Douglas County

District’s direction at stake in school board election

Four of seven seats on ballot, with no incumbents running

Staff writers Mike DiFerdinando and Alex DeWind
Posted 9/26/17

They come from different backgrounds and neighborhoods — and hold different educational philosophies — but parents from across Douglas County agree the upcoming schoolboard election could change the course of the school district

“The …

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Douglas County

District’s direction at stake in school board election

Four of seven seats on ballot, with no incumbents running

Posted

They come from different backgrounds and neighborhoods — and hold different educational philosophies — but parents from across Douglas County agree the upcoming schoolboard election could change the course of the school district

“The reformers have controlled DCSD for eight years,” parent Kelly Pointer said of the often-controversial majority that has led the district since 2009. “In that time, I have seen a lack of transparency, a lack of respect for teachers, parents and community members, a lack of fiscal responsibility and a lack of stability. Simply put, our district is a mess.”

Parent Lindsay Wolfe has a different outlook. Wolfe’s three kids transferred from a neighborhood school to American Academy in Parker, a charter school, where they are “getting exactly what they need.” She also backs many of the reforms the board has implemented, including a pay-for-performance model for teachers. She’s confident in the future of the district as long as it continues in the same direction, she said.

“If not,” said Wolfe, “I don’t know what we are going to do.”

Pointer, Wolfe and many others believe this election is pivotal, particularly because the board will have a big say next year in the district’s future with its choice of a permanent superintendent to replace Elizabeth Fagen, who resigned in July 2016. The position has been held by an interim superintendent, Erin Kane, since then.

Eight years after the election of a reform-minded school board effectively changed the direction and tenor of the Douglas County School District — the state’s third-largest with more than 67,000 students — its future could once again be on the threshold of change.

Sweeping change

School board candidates who espoused reforms such as pay-for-performance evaluations for teachers and a form of school choice that would later include a controversial voucher program were elected in 2009. They introduced a host of new policies that, to many critics, changed the district too severely and too quickly, without enough communityand teacherparticipation. Many blamed the reforms for an exodus of hundreds of top-performing teachers and administrators.

In early 2010, the school board hired Fagen, who would become increasingly unpopular among many district educators and community members because of curriculum and policy changes — and the ways in which they were implemented.

Like-minded candidates won elections in 2011 and 2013. For six years, supporters of the reforms held all seven seats on the board.

On the heels of years of strong vocal opposition by many parents, a shift occurred in 2015, when candidates who opposed the reform policies ousted incumbents Kevin Larsen, Craig Richardson and Richard Robbins. David Ray, Wendy Vogel and Anne-Marie Lemieux each won with at least 58 percent of the vote.

The result has been a divided board, with votes frequently falling 4-3 in favor of the reform-minded members, Meghann Silverthorn, James Geddes, Judith Reynolds and Steven Peck, none of whom is running for re-election. Silverthorn is term-limited, while the other members are not, but rather chose not to seek four more years on the board.

This year’s race

To Ray, the 2017 election looks similar to the one in 2009.

“A slate of candidates, who were handpicked by a small group of political activists, won the election. They went on to hire a superintendent who was aligned to their agenda — and our district has paid the horrific cost ever since,” Ray said. “Fortunately, the community will have a chance to learn from past mistakes and not allow history to repeat itself.”

Ray is referring to the Elevate slate, made up of Randy Mills, Grant Nelson, Ryan Abresch and Debora Scheffel.

The four candidates, however, emphasize they are not linked to the reform-minded members of the board.

“A couple people have come up to me and asked if we’re just a continuation of the current board. I want to make clear we’re not,” said Nelsonwho owns a commercial real estate business that operates throughout Colorado, Wyoming and Montana.“We have zero ties to them ... We’re doing this to try and put the Douglas County school board back in the center and be a reasonable, rational group of people.”

But some community members, such as Laura Mutton — a parent and outspoken voice of those opposing the board majority — wonder if this is a political move.

“Why aren’t any of the current majority board members running?”she said. “A decision like that appears to be an admission that they haven’t done their job well ... This (the slate) implies a very organized and possibly political effort in the school board race, which in other districts is composed of individuals, not slates.”

Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor, Kevin Leung and Krista Holtzmann are the four candidates running against Elevate, and they do not officially call themselves a slate. But most of their supporters — many of whom have painted all four of the candidates’ names on their car windows — are treating them as such, looking at them as the anti-reform team.

While the race technically features two candidates in each of four districts, in essence, the Nov. 7 election will be the culmination of a four-on-four contest.

But for the current three-member board minority, a clean sweep of the four races is not necessary to transform them into the majority. One seat won by an anti-reform candidate would do that.

Big decisions

Among the newly elected board’s first major decisions will be whom to hire as the permanent superintendent.

The school board has extended Kane’s contract as interim superintendent through the 2017-18 school year, which means the school district will hold off on a search until after the election.

Both Ray and Peck agree that who leads the district will be one of the new board’s most critical decisions.

“All four seats up for re-election this fall support public charter schools, merit pay for educators and Superintendent Erin Kane and her executive team,” said Peck, who has generally aligned himself with the board majority since his appointment in November 2016 to replace a member who resigned. “Losing one of those four seats could bring significant change ...”

Ray also includes teacher retention, the needs of aging facilities and budget decisions that directly affect students in classrooms as issues with as vital importance as choosing a new superintendent.

“The upcoming election will determine whether the entire board reflects these values and priorities,” he said.

With continuing growth and aging buildings, the debate over the need for new tax measures is another key campaign issue.

A district panel comprising members of the District Accountability Committee, Long Range Planning Committee and Fiscal Oversight Committee told the board in March that it supports the placing of bond and mill levy questions on the 2018 ballot.

In 2015, the Long Range Planning Committee — community members and parents who study the district’s capital needs — estimated the district needs $275.1 million for current and future capital needs projects over five years.

Other major issues facing the district include the teacher pay-for-performance system, pending lawsuits over school choice and vouchers, and how teachers are evaluated.

At a crossroads

Some parents and community members, such as Pointer, have made it clear they want something different from their school board.

“I am not interested in more of the same,” Pointer said. “I will not vote for candidates who are supported by the current and past majority who are responsible for creating this mess.”

But others, like Wolfe, believe the best path forward is a continuation of the current course — something she says the Elevate slate can provide.

“I am a firm believer in choice and doing what is best for our kids,” Wolfe said.

For parent Liz Wagner,who has supported the reform movement in the past, the district simply needs change.

“I’m a fiscal conservative who has historically voted for the reformer up until 2015,” Wagner said. “I’d like a balanced BOE who supports all students — charter, neighborhood, special education, gifted.”

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