Election 2021: Jennifer Gibbons wants to 'bring unity back' to Cherry Creek school board

Candidate helped found a charter school in east Centennial

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This is a profile of one of the three candidates for the District D seat on the Cherry Creek School District's board.

Schools were becoming crowded on the east side of the Cherry Creek School District in Jennifer Gibbons' area, and she remembers the community struggling with the issue.

“I don't think the (school) board planned on the growth to be so quick on the east side,” said Gibbons, who wanted to put her kids in a charter school to avoid the crowding.

She put her kids on the waitlist for Cherry Creek Academy, a charter school in the Greenwood Village area, but the list was so long that “there was no way we were going to get in,” Gibbons said.

Against that backdrop, Gibbons, along with some partners, founded Heritage Heights Academy, a charter school in east Centennial.

“We had tons of meetings with parents in our living room deciding what model we would like,” Gibbons said. The school opened in 2016.

A charter school is a publicly funded independent school established by teachers, parents or community groups. Heritage Heights Academy is part of Cherry Creek district, but it's operated in some ways that differ from the district's traditional schools.

“I don't think every school should be a charter school, but if there's a need, we should fill it,” Gibbons said.

She's running for a seat on the Cherry Creek school board in District D, the area that encompasses parts of east Centennial and southeast Aurora. Gibbons' opponents are Schumé Navarro and incumbent board member Kelly Bates.

Preschool organizer

Gibbons, 46, grew up in Provo, Utah, and she moved to Colorado because her husband's job and her two sisters were located here. Her husband works as a certified public accountant. They live in Aurora.

Gibbons is an audiologist, performing hearing tests, fitting people with hearing aids and treating them for hearing loss. She works at a nearby Sam's Club.

“I chose to work at a place that's near my home so that I could, at a moment's notice, be with my kids when I needed to,” Gibbons said.

She has four kids, all of whom have attended Cherry Creek schools. Two have graduated from Cherokee Trail High School, and the others are a senior and sophomore at Cherokee Trail.

Forming Heritage Heights wasn't Gibbons' only involvement in education; she also served as co-president of the parent-teacher community organization, or PTCO, for three years for Black Forest Hills Elementary School. She also “organized a preschool” for each one of her kids — it was a co-op situation at first, and the other parents decided that Gibbons should be the teacher full time, she said.

“I ended up doing that for eight years. That was really fun,” Gibbons said.

For the most part, the co-op schooling was at Gibbons' house, she said.

Gibbons points to her work with Heritage Heights Academy as evidence that she's had experience with large budgets. She and her partners used an advance on the school's per-pupil revenue — the government funding based on the number of students — to rent the building for Heritage Heights, she said. Parents do not pay into the charter school for their children to attend, Gibbons noted.

Later, she and her team received a $15 million loan, buying a building for Heritage Heights for around $8 million and also spending on renovations.

'District is divided'

One of the main reasons that motivated Gibbons to run for school board was her feeling like the district is divided politically.

“I feel like we need to get politics out of the schools, 100%,” Gibbons said. “There's no room for religion or politics in our classrooms unless it's relevant to the curriculum.”

She argued that controversial subjects that aren't “totally agreed upon” should be taught, but school should “teach both sides.” She said a related issue is that some parents are worried about communication with the school board.

Asked on what specific issue she feels another side needs to be taught, Gibbons said: “The specific issue I would want (addressed) is the communication between the board and the parents. There isn't one specific issue.

“I'm not pushing for any kind of agenda at all — I'm pushing for all parents to be heard, and all kids,” Gibbons added. “There's a feeling of unrest, and I want to (restore) the feeling of being on the same team.”

Gibbons said that talk of critical race theory is a concern for some parents, but noted that Cherry Creek district doesn't teach critical race theory.

Still, she has heard some teachers have felt uncomfortable during some training, she said.

“It's not making everyone feel good. If the goal is to make everyone feel safe in a space, then we should be listening to the people who aren't feeling safe,” Gibbons said.

'Striving to bring unity back'

Gibbons took pride in saying she is not backed by a political party or the Cherry Creek teachers' union.

“I'm just a mom,” Gibbons said, adding that she has a proven ability to listen to parents and “to see a need and fill it.”

She said the union only represents the teachers, not the parents or the kids.

“I don't have a problem with the union; I know they do a great job advocating for our teachers,” Gibbons said. She added that for the school board, “it's our best interest to worry about all parties.”

Gibbons said “100%” of her campaign contributions have come from family, friends and community members, including people she doesn't necessarily know but who are part of the community. She noted contributions from her sister in Utah and brother in California. The campaign received $1,000 from her mother-in-law, according to her and Colorado Secretary of State's Office records online.

An organization called FEC United said in a Sept. 30 Facebook post that it asked some school board candidates, including Gibbons, why they're running in this election, and the post included a response from Gibbons. The post linked to Gibbons' campaign website. Sentinel Colorado (formerly the Aurora Sentinel) previously reported on the Facebook post.

FEC United calls itself “a movement of bold men and women who will restore and secure the blessings of liberty guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution,” according to its website. It has ties to an organization called the United American Defense Force, whose webpage says: “Various levels of benefits of membership include insurance protection for use of force; discounts on ammunition; medical supplies; hard goods; soft goods; weapons, tactical, and CPR/ first aid training, as well as public safety notifications. Members will be expected to attend training, regular monthly meetings, and comply with a code of conduct.” The United American Defense Force's webpage is housed on FEC United's website.

Gibbons said she was once familiar with FEC United Founder Joe Oltmann because he was her son's soccer coach years ago, but she wasn't well-versed in FEC United as an organization, she said. She added that many organizations have reached out to her for election-related surveys.

FEC United “looked very patriotic, and I didn't see anything tied to a militia, so I thought (to do the survey) … I had no idea that they had ties to militia,” Gibbons said.

She added: “I certainly don't endorse them if they're into intimidation and violence.”

Gibbons said she just took the survey and wasn't asking for an endorsement. “I certainly didn't take any money from them,” she said.

Gibbons doesn't have prior political experience and hasn't run for office before, she said.

“I'm striving to bring unity back to the district,” Gibbons said. “It's not parents against administrators or parents against teachers.”

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