Jason Unger is the founder of Baseline Strategies, a Boulder-based education consulting firm. He is a member of the city’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, which advises the Boulder City Council on issues related to the urban parks and recreation centers. He was an education advisor to U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and said he helped draft and pass legislation related to “early education, K-12, and higher education, including overhauling the former-No Child Left Behind.”

According to a June 2023 presentation from district officials, Latino students and students who qualify for free and reduced lunch score lower than white students on literacy and math tests, reflecting a longstanding disparity in academic achievement. How would you seek to close this gap?

I strongly support continuing to prioritize and build on the work the district has done to help close achievement gaps for minority students and those who qualify for Free and Reduced Lunch. The differentiated funding provided to schools over the past few years has helped some of our lower-performing students and schools make real improvement. Should I be elected to the school board, I will want to make sure we find ways to continue this targeted approach. We also must continue to focus on ensuring instruction and curriculum are challenging, engaging, and relevant. My experience as a former teacher and administrator at schools where all of our students qualified for Free and Reduced Lunch has shown me that there is nothing more important than raising the bar for all students and making sure all students are challenged and engaged. 

Overall, out-of-school suspensions declined during the 2022-23 school year, according to BVSD data. But Latino students were still about three times more likely to be suspended than white students. How would you help reduce disproportionate rates of student punishment in BVSD’s schools?

We know from statistics and decades of research that, due primarily to institutional racism, students of color are more likely to be subject to exclusionary discipline practices than their white counterparts. While we have made some progress in addressing this issue in BVSD by, first, acknowledging the problem and then reforming discipline policies, we must continue to work to address these inequities. The district should continue to be transparent by tracking and making data on disproportionate discipline available to teachers, administrators, and staff, and the BVSD community. The district should also continue to embed and encourage restorative justice practices. I have seen firsthand – as a teacher and administrator, and as a parent at Creekside Elementary – how effective these practices are at addressing behavioral issues, reducing exclusionary discipline, and in helping to ensure students of color are not disciplined at disproportionate rates. Research also shows that building a more diverse staff and ensuring representation helps address disproportionate discipline, and the district should build on efforts to hire more teachers of color. 

For a variety of reasons — including the cost of housing in the City of Boulder — student enrollment districtwide has been declining over the last decade. It is expected to decline in future years, too, requiring the district to spend disproportionate resources on smaller schools or face the tough question of closing schools. What should the district do to address declining enrollment?

The issue of declining enrollment is the most significant challenge facing the district. To help address the issue, I support many of the recommendations of the Long Range Advisory Committee. As a first step, the district should revisit school boundary zones and our open enrollment policies to help rebalance school sizes. The district should also allow schools with declining enrollment to think creatively about how they can become a focus school or offer specialized programming to help attract more students. As a board member, I will work to ensure we approach these challenges with transparency, fairness, and focused on the best interests of our students 

Earlier this year, the Denver school board voted to reinstate police offices in schools. Some parents have called on Boulder to do the same. What are your thoughts on BVSD’s decision to remove school resource officers from its schools?

I have two kids in BVSD schools and think about school safety every day. There is no more important responsibility for the school district than the safety of our students, and as a board member, I will always prioritize keeping kids safe. I supported BVSD’s decision to remove SRO’s and replace them with School Safety Advocates (SSAs). The new program maintains a strong focus on safety, but also works to better integrate SSAs into the school community and culture. As with any major policy, the district should regularly review these changes to see what works, what could be improved, and continue to measure whether students and teachers feel safe. 

The Colorado Board of Education last year updated the state’s social studies standards to include references to racial and ethnic groups and LGBTQ people. Meanwhile, parent groups and activists are urging school districts to ban books that contain LGBTQ content. What are your thoughts on BVSD’s academic policies related to LGBTQ people?

As a former elementary teacher and administrator, I worked to ensure that classrooms, curriculum, libraries and our school’s environment were inclusive and welcoming for all students. As I did in my own classroom and school, for all grade levels there are age-appropriate ways to promote and include a broad understanding of history and literature. As a parent and regular volunteer in my kids’ classrooms, I believe our school – and BVSD as a district – has done a good job offering materials and supporting environments where all students feel welcome, represented, and seen. Additionally, ensuring that our teaching and administrative staff reflects the diversity of our students is essential. The district should continue to prioritize building on the current efforts to attract and retain a more diverse teaching staff. 

Emergency department visits for suicidal ideation by Boulder County residents ages 10 to 17 were 18% higher in 2022 than in 2021, and the highest since at least 2019, according to data from Boulder County Public Health. What can the school district do to improve the mental health of students?

BVSD and districts across the country will be dealing with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic for the foreseeable future. Perhaps more urgent than the learning loss, however, is the impact on students’ mental health. The 2023 Kids Count report using data from the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey showed that, statewide, more than a third of high school kids responded that they felt sad or hopeless for more than two weeks in a row. These statistics seem consistent with what I have heard as I have met with students and parents over the past few months. To address the mental health needs of our students, the district must invest more resources to ensure students have regular access to caring, responsive counselors and to expand the school wellness centers to all middle and high schools across the district.

John Herrick is a reporter for Boulder Reporting Lab, covering housing, transportation, policing and local government. He previously covered the state Capitol for The Colorado Independent and environmental policy for VTDigger.org. Email: john@boulderreportinglab.org.