Roughly 20 students from STEM School Highlands Ranch lined Wilcox Street in Castle Rock, waving signs, pleading for community support. When asked why they showed up to the June 18 Douglas County Board of Education meeting, several yelled: “To save our school.”
Inside, parents and students wearing white T-shirts with “#stemstrong” printed on the front filled the second-floor boardroom. An overflow of impassioned STEM families stood at the base of the stairs, where they watched the hours-long meeting from a TV screen.
That night, board members planned to vote on whether to rescind the school's three-year contract offer in favor of a one-year extension of its current contract. Prolonged negotiations and statutory timelines prompted the decision, school board President David Ray said.
The resolution followed the May 7 school shooting that left one student dead and eight others injured.
After midnight, following hours of emotional pleas during public comment, the school board — three members were absent — voted to table its decision while it works to finalize negotiations with the K-12 charter school, which serves roughly 1,800 students, before its contract expires on June 30.
On June 29, the board plans to call a special meeting. If negotiations are not reached, the board will vote on a motion to extend the current contract for one year, calling it “a grace period” for the school to address a hefty list of amendments.
“I think both sides are extremely motivated to make this happen, and I would like to see us give our legal counsels a chance,” Ray said. “Plan B is that it's a one-year extension.”
Penny Eucker, STEM's executive director, said she was disappointed by the decision.
“After so much heartfelt testimony, I thought it would soften their hearts to do the right thing,” she said after the meeting. “But I think we are being held to a different standard, and parents and staff are confused as to why.”
The agenda item to extend the contract for one year, which was introduced days before, blindsided dozens of parents and students who spoke during public comment, calling the move “unfair,” “distasteful,” “threatening.”
“It says to us that you don't trust us to take care of our school,” said Heidi Elliott, a parent who has served on STEM's Board of Directors since January. “Reducing the term to one year could financially cripple our school.”
On Jan. 8, the school board approved a three-year contract for the charter school under the condition that the school send a document to the district by April 1 addressing three priorities: a parent complaint and communication policy, graduation competencies and a description of the school's strategic plan.
Prior to the June 18 meeting, another 14 priorities were added in areas including special education, reporting student behavior and transparency in governance.
STEM — which had originally asked for a five-year contract — planned to appeal the board's Jan. 8 decision to the Colorado Department of Education. A three-year contract would hurt the school's credit rating, leadership said at the time.
The charter school ultimately agreed to hold off on the appeal while it worked with the district to resolve the agreement. Negotiations were nearly complete when the May 7 shooting happened, Ray said.
“The negotiations didn't reconvene,” Ray said, adding that the resolution to extend STEM's current contract for one year would allow “ample time” for the district and charter school to address concerns identified prior to the tragedy.
Parents and students responded to the agenda item with descriptions of their experiences at STEM and recounts of the May 7 events. Most echoed one sentiment: STEM provides to their children what no other school could.
Emma Goodwill, a 2019 graduate who was friends with the sole fatality of the shooting, Kendrick Castillo, spoke of the apps she created and friends she made while at STEM. She recognized that mental health and security are issues that need to be resolved.
“I know that you want to help. I know that you are also heartbroken from the shooting,” Goodwill said to board members. “I want you to know that what's needed now is not your watchful eye and authority. What's needed now is a hand.”
Tess Pautler's son, an overachiever, and daughter, who is twice exceptional, meaning she is gifted and has a form of disability, both thrive at STEM. The innovative technology and problem-based learning suit her children's needs, she said.
“This was abruptly thrown on the STEM community,” Pautler said. “This made us take several steps back in our healing.”
Eucker, who calls herself an eternal optimist, is hoping for the best outcome: a five-year charter extension.
“It has to be five years for optimal financing,” Eucker said after the June 18 meeting. “It's just like if you don't have a favorable rate for your mortgage, you make it work, but there's less for what you want to do.”
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