Local school boards have become more partisan recently amid national debates about COVID-19 and how teachers ought to teach about racism but in Douglas County School District, tense, high-profile battles between educators, administrators and parents have a longer history.
The district — which recently saw two protests involving hundreds of teachers and students, allegations of violating state open meeting laws, and the firing of its superintendent all in a span of eight days — faced highly divisive clashes since reformers first took control in 2009.
Douglas County School District was on the “leading edge of the school board elections becoming pretty politicized,” said Paul Teske, dean of the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado Denver.
The county has become a barometer for national politicians on how wealthy, suburban Republicans are leaning on different issues, he said.
“It’s a political prize for donors who would like to see a more radical set of policies come out of the school board,” added Kevin Welner, director of the University of Colorado’s National Education Policy Center in Boulder, noting that Douglas County School District is a large school district in an affluent and largely conservative community.
The district’s Board of Education made national headlines during the pandemic for its heated debates and for the money that flowed in during last year’s election. Since the election, the board’s four conservative members, which hold the majority, have moved quickly to lift mask requirements for schools and asked for possible changes to the district’s equity policy.
The four clashed with the other three members on the board in a meeting two weeks ago when they voted to fire Superintendent Corey Wise.
His termination came days after the three minority members alleged the board’s president and vice president — Mike Peterson and Christy Williams — privately told Wise to resign or be voted out and violated Colorado’s open-meeting laws in the process. Williams said during the Feb. 4 school board meeting that they did not violate sunshine laws.
The allegations spurred about 1,000 teachers, staffers, and other community members to protest outside district offices in Castle Rock on Feb. 3. Three days later, hundreds of students from at least eight schools walked out of their classrooms.
The fact that the school board attracts so much interest and action from parents, students and the broader community is not surprising, according to former teachers and an ex-school board member who worked in the district when it garnered national attention for its school reform policies in the 2010s.
“We were a unicorn back then,” said Traci Mumm, a former English, journalism and speech teacher who left the district in 2013. “No other school district could believe what was happening to us.”
School board candidates typically run without party affiliation in elections that are often overlooked and don’t attract large-pocketed donors. And boards are generally expected to do their best to insulate schools from culture wars that may be taking place at the time, Welner, the national education policy expert, said.
But that has not always been the case in Douglas County School District.
Even back in 2009, when national school board antics were known to be boring, Douglas County was locked in a partisan battle when the Republican Party backed four candidates for the board – a decision that at that time was attributed to the teachers union’s involvement in the race.
The Douglas County school board two years later voted for a voucher program to give taxpayer money to help pay for students to go to private schools. The initiative, which was never implemented because of legal disputes, stood out because as a high-performing suburban school district Douglas County was an unusual candidate for such a program.
Republicans’ interest in the school board did not wane and in 2013, in what was then called a “fractious race,” the Colorado chapter of Americans for Prosperity – the group founded by the late David Koch – ran television ads to support candidates. By then, “conservatives across the U.S. (saw) Douglas County as a model for transforming public schools everywhere,” Politico wrote at the time.
Back then, the debate about school board policies was not as clearly split between party lines, and at least nationally, there were members of both the right and left who supported school choice — even if it was for different reasons, said Meghann Silverthorn, who was elected to the board in 2009 and supported the district’s reforms.
Douglas County’s affluent – and mostly conservative – residents care strongly about their community and they have the means to advocate for what they want – and expect – out of their child’s education, she said.
And what has developed, she said, is a tug-a-war between parents and teachers over what happens in classrooms. Nationally, parents are concerned their children are falling behind in things like reading, writing and math — especially as the pandemic has disrupted in-person classes for the past two years — but these discussions are even more “contentious” in Douglas County School District because of the school board’s long history, Silverthorn said.
“Parents are saying, ‘Wait a minute, that’s not what I want,’” she said, adding, “(Teachers are) the linchpin of the school district.”
Beyond the voucher program, the school board during that period made other changes, including paying teachers via a market-based system and shunning the teacher’s union. The change in pay, which was implemented in 2012, replaced the traditional salary scale that was based on educator tenure and education level with one that used performance evaluations and set salaries based on how difficult different positions were to fill.
Teachers who worked during that time described it as a period of low morale and high turnover. The school board’s changes added to teachers’ workload in ways that didn’t always seem to benefit students, and with the union sidelined, many felt they had lost their voice, according to former teachers.
“I felt very powerless,” Mumm said. “Suddenly, I felt like the enemy.”
Members of the community used to request teachers’ emails under the state’s public records law to “see if we were talking with the union,” she said, adding, “It became very contentious, very quickly.”
Many teachers left the district, some taking significant pay cuts when they changed schools.
Silverthorn, the former school board member, acknowledged the teacher and staff exodus the district experienced.
“It’s pretty easy to blame teacher turnover on a change like that,” she said. “Teachers left for a number of reasons. I’m not going to pretend that some of the things we put in weren’t the reason that they left.”
Former Douglas County School District teachers said they fear that the firing of Wise will spur more educators to leave the district once again.
“A lot of people I know will retire, if they can afford to,” said Kamala Schuster, who taught in the district for 21 years before leaving in 2015. “People are going to jump ship as fast as they can.”
With the search for a new superintendent soon underway, Douglas County School District is going to need a strong leader to “reassure teachers that their interests are going to be looked after and that they are valued as professionals,” Silverthorn said.
The school board is holding a meeting at 5 p.m. on Wednesday to discuss its timeline for hiring a new superintendent.
One high-profile departure is already in process. Sid Rundle, special education services officer for the district, will leave on Feb. 18.
Rundle, who declined to comment for this story, blamed the board’s decision to fire Wise for his leaving the district in his resignation letter, which was obtained via a public records request. Rundle submitted the letter on Feb. 5, a day after Wise was fired without cause.
“Despite their propaganda, (the board does) not value loyalty, hard work, dedication, relationships, decency, humility, or integrity,” he wrote. “Instead, they showed themselves to be firmly yoked to political influence, arrogant ideology, and a disdain for due process.”
Douglas County’s school board isn’t the only one to face partisan politics. In 2014, a member of the school board overseeing Jeffco Public Schools proposed changing the curriculum so that it presented the “positive aspects” of the nation’s history and did not “encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law. That same year Superintendent Cynthia Stevenson left the district earlier than expected.
“I didn’t want to be pushed out,” Stevenson said.”I couldn’t deal with that. My deal was I’d rather walk out and sustain my pride. As a leader of an organization, you can’t let yourself be treated badly.”
The reason for the current conflict permeating through Douglas County School District is different than what happened in the mid-2010s. Now, it is one of many districts where disputes over masks, library books and critical race theory – which examines how racism is embedded in the American legal system and other institutions – are taking place.
“I don’t think Douglas County is anything but a microcosm of what you are seeing elsewhere,” said Stu Parker, Douglas County’s Republican party chairman. “We’ve been at it longer but I don’t think it’s that any different.”
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