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Six vying for APS District 6 seat

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of stories on the candidates running for the Albuquerque Public Schools Board of Education. The election is Feb. 7. Below this news story are the brief bios for each candidate followed by their answers to a Journal questionnaire.

In the most packed school board race, six contenders are fighting for the District 6 seat vacated by Don Duran, including former board president Paula Maes, who lost to Duran in 2013.

Maes served three terms before the defeat, gaining attention for her fight against initiatives like third-grade retention, the practice of holding back third-graders who can’t meet reading benchmarks.

The long-time president and CEO of the New Mexico Broadcasters Association said she would like to return to “improve the public perception of all of APS, to improve student outcomes and to get true community engagement.”

She will face off against two Sandia scientists, a teacher, a compliance inspector and a marketing expert for the District 6 seat, which covers the Northeast Heights and East Mountains.

Abbas Akhil, a 68-year-old native of India, came to New Mexico in the early 1970s to study engineering at New Mexico State University, then went on to a long career at Sandia National Laboratories, retiring in 2011.

University of New Mexico graduate Elizabeth Armijo, 47, has worked in marketing and communications for a number of local organizations, including UNM Health Sciences Center, YWCA Middle Rio Grande and Leadership New Mexico.

Doug Brown, 67, studied computer science and engineering at Purdue University and Florida State, developing expertise in cybersecurity. Currently, he is a senior scientist at Sandia, placing him in the top 1 percent of the ranks.

Melissa Finch, 46, earned a bachelor’s degree in American Studies at the University of New Mexico, and has been a compliance inspector since 2011.

Former general contractor Paul Sievert, 65, switched to a teaching career in 2001, working for Digital Arts and Technology Academy until 2014. He is now an Albuquerque Public Schools substitute.

The diverse field of candidates disagree on many major educational issues, including a lawmaker’s proposed break-up of APS and the controversial Common Core curriculum, a set of English and math standards.

Brown would like New Mexico to replace Common Core, calling it “a failure, as is evidenced by the fact that many states are abandoning it.”

“Teachers and parents and even an educator who developed it have spoken out against Common Core,” he added.

Finch and Sievert are also explicitly against Common Core; Akhil and Maes both said it is good in theory, but has been tough to implement.

To Armijo, the major issue is high-stakes testing linked to the standards.

The possible division of APS into three smaller districts — proposed by Rep. David Adkins, R-Albuquerque, to increase accountability — was generally unpopular.

Only Akhil and Sievert thought it was worth considering if there are potential economic or academic benefits. The other candidates are firmly opposed.

“While there is data to support the benefits of smaller class sizes, there is none that shows students do better in smaller school districts,” Armijo said. “Let’s fund what we know works.”

Finch noted that a split benefits wealthy neighborhoods, while poorer areas would suffer, creating “an unfair advantage for some districts and a disadvantage for others.”

A break-up would also be “lengthy and very costly,” according to Brown.

Maes said she will always support APS as one school district.

“As resources and commitment for public education continue to dwindle, the best use of funds is a strong and successful APS,” she added. “It is in the better interest of education of children to keep APS as one district.”

CANDIDATE BIOS

Abbas Akhil

akhilAge: 68 Education: Master of Science, Engineering, New Mexico State University, 1974.

Occupation: Sandia National Laboratories, 22 years, retired Dec. 31, 2011; Public Service Company of New Mexico, 13 years.

Family: Habiba Akhil, three children.

Political/government experience: None.

Major professional accomplishment: A successful engineering career at Sandia National Laboratories working on issues of national importance.

Major personal accomplishment: Raising children who are successful in their personal and professional lives and mindful of their civil responsibilities. A marriage that spans over 40 years and continues.

Elizabeth Armijo

armijoAge: 47

Education: Bachelor of Arts, Communications and Journalism, University of New Mexico, 1995.

Occupation: Consultant, Org Agents; American Heart Association, regional director of communications and marketing, 2008-2010; Leadership New Mexico, director of marketing and special projects, 2005-2007; YWCA Middle Rio Grande, director of development and community relations, 2000-2005; Women’s Community Association, marketing and development coordinator, 1998-2000; UNM Health Sciences Center, marketing representative, 1995-1998.

