Douglas County School Board holds off on STEM contract decision

Board members considering a one-year deal for the charter

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The Douglas County Board of Education postponed its vote on whether to rescind a three-year charter contract offer for STEM School Highlands Ranch and consider a one-year extension of the school's current contract.

The resolution, introduced June 14 and considered at a lengthy June 18 board meeting, would have essentially tacked on one year to the school's current, five-year contract, giving the district more time to address a list of concerns with the K-12 charter school that serves roughly 1,800 students and to negotiate a new contract. The resolution says the May 7 school shooting that left one student dead and eight others injured raised questions about the school's safety and security.

The board will work to negotiate a contract with STEM by June 30, when the current deal expires. If negotiations are not reached by then, 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 in areas of safety, mental health, financial reporting, parent communication and transparency.

“I'm struggling to find the words, but I am really intrigued with the notion of, if we could get there, if we could get to a place where we left off without the contract expiring, I think it would be my preference,” school board President David Ray said.

At the June 18 meeting, roughly 20 STEM students lined Wilcox Street in Castle Rock, waving signs, pleading for community support. Inside the school district's headquarters, parents and students wearing white T-shirts with “#stemstrong” 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.

“This made us take several steps back in our healing,” Tess Pautler, a mother of two STEM students, said as she waited her turn to speak to the board.

Penny Eucker, STEM’s executive director, said she was disappointed by the board's 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.”

Stalled negotiations

On Jan. 8, the school board denied STEM's request for a five-year contract renewal and approved a three-year deal with the following conditions: that the school adopt and publish a parent complaint-and-communication policy, show the school's graduation standards meet the state's requirements and provide a description of the school's strategic plan to expand.

STEM planned to appeal that decision to the Colorado Board of Education. A three-year contract would hurt the school's credit rating, leadership said at the time. STEM 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 school shooting happened.

“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 a growing list of concerns identified prior to the tragedy.

The one-year contract under consideration outlines 18 amendments, including: the administration of regular staff, parent, and student satisfaction surveys, which are to be sent to the district's Choice Programming Office; timely and accurate financial reporting to the district; 100% staff participation in annual mandatory online trainings on respect in the workplace, standard response protocol, child abuse reporting and keeping students safe; and the hiring and retention of licensed special education teachers, mental health professionals and counselors, who must be current on suicide intervention skills and district threat assessment training. A full list of the amendments is available at https://bit.ly/2L1TnfV.

Board members expressed hesitation in finalizing a mutual agreement with STEM by June 30.

“I have to go back to January, when I supported a three-year renewal, because I had significant concerns for students of STEM,” board member Krista Holtzmann said. “Those concerns have not been resolved, even though some of them have been specifically requested, and have not happened to this point.”

'Trying circumstances'

On June 17, addressing the board's resolution, STEM administration sent an email to parents outlining the school's mental health and special education resources, academic success and security and emergency response protocols.

The school utilizes four counselors, two social workers, one psychologist and the suicide-prevention program “Sources of Strength." For the 2019-20 school year, it will have a full-time school resource officer from the Douglas County Sheriff's Office, along with a full-time private security guard, according to the email.

At the time of the shooting, STEM contracted with a private security firm and did not have a school resource officer. The sheriff's office opted not to renew its contract with the school prior to the 2018-19 school year because the school was mainly using its SRO to direct traffic, according to a letter from Sheriff Tony Spurlock to Eucker.

Also addressed in the June 17 email to STEM families were allegations made by an anonymous parent last December, claiming STEM's climate and culture are out of control, alleging rampant student drug use, student violence due to a high-pressure environment and bullying, among numerous other accusations. STEM said school officials investigated the allegations and found them to be false.

STEM's letter reads: “We hope the Board will reconsider its decision to restrict the school to a single-year charter renewal at a time when the community is recovering from the most trying circumstances it has ever faced.”

More than 50 STEM parents and students took the podium during public comment at the June 18 meeting to vouch for STEM and recount heroic actions taken by students and teachers during the May 7 tragedy.

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.”

Nicole Churchill-Jones, who has a son at STEM and a daughter at ThunderRidge High School, said the charter school's security “exceeds” the neighborhood school.

“The tragedy of May 7 could've happened at any school, and if you think that is not the case, you are closing your eyes to reality,” Churchill-Jones said.

A misunderstanding?

School board member Wendy Vogel said she believes STEM parents and students misunderstood the resolution to extend the charter's contract for one year. Revoking the charter's contract was never up for discussion, board members stressed.

“The current contract is due to end on June 30. If we do nothing at all, then the STEM school would be in a lot worse position,” Vogel said. “This allows us to go into the next school year in the exact same situation as the last school year, knowing that STEM was going to apply for a renewal of the contract.”

She added: “I think its really unfortunate that there has been what I perceive as being attacks on our staff, who went above and beyond to support this school in the immediate time after this crisis.”

Board member Kevin Leung expressed similar concerns, which caused an outburst of anger from STEM families in the boardroom.

“After this crisis, many of us spent a lot of time trying to help, because you are our students, you are our constituents, you are our parents. You are one of us,” Leung said. “I am just not happy that — I don't know what message you got.”

Board members tentatively scheduled a special meeting for June 29, when they expect to reach a decision.

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