Douglas County School Board candidates talk campus safety, charter schools

Forum hosted by Alliance of Douglas County Charter Schools gathers candidates

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Navigating the district's relationship with charter schools, along with school safety, took center stage at a recent forum for Douglas County School Board candidates.

The Alliance of Douglas County Charter Schools hosted the Oct. 10 event moderated by two of its board members.

R.J. O'Connor, of Parker, said school security was his main reason for attending. The father of two American Academy students came to hear what measures candidates would pursue to improve security in schools.

“If you're not willing to honestly and openly consider all options, that just shows me that you're close-minded,” he said.

Julie Lamb, of Castle Rock, whose children have attended both charter and neighborhood schools, said school safety, retention and community engagement were key issues for her.

“I wanted to get the perspectives of everybody and see where they stood on the things that were important to me,” she said.

In District F, Kory Nelson is facing off with incumbent David Ray. In District C are Franceen Thompson and Elizabeth Hanson, while Andy Jones and Susan Meek are vying for the District A seat.

Here's what candidates had to say on certain issues.

Charter schools and autonomy

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Hanson said she was impressed after researching Colorado state law on charter schools. She pointed to findings from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, which ranked Colorado No. 2 in 2019 among states with the best charter school laws.

“I would continue to follow our state law, which is exceptional,” Hanson said.

Meek said as an authorizer, the district decides who can start a charter school, sets expectations and oversees the school's performance.

“The role of the board is not to run those schools, it's to oversee those schools and ensure they're meeting federal and state guidelines,” Meek said.

Thompson said she's focus on minimizing the administrative compliance burdens on charter schools and holding schools accountable for their outcomes, not processes.

“I would always ask whether any decision that we made as a board would do those two things, and as such, I would not want to meddle in the processes of charter schools.”

Nelson and Jones took aim at Ray for his handling of charter school issues on the board.

Jones said the current board has meddled in the autonomy of two charter schools, STEM School Highlands Ranch and Ascent Classical Academy. He accused the board of retroactively changing its safe school policy in an attempt to prohibit a program at Ascent that allows some staff to carry firearms on campus.

Nelson has repeatedly called the board's handling of Ascent “harassment.”

Ray said there were some inaccurate claims made and later rebutted Jones' and Nelson's statements.

He said the board has been sifting through roughly 250 district policies that needed updating and there were no ulterior motives when the safe schools policy was changed. Ray also commended the district for clarifying policies and working to ensure the district and charter schools understand expectations of each other when contracts are drawn.

Myths about charter schools

There are more than a few damaging myths about charter schools, moderators said, so candidates were asked to discuss one myth and how they've worked to dispel it.

Ray pointed to the perception that charter schools are not public education.

“I think that's one of the things that we have worked so hard on, that under the Douglas County umbrella we are all the Douglas County school system,” Ray said.

Nelson said state law allows charter schools and he grows frustrated with people who oppose anyone “exercising their rights.” He also criticized the notion that people must either be in support of charter schools or against them.

“One of the problems I'm most troubled about,” he said, “is that somehow someone has to be pro-charter or anti-charter.”

Thompson lamented the myth “that charter schools have bad teachers” and said she respected teachers from both the neighborhood and charter schools her children attended.

For Hanson, the perception that charter schools have a political affiliation is damaging.

“Charter schools are nonpartisan,” she said. “I think it's really unfortunate that charter schools have been painted red or blue, because they're simply not.”

Meek said there is a misperception that “all charter schools are the same.” She believes all 91 of the district's schools are “unique and diverse and they all have their own culture that they're bringing to the district.”

Charter schools are not private and don't take money from public schools, Jones said.

“I would love for our community to please, please, please move past this myth that we take dollars away from public schools. Charter schools are public schools,” Jones said.

In his answer, Jones read a quote from Meek that she said he was taking out of context. Meek maintained she supports public school choice.

“What I said is, it's a shame that there are private school choice options hiding behind the public-school choice options, and I will make crystal clear, I do not support private school choice — vouchers,” Meek said in her rebuttal.

School security

The previous school year closed with a shooting tragedy that left one student dead and eight more injured at STEM School Highlands Ranch. School safety has been a major area of concern for the community since. Moderators asked candidates how they would increase safety and security in the district.

Thompson repeated a stance she's taken throughout her campaign — that all security options should be considered. Thompson's children attended STEM and her daughter was a senior there at the time of the shooting. The incident is why she chose to run.

Meek said the district's safety plan needs to be comprehensive and that no one measure can solve safety problems. Ray said the district is looking at how it can flesh out its comprehensive plan, like improving bystander reporting programs and communication among schools.

Hanson supports the district's school safety plan but said there is still work to do, naming threat assessments and emergency preparation as areas of potential improvement.

Jones said he agreed with all the other candidates' statements and suggested working more closely with first responder teams and school resource officers, while Nelson again criticized Ray.

He said school resource officer coverage prior to the shooting was too thin, that some school resource officers were asked to cover more than one large school and called that approach “David Ray's Sophie's Choice security plan.”

Ray said the district followed expert recommendations and what the budget allowed. He also said the number of SROs that Nelson argued were needed doesn't happen “overnight.” More SROs were added in the district following the STEM tragedy.

Closing thoughts

O'Connor, the Parker parent, appreciated the event and commended the Alliance for its mission. He hopes they can help charter schools unite and improve relationships with the district at large.

“They're trying to do everything they can to bridge this us-versus-them mentality,” he said.

Lamb has had three children graduate from Rock Canyon High School and her last attends Highlands Ranch High School. But the children also attended charter schools, which she said helped her appreciate and value choice.

She was concerned with the attitude of Jones and Nelson, she said, but walked away from the forum feeling as though candidates gave good answers and cared about children.

“I thought for the most part they were really good,” Lamb said. “I thought it was really well-run.”

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