Family: Two children.

Political/government experience: None.

Major professional accomplishment: Becoming an entrepreneur and building a business that works with clients who are like-minded and share our vision for addressing health inequity, equal opportunities and desire to make our community better for children and families.

Major personal accomplishment: My children are my best accomplishments. They are resilient, ethical, well-rounded and filled with a curiosity for the world around them.

C. Douglas “Doug” Brown

brownAge: 67

Education: Master of Science, Computer Science, Purdue University, 1973; Bachelor of Science, Engineering Science, Florida State University, 1971.

Occupation: Senior engineer at Sandia National Laboratories, working in cybersecurity research and development, 40 years.

Family: Susan, two children.

Political/government experience: None.

Major professional accomplishment: Promoted to the ranks of senior scientist/engineer at Sandia National Laboratories, which comprises the top 1 percent of the technical staff. This was based on my vision, leadership, and effectiveness.

Major personal accomplishment: I trained a half-wild horse while in high school and rode her frequently for several years. This helped me develop persistence, mental toughness, and self-confidence that has benefited me for life.

Melissa Finch

finchAge: 46

Education: Bachelor of Arts, American Studies, University of New Mexico, 2011.

Occupation: Compliance inspector, four years.

Family: Tyrone; three children attending Grant Middle School and Sandia High.

Political/government experience: None.

Major professional accomplishment: None.

Major personal accomplishment: Raising my three children.

Paula Maes

maesAge: 63

Education: Bachelor of Arts, Journalism, University of New Mexico.

Occupation: President/CEO of the New Mexico Broadcasters Association for the past 21 years.

Family: Four sons, all APS graduates, Michael Baker, Joshua Baker, Evan Baker and Christopher Baker.

Political/government experience: Albuquerque Public Schools, Board of Education, 2001-2013.

Major professional accomplishment: My work for the New Mexico Broadcasters Association for the past 21 years.

Major personal accomplishment: My four sons: Michael Baker, who is in nursing school at Central New Mexico Community College; Evan Baker, who is a broadcast engineer for Cumulus Radio; Joshua Baker, and Christopher Baker, who teaches special education at McCullum Elementary. They reflect the best of APS and best of me as a person.

Paul Sievert

seivertAge: 65

Education: Bachelor of Arts, Cultural Anthropology, University of New Mexico, 1976.

Occupation: Substitute teacher, Albuquerque Public Schools, 2015-present; teacher, Digital Arts and Technology Academy, 2001-2014; self-employed general contractor, 1975-2001.

Family: Widower, one son, two grandchildren.

Political/government experience: None.

Major professional accomplishment: As a teacher I worked with a diverse population of students. Working with these young people in extracurricular activities and seeing their first successes in life, including national competition, was my major professional accomplishment.

Major personal accomplishment: As a contractor I worked in many different positions — employer, designer and business consultant for commercial contractors. Making the transition from the private sector to a teacher in the public sector was the most challenging.

APS District 6 Candidate Questionnaire

1. Do you support legislation that would require retention of third-graders who can’t read at grade level, coupled with intense early literacy intervention? Why or why not?

Akhil: Yes. Research indicates that early childhood reading improves comprehension and reasoning skills. Both are necessary for successful learning outcomes in latter grades.

Armijo: No. Parents and teachers, not bureaucrats, best make decisions about a student’s retention. I support properly funding early childhood education and student-learning plans that involve parents each step of the way.

Brown: I believe this problem is best addressed by emphasizing reading skills in the earliest grades. Phonics is the best way to teach reading and needs to be reintroduced into the curriculum.

Finch: No, I do not support legislation that would require retention of third-graders. Parents should have the right to make decisions in a collaborative process with teachers in the form of an Individual Educational Plan (IEP).

Maes: Reading is one of the most important skills we can teach our children both at home and at school. Teaching reading needs to start in kindergarten, and the learning continue(s). If a child is having problems in first grade and second grade with reading, intense early literacy intervention needs to be done. We can’t wait until third grade to address students who can’t read.

Sievert: Yes, however I do not support retention of third-graders except by parental consent. I am in favor of intense early literacy in first through third grade and intervention if the student is not proficient.

