School board election gearing up

Divisive changes fuel passion on all sides

The Douglas County School District decision to extend school vouchers to some students is facing challenges from four national and local organizations. Photo by Courtney Kuhlen | ckuhlen@ccnewspapers.com
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More than four months in advance of the Douglas County School District board election, the buzz already is building.

Four seats are up for grabs on the now reform-friendly, all-Republican board in November, including those belonging to John Carson, Doug Benevento, Carrie Mendoza and Meghann Silverthorne. Carson is term-limited and cannot run for re-election.

Two candidates — Democrat Ronda Scholting and unaffiliated Nicholas Land — filed with the Secretary of State to upend Silverthorn. Barbra Chase Burke of Roxborough, also unaffiliated, has filed seeking the District B seat now occupied by Carson. No other candidates have yet come forward. Silverthorn confirmed she intends to run again. Benevento and Mendoza haven’t yet put their intentions on the record.

Regardless, the campaigning to either retain or replace current candidates is underway. Some of it in public. Much of it behind closed doors.

The board's efforts at education reform - including a voucher program, dissolution of the teachers' union agreement and a pay-for-performance plan - have ignited controversy in the community.

The Douglas County Republicans in February set up an education committee with a stated purpose to “recruit school board candidates” and create “strategy for school board election.” A second committee soon will begin interviewing potential board candidates.

Former board candidate and DCSD spokeswoman Susan Meek, who is often critical of the board and district, recently announced she’ll devote her time to help candidates she supports get elected.

A group called Voices for Public Education, sponsored by anti-school-voucher plaintiffs Taxpayers for Public Education, this month started a series of pro-public education speakers’ events slated to run between now and the election.

Another group, originally launched only as a Facebook page called Doug Co Champions for Kids, is sponsoring a series of public meetings designed to share the school district’s viewpoints on various issues.

“I think there is so much misinformation out there it’s having an effect on teacher morale,” said board supporter Franceen Thompson, a district captain with the Douglas County Republicans and volunteer with DougCo Champions for Kids. “If we can just get the facts out there, and get a better understanding of what’s going on, I think that will help.”

Teachers’ union representatives are speaking at private house parties about ongoing DCSD issues and the upcoming election.

“We talk about what’s happening,” said Brenda Smith, president of the Douglas County Federation teachers’ union. “We present the information. We talk about our survey, the decline and the culture of climate, the number of teachers that have actually left.”

The words of people on both sides of the county’s education issues are serious and often dire in tone.

“Our education system in the county is really in danger,” Taxpayers for Public Education president Cindy Barnard, a voucher opponent, said before author Angela Engel launched the Voices series June 18. “In Douglas County, due to our demographics, we are at ground zero for this experiment in public education.”

“In my opinion, we can’t afford to lose a single seat. Not one,” Thompson said.

Statements both accurate and false are broadcast in public meetings and on a variety of Facebook pages.

During a recent Coffee for Conservatives meeting in Franktown, organizer Margo Knutson said the union and its affiliates plan to spend $8 million during the school board elections.

Smith said that’s not accurate.

“The answer is, I don’t know yet,” she said. “But I think it’s going to be a very interesting election.

“We are always looking for really good candidates. Teachers want a school board member that supports neighborhood schools.”

Smith said board members often incorrectly point to the union as the cause of parent-led protests and meetings. The union’s long-standing collective bargaining agreement with the district expired in 2012.

“That’s what sells and they think that’s what gives it negativity,” she said. “Union or not, you have a very large population of teachers that are dissatisfied with the direction of the school district. They have a really hard time accepting that fact.”

Douglas County Republicans chairman Craig Steiner said he will make details about the group’s role in the election process public in about a month. Though most board candidates in past elections were Republicans, Steiner said, “We’re not just of one mind.”

“The school board’s been doing a lot of good things over the last four years and those things are consistent with what we’d like to see happen in education,” he said. “We’d like to see a school board continue to do those things, and we’re looking for Republicans that are there to support the things the board is trying to do.”

Advocates on both sides of the school district issues sometimes use the same phrases to explain their concerns.

Meek is among many concerned with recent district decisions who said she wants to restore the parent voice to the conversation.

Thompson, meanwhile, said the atmosphere in the school district has changed for the better under the current administration and board.

“Now I think parents have more of a voice than they’ve ever had before,” she said.