentials with her to the forum, which fairly revolved around how to address the perceived short shrift that Cliff School gets when it comes to funding and programs. As a parent with four kids in the Cliff School, Donaldson said she “can be a bridge between Cliff and the school board.”
“We can also invite the school board to PACC [Parent Advisory Community Committee] meetings — that would allow Cliff community members to come and present their ideas to the school board as well,” she said. Donaldson is vice chairman for the PACC, which held their own candidate forum for the three candidates last week.
“They need more PACC forums in Cliff, and we should invite members of PACC to school board meetings,” McMillan said.
Villalobos promised that, if elected, he would not only “visit the [Cliff] school at least two to three times a month,” but would see about holding more than two school board meetings a year in Cliff. The school board recently decided to meet in Cliff twice instead of once per school year.
Villalobos took some credit for the new fence around the Cliff School — and other security measures implemented in other Silver Consolidated schools — when the subject of school safety came up, saying that he had “been tasked to do a threat assessment” for the district in the wake of a school shooting in Aztec, N.M.
McMillan was the sole candidate to suggest — albeit vaguely — that, besides fortifying schools and installing security officers to protect against active shooters, there might be “other options,” as he put it, to protect school campuses from gun violence.
“We also need to address the issues that students are having in order to prevent these events from happening,” he said. Meanwhile, though, “it’s going to take a little time for the community to get used to the interface” between schools and the greater community.
McMillan compared the new security measures at public schools to airport security.
“People have gotten used to that,” he said.
Beyond fencing and locked school doors, Donaldson suggested a two-pronged approach to sparing Silver Consolidated schoolchildren from the carnage of a school shooting: armed teachers and good parenting.
“We need armed security guards” — Silver Consolidated Schools currently has five unarmed guards dispersed throughout eight schools — and “it would be a good thing to arm teachers, as well,” Donaldson said. “It’s unfortunate we live in these times. If parents teach their kids to be respectful and responsible, things will move in a different direction — morals and values are taught at home.”
Villalobos partly agreed with Donaldson.
“What are the [unarmed] guards going to do — run toward the threat?” he asked. “We need to arm them as soon as possible — it’s the world we live in.”
Villalobos, who retired from the Silver City Police Department as a captain after 25 years on the force, did not, however, agree that teachers should be armed.
“I think teachers have a lot to do,” he said, “and I would not want to give them that extra responsibility. I am against arming teachers.”
McMillan noted that he was on the school board when the Aztec school shooting happened, and that, with his participation, the board had drafted a resolution and then began finding funding for and implementing security upgrades like fences, extra guards and getting the school buildings evaluated by law enforcement.
“I am not in favor of arming teachers,” he said. “We have security guards, and they could be armed if we cover all our bases with training. I think we need to continue that work.”
Audience questions at Monday’s forum were — no surprise — largely Cliff-oriented.
“Cliff is a small, rural community with ranching and farming industries … how are you going to relate to those people?” one read.
McMillan said he would have an “open-door policy, listen and bring forth their concerns to the board.”
Villalobos said he would represent the school board by attending school events — like games — in Cliff, and also said he would “have lunch there once in a while.”
Donaldson said she herself runs a ranching business, and “a lot of their concerns are my concerns. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to be a voice.”
When asked how Silver Consolidated Schools can hang on to and also attract new teachers, the three candidates all suggested hooking candidates from elsewhere by advertising the beauty of Grant County.
“I would advertise Silver City itself; and the cost of living isn’t very high,” Villalobos said.
McMillan noted that “historically, we have had higher wages. We need to let teachers teach, and not worry about wages.”
Asked what the primary role of the school board is, all three candidates agreed that hiring a good superintendent is most important.
“Finding a good superintendent provides a foundation for good education,” McMillan said. “A critical piece is making sure the superintendent is doing the work.”
Asked what their funding priorities would be, the candidates mostly focused on the Cliff School, which needs work, all agreed.
“The mill levy was raised a few years back, and Cliff was promised a building” that never got built, Donaldson said. “There are sewer issues, too, that shut the school down. Bond money should be geared toward Cliff School.”
Villalobos agreed that funding priorities should go to Cliff. McMillan tempered that with a dose of reality, saying, “I think [finding funding] is difficult, but hopefully the Legislature will help us. I will go to bat” for Cliff, he said.
McMillan closed by saying his overall goal for Cliff and Silver schools would be to get into the list of top 10 schools in New Mexico.
“That is something worth shooting for, and something we certainly can accomplish.” He promised not to be complacent, should he be re-elected.
Villalobos said that, in addition to borrowing from his law enforcement background, transparency and communication would be thematic of his tenure on the school board.
“I am here and eager to learn,” he said. In answer to the Daily Press “time machine” question — What will your proudest school board achievement be in four years, if elected? — Villalobos said, “Getting Cliff their multi-purpose building.”
“I am an open ear and an open book,” Donaldson said in closing, and threw in a suggestion not often heard these days, something no other candidate mentioned: more arts in the schools.
“We are lacking in music programs in Cliff,” she said. “Those things are important. It’s a statistical fact that kids involved in music are actually smarter. Not only that, there are music and theater scholarships” available to high schoolers applying to college, she said, not just opportunities for athletes.
Today’s forum is for Grant County Soil and Water Conservation District Position 5, including both incumbent Duston Hunt and challenger Donald “Jesse” Franklin-Owens. That forum begins at 6 p.m. at the WNMU Besse-Forward Global Resource Center auditorium.
Geoffrey Plant may be reached at geoff@scdaily press.com.
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