2. What percentage, if any, of a teacher’s evaluation should be based on student test scores and why?

Akhil: Less than 20 percent, and it should be averaged over two years to rule out environmental externalities that could skew the result in one direction.

Armijo: Right now student testing doesn’t accurately measure student growth — so when that’s tied to teacher evaluations, it’s flawed. Evaluations should be used to improve teaching and not be punitive and arbitrary.

Brown: A very small percentage — perhaps 5-10 percent. There are many other factors affecting student test scores, including family circumstances and attitude, student attitude, and the quality of the tests themselves.

Finch: Zero!!! If we must, less than 5 percent. Teachers should not have to teach to the test. This is an unfair assessment; students may not be test takers or take these tests seriously.

Maes: The entire teacher evaluation process needs to be revamped.

Sievert: 0 percent. Based on the current evaluation system, that does not reflect a teacher’s abilities. In an evaluation system that directly ties student test scores to a specific teacher, as much as 35 percent of test scores could be incorporated.

3. Should APS be divided into more than one district? Why or why not?

Akhil: My position depends on the motives that drive such a breakup. I would be opposed to it if it deepens the socio-economic divide by demarcating new district boundaries that further isolate economically deprived neighborhoods.

Armijo: No. While there is data to support the benefits of smaller class sizes, there is none that shows students do better in smaller school districts. Let’s fund what we know works.

Brown: In theory this would create more manageable units; however, in my experience breaking up or merging organizations can be lengthy and very costly. For those reasons, I oppose breaking up APS.

Finch: No, APS should not be divided. Tax rates/revenue differs from area to area. This would be an unfair advantage for some districts and a disadvantage for others.

Maes: I have and will always support APS as one school district. With 59 charters in Albuquerque, the district is split. As resources and commitment for public education continue to dwindle, the best use of funds is a strong and successful APS. It is in the better interest of education of children to keep APS as one district.

Sievert: If dividing APS into multiple districts can be shown to improve student performance, and it can be determined to be economically feasible, then it must be considered.

4. Do you agree with state competency exams for a student to graduate? Why or why not?

Akhil: I disagree with the current, onerous testing requirements. Those need to be replaced with a fair methodology that reduces the prep burden for teachers and students while accounting for competency differences based on socio-economic variances within the student population.

Armijo: I support competency standards to evaluate student knowledge, but not one, final exam to determine if they can graduate. It’s the ultimate high-stakes test that many parents, like myself, are concerned about.

Brown: I agree in concept, but the exams must be well-designed. If they are deficient, as is the case with the Common Core PARCC tests, then competency exams would be of little value.

Finch: No, I do not agree for students to pass a competency exam to graduate. Students fulfill their credit requirement, and if they have a passing GPA, that should be sufficient.

Maes: No, this is one more unnecessary test for students to take. If a student fails the test, they can’t graduate. So if a student who is taking the state competency exam in their senior year has already received a full paid scholarship to a top-tier university, then fails the test, the student would lose their scholarship.

Sievert: We must determine if our students have obtained the skills required to be a high school graduate. A validated state competency exam is the most direct way to determine the capabilities of the students.

5. Do you agree with Common Core? Why or why not?

Akhil: The vision for Common Core was sound, but it has been difficult to make it work in the classroom. It was put in too quick, and there was too much material for teachers and students and not enough support.

Armijo: Common Core is about educational standards and a framework for learning that focuses on critical thinking. It’s not a curriculum. A problem to change is the high-stakes testing that’s linked to it.

Brown: No. Common Core has been a failure, as is evidenced by the fact that many states are abandoning it. Teachers and parents and even an educator who developed it have spoken out against Common Core.

Finch: I am not in favor of the Common Core. We should stick to the basics.

Maes: I support the concept, the question is its effectiveness given various state implementation models. I also believe parents expect results, without the burden of feeling they have to be experts in education to feel informed.

Sievert: As New Mexico is one of the final states to still embrace Common Core, and as Common Core is less rigorous then the previous New Mexico standards, I do not support Common Core.

6. Should APS try to work more closely with the New Mexico Public Education Department? Why or why not?

Akhil: Yes. The Board of Education and the school superintendent should have periodic meetings to inform the NM PED of the issues that are unique to the district on a first-hand basis.

