Randy Perlis approaches his role on the Cherry Creek School District Board of Education with the calculated and careful rationale of a scientist.
That's really no wonder. Before his appointment to the board in 2007, Perlis spent more than 20 years building a résumé as a professional chemist. After receiving his master's degree from the University of Texas at Arlington in 1980, Perlis traveled everywhere from Brazil to Denver working as a scientist. He teaches chemistry to first responders and emergency personnel and he investigates potentially dangerous environmental damage.
Perlis has brought that experience to bear in his role as a Cherry Creek board member.
"There are a lot of analytical skills you have to draw on," said Perlis, who now works as an environmental protection specialist for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. "I have my scientific way of thinking, I have the scientific method and I can apply that to the school board. People give you information. Does it make sense?"
Perlis says that sticking to the clear and logical tenets of the scientific method has helped make the transition from chemist to school board member a lot more seamless. It's helped him tackle the considerable work load of the job, and it's made the demands of public service a bit more approachable.
"The learning curve was incredible. It takes a lot more time than I think people realize," Perlis said, adding that he started his first term during difficult financial times for the district, the state and the country as a whole. "We were lucky. The voters had just approved the bond of 2008; that saved us a lot of serious cuts."
Even so, Perlis started his tenure as a board member with difficult decisions to make. Along with the rest of the board, Perlis faced tough choices regarding the budget in the wake of continuing cuts from the state. But the process offered Perlis a clear set of priorities, one that's helped shape his service ever since.
"Our focus is on the kids. That's what we think about when we make any decision," Perlis said. "I remember from the beginning, we said weren't going to make any cuts that affect the classroom."
It wasn't just theory that set that strong protocol for Perlis. He currently has three children enrolled in the district – one in elementary school, one in middle school and one in high school. His perspective as a parent and community member, as well as a scientist, made the importance of classroom resources all the more pressing.
As a swimming referee for the Colorado High School Activities Association, Perlis interacts with students from across the metro area. He's also visited his children's schools to lead science demonstrations, helming classroom activities centered on geology and chemistry. It's all offered him a unique perspective on the most important aspects of public education.
"That's the key to education, is making them remember it and making it relevant," Perlis said.
Perlis says the district's widespread focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) takes that into account. It comes in the district's STEM-based Institute of Science and Technology on the Overland High School campus, and it's an integral part of the FOSS (Full Option Science System) kits, packaged science resources that go out to every elementary and middle school and integrate science with reading, writing and math.
"They need to know the basic science," Perlis said. "That's what's key in STEM. We're really teaching the fundamentals from an early level … It's important for a board member to go out there and do the ground work to see what's going on."
That takes time. Along with the rest of the board, Perlis has a busy schedule marked by school visits and activities. That's on top of the demands of being an engaged parent and community member. But Perlis insists all of that work is far from a burden.
"I wouldn't say it's arduous work. It's fun work to do," Perlis said. "It's the kids who keep it fun. Going to the plays, going to the football games – all of the activities are a blast. Now that I have kids at all three levels, I get a real sense of what's going on. I get a real sense of how much work goes into it."