Board Unplugged meeting sparks debate

Audience members criticize DCSD financing proposal, regular meeting format

Jane Reuter
Teacher Kevin DiPasquale confronts school board president Kevin Larsen about the lack of teacher trust in the district and other concerns during the March 3 Board Unplugged meeting at Cimarron Middle School.
Jane Reuter
DCSD Chief Financial Officer Bonnie Betz explains a funding proposal that the district hopes to put to voters during the March 3 Board Unplugged meeting at Parker’s Cimarron Middle School.
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Criticism of the school board was the theme at the Douglas County School District’s “Board Unplugged” meeting March 3.

The evening focused on CFO Bonnie Betz’s presentation about a funding measure the district is seeking. Small-group discussions followed, and group after group then chose representatives who said they didn’t trust the school board and would never vote for more funding until the board regained their trust.

While the agenda included a second topic for discussion, it never was entertained. The first-of-its-kind meeting — billed as a way to start bringing people in the divided school community together — instead ended.

“That was great feedback,” Board President Kevin Larsen said to the approximately 60 people in attendance. “Rather than get feedback on another issue, we can do that at another meeting.”

The November 2014 or 2015 voter proposal Betz outlined calls for issuing certificates of participation that would help address the $265 million in capital needs anticipated over the next five years. While Betz called the idea a “win-win” that would keep tax rates level, audience members repeatedly said it won’t get their vote.

“I’m that parent and most of us are that would (in the past) have voted and have voted `yes’ for the bond every year of our lives,” Laura Alfano said, but noted money spent to bring in a pro-district speaker before the November board elections, update the website and other financial decisions raised concerns. “If we need new phones and the roofs are falling down, why do we need a PR firm? Please help us trust you and we will help you build and fix everything.”

“Teacher trust is huge; I feel we have no trust right now,” teacher Kevin DiPasquale said. “We have a presentation, a dog-and-pony show telling us about the needs of our district. How about a parent survey? A teacher survey?”

Julie Keim, a former board candidate who filed a lawsuit against the district for violations of the Colorado Fair Campaign Practices Act, noted the district found a way to fund its widely criticized pay-for-performance program despite voter denial of a 2011 ballot measure to finance it.

“The district took our money … and did it anyway,” she said. “Unless we feel we can trust this school board and they honor our true needs, we will as a public be unwilling to support a bond. You need to as a school board address our issues before we address yours.”

Shaylee Holland, a board member with American Academy charter school and candidate for the open board seat vacated by Justin Williams, said she feels there is some misunderstanding about the board’s reform effort and school financing.

“I do want to share how the reform effort has saved everybody money and put money back in the classrooms,” she said. “We have 1,600 students in our two buildings that the district doesn’t have to pay for. If those two schools were shut down, that’d be 1,600 extra students vying for the finite dollars. People just need to educate themselves.”

Several also criticized a briefly discussed plan to build a K-8 special education facility similar to Plum Creek Academy, which serves middle- and high-school-aged special needs students. Goals of the new facility would include quickly mainstreaming those students back into the general DCSD school population, school leaders said. But several audience members said building the new school would constitute segregation.

Larsen said after the meeting the board will continue to work on the format for the Board Unplugged events.

“We’re seeking and trying different formats right now we think will lead to productive exchange of information,” he said. “Last night was one element of trying something. We may find different ways to do the April and May meetings.”

Larsen said he heard “loud and clear” the comments from audience members about trust and other issues, but said he wants to be sure the district is hearing from a broad cross-section of the community.

“I don’t think the message we got last night was necessarily (from) a cross section of our entire population,” he said.

The next Board Unplugged meeting is planned for April 1. Location and time have not been announced.