Armijo: Yes. It’s an important two-way street — and it should be a respectful, collaborative relationship based on the goal of improving education.

Brown: Yes. The PED needs to ensure that funds are used properly and high-level educational goals are met. Beyond that, PED needs to support more local control, because the needs of school districts vary.

Finch: Need to evaluate how much APS currently works with New Mexico Public Education Department before giving an opinion.

Maes: Yes, there needs to be mutual respect, the unwavering agreement that every decision made be in the best interest of students and professionals. A stronger relationship only benefits students and their education.

Sievert: APS must determine ways to work with NMPED. The adversarial positions taken in the past by the board and by NMPED have not been productive. We must find common ground with NMPED.

7. Do you believe APS should have the ability to move teachers to different schools to meet APS needs? Why or why not?

Akhil: Moving teachers to a different school should not be a unilateral administrative decision. A transparent, collaborative process that takes into account the teacher’s needs will result in better performing teachers and increase morale.

Armijo: APS already does this with openings at the beginning of the year. However, high teacher turnover is hard on kids and disruptive to teachers and schools.

Brown: On the surface this sounds good; however, it could hurt teacher retention, which is already a problem. I would need to hear the pros and cons on this issue before deciding.

Finch: It should be a collaborative effort between APS and the teachers. Teachers should have the right to refuse without ramifications. Teachers need to be respected and not used as pawns. Any decision should be done prior to the start of the school year.

Maes: Yes, teachers should go to the schools where their teaching best serves students. APS’ needs should reflect the needs of its students.

Sievert: No, we must support our teachers and find other approaches to staffing poor-performing schools. Teachers must want to be at the school to be effective in their jobs.

8. Do you support the APS directive allowing transgender students to use restrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identities? Why or why not?

Akhil: The board promulgates policies that conform to prevailing law. However, this is an emotionally charged issue, and there might be room for dialogue and a mutually acceptable compromise within the framework of existing laws.

Armijo: Yes. It’s a decision the board made in compliance with Title IX, which works to prevent sex discrimination in accordance with federal law. All kids should feel safe in school.

Brown: No. The previous APS policy that made special accommodations for transgender students, e.g., access to staff restrooms, was adequate. I support creating more single-stall restrooms and locker facilities to address this situation.

Finch: I will support APS directive in regards to transgender despite my personal bias. I will respect the process.

Maes: Yes, transgender students believe that their bodies do not reflect their sexual identity. A child who is born a male or female, but identifies as a male or a female, should have the right to live their life accordingly.

Sievert: Yes, we need to support our transgender students and be sure all students are safe. We must, however, make our vetting process more rigorous and ensure that the valid screening system is being implemented.

9. If elected, what would be your top priorities?

Akhil: Be a powerful advocate against any campaign to privatize education and push back on undue emphasis on standardized testing. In an uncertain political climate and shrinking budgets, maintain the focus on issues of importance to teachers, staff, students, and families.

Armijo: Graduating more students prepared for college or career, keep funding cuts away from the classroom, promoting innovation and teacher autonomy, improving parent and student involvement in our schools, and creating more community schools.

Brown: Replacing Common Core with a better curriculum and reducing testing. Moving more of the APS budget from administration to the classroom. Ensuring parental involvement and greater transparency in decision making.

Finch: Make sure budget cuts are not made in the classroom. Eliminate teacher evaluation based on students’ test scores. Better contract policies for superintendent and top administrators; eliminating lucrative buyouts. Increase graduation rate.

Maes: To improve the public perception of all of APS, to improve student outcomes, and to get true community engagement.

Sievert: Improving student performance is the first priority and must be the basis for all decisions. Second, the board must begin building coalitions with all concerned parties to improve outcomes for students, parents and teachers.

10. Have you ever been involved in a personal or business bankruptcy hearing?

Akhil: No.

Armijo: No.

Brown: No.

Finch: No.

Maes: No.

Sievert: No.

11. Have you ever been arrested for, charged with, or convicted of drunken driving, any misdemeanor or any felony in New Mexico or any other state? If so, explain.

Akhil: No.

Armijo: No.

Brown: No.

Finch: No.

Maes: No.

Sievert: No.

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