A group seeking to oust four members of the Douglas County School Board has formally initiated the recall process and now awaits the green light from Douglas County's clerk and recorder to begin collecting signatures on petitions.
Castle Rock resident Nate Ormond, who is spearheading the effort, submitted petitions to recall directors Christina Ciancio-Schor, Susan Meek, Elizabeth Hanson and board President David Ray for county approval on Feb. 2.
“We're ready to rock and roll,” Ormond said.
The petitions allege directors have shown a “lack of leadership” by frequently shifting plans during COVID-19, and that they mismanaged tax dollars by purchasing an e-learning program that weathered a rocky launch to the school year.
The petitions also say board directors have shown a “lack of trust and transparency” by not being responsive enough to emails, disregarding survey results and that they “misled the public on the departure of their superintendent.”
Delays to school and problems with both the e-learning and hybrid models also caused “lost learning opportunities,” the petitions allege.
Ray and Ciancio-Schor were not immediately available for comment.
Meek called the recall effort "an expression of the division" within the community.
"The reality is, we are in the middle of the most complex school year in U.S. history, and our community, just like the rest of the nation, is pretty divided," she said.
She criticized recall proponents who have spoken at recent board meetings for pushing the reopening of middle and high schools to full, in-person learning. The district can't maintain that learning model while also socially distancing its students, she said.
Meek said she was not able to see the petition statements until after midnight, once the Feb. 2 board meeting concluded, but she refuted allegations the district is mishandling the pandemic.
She emphasized the district started its school year with hybrid learning and said "the in-person hybrid learning option stayed open longer than other metro districts." This semester elementary students began with 100% in-person learning while secondary students worked with their teachers each day amid remote learning, she said.
That illustrates the district is working to balance public health risks with education needs, she said. Meek said that the cost of a recall election if proponents are successful would further burden the district, which this summer cut nearly $31 million from its budget amid the pandemic.
"It's irresponsible to move forward with the the recall months before a scheduled election where the majority of seats will be up," she said. "It's wasteful and a distraction."
Hanson called the challenges board directors faced in the past year "truly inconceivable." The governor shuttered schools. The district made more than $30 million in budget cuts. Guidance for schools from "multiple agencies" constantly shifted, she said.
"I had two months on the board before we began navigating the unprecedented global pandemic," she said. "Then COVID turned the world upside down."
Directors spent weeks during the summer laboring over how to make cuts to the district's budget amid a massive shortfall, she said, saying some departments were almost cut entirely. Directors aimed to keep cuts away from the classroom and focused on central offices, she said.
Hanson rebuked the allegation she has not shown sufficient leadership during the pandemic. She works 40 to 60 hours a week in a volunteer position, she said, and in school board meetings asked for the public's patience while she responds to hundreds of emails a week as board secretary.
"I am proud of that and I will continue to put in those hours," she said.
Hanson said the choice to purchase the district's e-learning curriculum was a decision made by former Superintendent Thomas Tucker and former Chief Academic Officer Marlena Gross-Taylor under broadened authority directors gave the superintendent in March.
The purchase concerned her as well because it was large and staff informed the board of its purchase after the fact, she said.
She also said the district is balancing the need to get students back to any in-person learning with taking COVID-19 precautions required by state guidelines. She called hybrid learning the best compromise.
"I absolutely want kids to be in-person. We all agree that in-person learning is the best learning environment. I want to make sure we can do it safely," she said. "I also think that when we have a lack of consistency, we see significant learning gaps."
Douglas County's Clerk and Recorder Merlin Klotz has seven days to approve or reject the petitions from the time they are received. If a petition is approved, recall proponents have 60 days to gather signatures.
Klotz has informed the group its paperwork was not submitted correctly, a county spokeswoman said. The group can submit its petitions for review again once they are properly formatted.
Ormond said the group has 400 volunteers enlisted to circulate petitions. Ormond estimated the effort will require gathering 80,000 signatures, or 20,000 for each board member.
The county spokeswoman said no more than 15,000 signatures is required under state statute.
It's also likely to be an expensive undertaking. Ormond has publicly pledged $100,000 of his personal funds to the cause, although he estimates the group would need to raise roughly $1 million in total.
Ormond said he registered a 501(c)4 called Road2Recall to collect donations and fund the recall effort.
On Jan. 25 the four directors issued a statement through Ray saying they understood “emotions are running high” regarding the best delivery of education for students during COVID-19.
