Editor’s Note: This three-part series reports on which candidates showed up at Tuesday’s forum at the Albert J. Lyon Event Center and what they revealed about their qualifications and grasp of the challenges facing the bodies they seek to lead. Part 1 covers the candidates running to serve on the board of education of the Truth or Consequences Municipal Schools.
Three community members presided at a local government candidates forum held at Sierra County’s Albert J. Lyon Event Center on Oct. 19, two weeks before the general election on Nov. 2.
Village of Williamsburg resident and community event planner Denise Addie hosted, while Elephant Butte real estate agent and resident Cathy Vickers and Truth or Consequences real estate agent and resident Sid Bryant served as moderators of the candidates Q & A sessions.
The local governments included in the forum were the Truth or Consequences Municipal School Board, City of Truth or Consequences City Commission, Village of Williamsburg Board of Trustees and the City of Elephant Butte City Council.
Addie said the candidate questions were generated by local residents from each jurisdiction. Candidates chose their questions from a hat, but since there were only three or four questions to choose from, nearly the same questions were answered by each candidate.
Each candidate was given one minute for an introductory statement and another minute to make a closing statement after the Q & A.
There are three seats open on the five-person board, all with four-year terms.
Anita Peterson, who is running against present school board member Christine La Font, did not attend the forum because she has contracted the COVID-19 virus, Addie told the Sun.
H. Brett Smith, the present school board chair and one of the principal owners of Smithco Engineering in Caballo, is running against Mark Brown Hedge, a retired Hot Springs High School biology teacher.
Wendy A. Kessinger and Jamie Elaine Sweeney are running for an open position on the board. Both have children enrolled in the school system.
CHRISTINE JUNE LA FONT
Christine June La Font was appointed by her fellow school board members to fill Crystal Diamond’s seat, who resigned in November 2020 after winning a senate seat in the New Mexico Legislature.
La Font has three children enrolled in the school system. “It is important to keep kids in school, learning face to face,” she said, referring to COVID-19 restrictions that required virtual learning for many students last school year.
Dr. Channel Segura, now in her second year as school superintendent, is instituting “possible changes, which need time to bring to fruition,” La Font said, implying Segura should be retained.
Asked about her position on masking in the schools, La Font said the school board voted for a mask mandate about two months ago and indicated: “I would vote for it again.” The original policy decision, La Font said, required only those students and staff who were not vaccinated to wear masks. “But it didn’t work out,” La Font explained. “The differences were causing discontent. All are masked [now], including teachers and staff.” She took exception only to the top-down involvement of the state Public Education Department. “I would prefer that each school board would make the decision itself instead of having it mandated by the state,” La Font said.
Asked about the adequacy and importance of planning time for teachers, La Font said it is “imperatively important.” The school board recently voted to give students with C or better grades Fridays off for other educational pursuits. “Flex Fridays” frees up teachers, too. La Font said the extra time allows grade-to-grade curriculum coordination among teachers. Although students will spend less time in the classroom, La Font said: “With adequate training time we can ensure time in the classroom is quality time.”
During her closing, La Font said several constituents had told her they couldn’t vote in the school board election because they lived outside of T or C. Even though the school system is called Truth or Consequences Municipal Schools, La Font took pains to stress that the “entire county votes on the school board.”
H. BRETT SMITH
School Board Chair Smith is seeking his third term on the board.
“I’m a lifelong resident of Sierra County,” he said during his introduction, adding that his family’s presence in the area dates back to the 1880s. “I love the people, the kids and the school system.”
In response to a question about his reason for seeking re-election, Smith said:
“Neat things are happening [within the school system] and I want to see that continue on.”
Asked “how should teachers teach racial injustice,” Smith responded: “If you are referring to critical race theory, I don’t think our system is set up to favor one race over another. People are coming across our borders like crazy. We teach everyone the same. Social injustice is in the past. No one has ever denied slavery and segregation, but to teach our kids we have a bad system is just wrong.”
His prime motivation for running, Smith said, is because he wants to “see great things for our kids. We have a poor community. I want to prepare them for life, to teach them the basics, not teach any kind of ideology. We’re not here for that.”
During his closing, Smith said: “I’m super proud of our school system. We have a great team. It’s daunting for teachers, but we’re trying to give them [flex] time to be more prepared.”
MARK BROWN HEDGE
A retired educator with 29 years of experience as a biology teacher, Hedge said during his introduction: “I learned from six superintendents, 12 principals and countless students.” “It would be a shame,” he said, “to take all my knowledge and just retire.”
Hedge was asked to address the question of how racial injustice should be taught. As a biology teacher, he had “dealt with controversial subjects” such as climate change and evolution. “It is best,” he found, “to teach to the standard benchmarks. You have to put preferences aside and teach what the big bosses say.”
Asked about his primary motivation for running, Hedge reiterated: “I just want to keep being a part of [the school system.]”
WENDY A. KESSINGER
Kessinger introduced herself as a parent with “two handsome young men in middle school,” and as a retired firefighter currently “running canines and cadaver dogs here.” She has written two books for younger and older children on the subject of “stranger danger.”
“I have taught my whole life and would like to become a school board member and continue that,” she said.
Asked about the strengths and weaknesses of the school system, Kessinger responded: “We have a fabulous superintendent. We were thrown into COVID with no play book. People did a fabulous job of pulling [a virtual instruction program] together.”
As for weaknesses, she said: “I think communication with parents could be a little better.”
Asked if she agrees with the recently instituted year-round school schedule, Kessinger said, “Yes. I think it helps students get ready to go to work in the real world. [Summer vacation] is a strain on parents and daycare. I like structure. I raised my kids that way. It’s a hard kickstart for kids when they come off a long summer.”
During her closing, Kessinger said she wants to bring trade education back into the school system. “Plumbing, construction, even hair styling” could be taught. She pointed to a possible model in Colorado, where she said “20 counties have brought in trade schools.”
JAIME ELAINE SWEENEY
Sweeney said in her introduction that she has five children enrolled in the school district. She moved to the area in 1996, when she was in middle school. After serving in the military, she moved back here with her children. “This is the place that raised me,” she explained. “I wanted my kids to have the same upbringing.”
Asked to evaluate the school system’s strengths and weaknesses, Sweeney said: “I think the superintendent really ‘gets’ our students. She puts students first.”
“Communication,” Sweeney said, is a problem area. “I’m a vocal parent but a lot aren’t. Parents have stopped being involved. I feel we are not being listened to. It’s not completely the school’s fault. Parents need to be involved.”
Asked if she is in favor of the year-round school schedule, Sweeney said, “With five kids, I sure am.” After a long summer break, she noted: “Teachers are having to reteach the first six weeks of the year. [As a result], kids are falling behind.”
During her closing, Sweeney said, “I will put your children first. I’m not leaving [the area].”