2022 CUSD Board candidate profiles: Aaron Peterson

by Mick Rhodes | editor@claremont-courier.com

Aaron Peterson sees his run for the Trustee Area 4 seat on Claremont Unified School District’s Board of Education as a chance to make a difference.

He was “talking with [his] wife about the chaos and everything that society has been through in the last two years,” Peterson said. “It’s one thing to armchair quarterback things, and say, ‘Well, they should have done something better,’ or ‘They should have done something different.’ But unless you’re actually willing to step up and do something about it and put yourself in a position where you can be a conduit for change, you might as well be yelling at a wall.”

Peterson, 40, grew up on a farm outside a small town in western Nebraska. His early education ran the gamut: he was homeschooled, then attended private school, and spent his high school years in public school. After high school in 2000 he joined the U.S. Army. After training he landed at Fort George G. Meade, Maryland in August 2001, where he worked with the National Security Agency. When his military service was up in 2004 he was recruited by Lockheed Martin, where he’s been ever since. He used the GI Bill to earn his bachelor’s degree in 2014.

His wife Caitlin grew up in Claremont and went through CUSD schools. They met in Colorado and moved to Claremont in 2019, and have three children at Condit Elementary in the first, second and fourth grades. This is his first foray into politics.

Peterson, who faces Steven Llanusa in CUSD Trustee Area 4, said his top priority became clear recently, after knocking on doors in his district and speaking with potential constituents.

“It came down to yes, Covid happened; it was difficult on everybody. It was difficult on the school district, the students, the parents, everybody. But to say that we should come out guns blazing and pointing fingers and assigning blame, that does more harm than good. However, let’s get running again. Let’s keep going. Because we have thousands of students who are relying on us to move forward, to do better, to be ready for the next time. So, not assigning blame, but let’s do better, because it’s our community and we owe the community. We’re a family. We all work together, and I think those bonds of trust were really stretched thin for a lot of people.”

He is big on inspiring students to think big about their potential, identifying it as one of the things he hopes to achieve if elected.

“I would like to challenge the students to challenge themselves, to really an understanding of not just, ‘I go to school, and I do what my teacher says, and I do my homework,’ to engage that minimal effort that students can get into simply because they can pass with a D. If you can pass with a D, why aren’t you putting the extra effort to go for the A?

“If we are to be educating kids to become adults and have knowledge to be able to go out in the world, should we not also be instilling them with the mindset of an adult? Take responsibility. This isn’t just your homework, this is your ability to prove that you did listen, that you do know what you’re doing, that you can go above and beyond, because that’s what you’re going to need to do to be successful in a business environment that is dramatically accelerating to a global level.”

That’s another area Peterson comes back to again and again: education should be a primer for an increasingly global job market.

“As educators and as people who influence decisions about education, we can play soft, and pretend everything’s fine, but if we’re not prepping kids for a global business industry, then, again, what are we pretending to do? We have to challenge them to challenge themselves. So, if you want to graduate and you want to succeed, well then I hope we set you up properly for success in a global economy. Because we’re competing against literally the best in the world, not just ourselves anymore.”

We asked Peterson about the criticism leveled at the CUSD Board surrounding the abrupt departure announced in April of former superintendent Jeff Wilson, who was a year into a three-year contract, and his replacement by former district chief Jim Elsasser.

He said the word he’s heard most during discussions on the subject with potential constituents has been “weird.”

“An order of events clarification for all parties involved would be a step of transparency, saying, ‘This is when we made the decision to no longer require Jeff Wilson’s services, this is the point at which we said, ‘Dr. Elsasser, we would like to have you back.’ Lay out the roadmap. How did this happen? Because I believe an order of events — unless somebody else has information — should be something of transparency, to say, ‘This is how it happened,’ especially for a superintendent.

“The questions needed to be asked, and I believe that maybe not all the answers were clear enough. Answers are owed.”

Peterson talked about how homeschooling during Covid’s darkest days profoundly affected kids broadly, and closer to home.

“My oldest has a delay in his writing proficiency, because for a year and-a-half, everything’s digital.”

He said he’s interested in working to identify and address pandemic-related learning delays across the district.

“Because we do still owe them to do a proper education so they can meet the standards that as parents we set for them. As a school district and as a state, we still set those standards. Let us not slacken; let us do better.”

Peterson recalled widespread participation and heated discussions at school board meetings during the dog days of the pandemic, when masks, Covid testing, and transmission mitigation were on everyone’s minds.

“But now, the second school board meeting of this year, there were five people in attendance, three in the room, two online,” he said. “If we want to move forward, we have to be present. We cannot pretend that Covid’s over, everything’s going to be fine. You may trust that, but you also need to verify.”

He hopes his potential constituents will take a more active role in board business, both at meetings, and in making their opinions known in other ways.

“If you have a difference of opinion, or a difference of a policy, you have to voice it. If people aren’t coming to the school board, the school board can’t go around and knock on every family’s door and say, ‘What is your opinion for this issue?’ That’s that common ground that people aren’t meeting on.”

Though there’s no requirement for school board members to have school-aged children, Peterson believes his situation — with three elementary-aged kids — offers him a unique vantage point.

“As a decision-maker, if you are divorced from the consequences of the decision because you don’t have kids in school, how much less does that decision weigh upon you?” he asked. “My kids are in the direct line of fire of a decision that the school board would decide on. So that alone weighs more on me if I work to sit in that chair. I have to take extra consideration, because it’s my kids, and it’s everyone else’s kids.”

In parting, he had a message for the current board:

“I don’t want the current school board to get the perception that I’m coming in saying, ‘I’m going to do better because you did worse.’ We’re not assigning blame. I’m coming in saying, ‘I’d like to offer my position in life and my perspective as a way to move forward, as my sign says, a new voice for the community. Because it all comes back to the community. I mean, this is Claremont; this is a special town. And I knew that from the first time I visited my wife when I came out here and saw her, and this was before we were even dating. I said, ‘This is a different town.’”

More information is at peterson2022cusd.com.

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