They pledged to focus on what was best for students as the district navigates the remainder of this semester.
“We will continue to listen and consider all diverse perspectives (students, staff and parents) while adhering to public health guidance,” the statement said.
In the days leading up to filing recall petitions, Ormond told Colorado Community Media the pandemic is not the group's only concern but became the catalyst for pursuing a recall.
Directors had months during the summer to plan for conducting education amid COVID-19, he said, and should have been able to return students to in-person learning sooner this semester.
“This board's failure to implement a clear policy to keep the teachers safe and to allow the children to come back to in-person learning has just drastically failed,” he said.
Ormond said the virus poses a legitimate health risk and danger for high-risk populations, but that the state has laid out clear guidelines for conducting in-person learning safely.
“We know that masks are important, and they can be worn, and we know that we need to limit contact and quickly jump on contact tracing,” he said.
He faults directors for not having “figured out a way to implement those guidelines” and pointed to lowering incidence rates in the county as another supporting reason to reopen schools.
He grew frustrated watching the district pivot learning models multiple times during the 2020-21 school year, deciding in early January to organize a recall effort.
While district schools mostly conducted hybrid learning during the first semester, the district switched back to full-remote learning amid mass quarantines and substitute teacher shortages before the semester's end.
Elementary age students began the second semester in full in-person learning while middle and high schools are conducting full remote learning. On Feb. 2, directors signed off on a plan to return secondary students to some in-person learning with a "Hybrid 2.0" model starting Feb. 8.
The district plan had been to return secondary students to hybrid learning by Jan. 25, but board directors broke with that recommendation from interim Superintendent Corey Wise on Jan. 19, delaying the switch as the district received pushback from teachers and some students who preferred remote learning to hybrid.
Ormond said the search for a new superintendent is also a top concern for the Road2Recall group and he wants a new board to oversee the selection process.
The group hopes to recall and replace the four members of the board to gain a majority and then fill the remaining seats with candidates it supports during the November 2021 elections, he said.
Terms for directors Ciancio-Schor, Anthony Graziano, Krista Holtzmann and Kevin Leung all expire in November. The remaining board directors' terms expire in 2023.
Roughly 60 people had expressed interest in serving as a candidate to replace the four directors, Ormond said.
If recall proponents successfully gather enough signatures and the incumbent does not resign, a special election would be scheduled to both recall the elected official and elect their successor at the same time.
An elected official is recalled if a majority of voters support removing them from office.
Ormond said he has already selected three people and is close to selecting a fourth candidate whom he would endorse to replace the current directors. He declined to name those individuals before candidates can formally register with the state.
Ormond said people from a variety of backgrounds have shown interest.
“Political party isn't even a consideration. I haven't even looked at that,” he said.
Several public speakers during the Feb. 2 board meeting voice support for the recall effort as they urged directors to reopen secondary schools, if not to 100% in-person learning, than to hybrid learning.
Students' mental health, socialization and academic performance is all suffering without in-person instruction, parents, students and at least one educator said.
Other community members have voiced support for board directors at recent board meetings and cautioned against reopening schools.
Student activist and Legend High School senior Ethan Reed was one of several students to speak at the latest board meeting, urging directors against launching hybrid learning.
Reed has told Colorado Community Media among his concerns are the emergence of new mutations in the virus that are more transmissible. He proposed keeping secondary schools in remote education until teachers can be widely vaccinated.
On Jan. 22, Reed submitted a letter to board directors undersigned by more than 120 other students, parents and educators in the district urging directors against a return to hybrid or in-person learning.
Kallie Leyba, president of the Douglas County Federation, the teachers' union, has also expressed concern about a premature return to in-person learning and her opposition to a recall effort of board directors.
As talk of recalls brewed in January, Leyba stressed the district is facing myriad opinions about how to conduct school during COVID.
Wise “clearly communicated” in January board meetings the district switched to full remote learning last semester because of operational pressures on the system, she said, and not because district leadership felt it was better than in-person learning.
“It's unfortunate that there is a vocal minority that continues to speak at board meetings about opening our schools with 100% attendance without regard to the realities that we were facing operationally,” she said.
Leyba said she is empathetic toward board directors and hopes the community will be as well.
“I would just really urge our community to consider the facts behind why the decisions that are being made are being made,” she said. “I feel for (directors).”
This story has been updated with comments from Director Susan Meek, Director Elizabeth Hanson and a county spokeswoman.
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