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New Douglas County school board 'leaves politics at the door'

Priorities will include student achievement, teacher retention and revenue, members say


The Douglas County school board may be getting four new members, but sitting member David Ray is excited about a camaraderie that he says already exists.

“Whereas when we came on two years ago,” Ray said, “there was already — before we stepped on the dais — contentiousness.”

After eight years of an often-controversial majority of reform-minded members, voters elected four new members to the Douglas County School Board on Nov. 7. Krista Holtzmann, Anthony Graziano, Kevin Leung and Chris Schor — who were known as “commUNITY” candidates and largely oppose the reform measures implemented — each won with more than 57 percent of the vote.

The four candidates ran against reform-minded candidates known as Elevate Douglas County — Grant Nelson, Debora Scheffel, Ryan Abresch and Randy Mills.

“There is a common focus now,” said Ray, a former Douglas County principal who was elected in 2015 on a similar platform of reform opposition with Anne-Marie Lemieux and Wendy Vogel. “We are no longer distracted by what I would considered things that aren't directly applicable to Douglas County kids.”

The victory signals a change in direction for the school board that has been in the public eye since 2009, when candidates who espoused reforms such as pay-for-performance evaluations for teachers and a form of school choice that would later include a controversial voucher program were elected.

At an Election Night viewing party, all four “commUNITY" candidates said that as school board members, they will first and foremost focus on the 68,000 students in the school district.

“Our community is expecting that from us,” said Schor, a former principal in the district. “We are the servants of the community and that is what we will do.”

Priorities will dictate action

The new board will have a list of priorities to tackle, Ray said, but the voucher program that has been tied up in the court system since 2011 — and is awaiting a second look by the Colorado Supreme Court — isn't at the top.

“The nonnegotiable for me is that it can't cost taxpayers money for us to defend it,” Ray said. “We haven't had much conversation about what the next steps should be.”

Focuses of the new board will be student achievement, staff retention and revenue, Ray said. He foresees the new board listening to and relying on committees, such as the Long Range Planning Committee, which studies district facility and capacity needs. He expects work to be done to establish a pay-for-performance model that recognizes experience in profession, as well as performance and skill.

Ray is optimistic about looking at a tax measure that would generate more money for capital needs across the district. But, he said, that would first require “mass support” from the community. A mill levy override on the ballots in 2008 and 2011 failed both times.

School board president Meghann Silverthorn, who is term-limited and will not be part of the board when the new members are sworn in, which will likely be at a school board meeting on Nov. 28, said she hopes the new board values voices in the community and engages in thoughtful change. Another tax measure failure would be “three strikes in a row,” she said.

“You can't make anybody support a tax increase,” said Silverthorn, who has been among the board's reform-minded majority for eight years. “You can understand when the conditions are right to pursue one and run a campaign that respects people's rights.”

There will be pressure from the community for the new board to make changes, Silverthorn said. Over the past two years, she said, the board tried to move in the right direction with its implementation of policies and responsiveness, but "it wasn’t fast enough, it wasn’t big enough and the community did not feel satisfied for whatever reason."

She hopes to see “ongoing respect all around.”

“I'd like to see members who don't rush into anything simply because they feel like they have a mandate to do things,” Silverthorn said. “I'd like to see them take a step back from the overheated election and decide what they really want to see.”

For six years, supporters of reforms held all seven seats on the Douglas County School Board. They introduced new policies that, in the eyes of many in the community, caused an exodus of hundreds of teachers and administrators.

Some of those policies also effectively nullified the local teachers' union. After the collective bargaining agreement expired in 2012, the union and district were unable to agree on a contract.Until then, the union and district had enjoyed a relationship that was acclaimed nationally for its collaboration and willingness to work together, helping produce one of the nation’s first pay-for-performance programs in 1994.

Bringing the union back was a hot topic that reform-minded candidates outwardly opposed. In early October, a national teachers union, American Federation of Teachers, donated $300,000 toaDouglas County-based committee that backed anti-reform candidates.

Current board members don't have plans to bring the Douglas County Federation back into the school district, Ray said. But he supports teachers who want to join the union.

“None of us have the desire to have the union have a greater influence in terms of how decisions are made,” Ray said. “The bottom line is we are going to listen to everyone that has a stake in educating children.”

The Douglas County Federation is a member-driven organization, said Kallie Leyba, president of Douglas County Federation and a former teacher. She declined to comment on the number of members.

"What is most important is that all teachers and staff have the resources they need to serve their students," she said. "... it will be up to our members to determine our path forward."

Looking ahead

A shift in direction began to take place on the Douglas County School Board in 2015, when Ray, Vogel and Lemieux won the vote.

The result since has been a divided board, with votes frequently falling 4-3 in favor of the reform-minded members — Silverthorn, James Geddes, Judith Reynolds and Steven Peck, none of whom ran for re-election.

Reynolds had hoped for a different outcome on Election Night.

“I'm disappointed, I thought it would be a lot closer," she said. “My hope is that we continue to give our students an excellent education and we focus on our students and not the adults in the system.”

Many parents, teachers and community members, however, are excited about what lies ahead. They are hopeful that the school board's shift in power will bring back a district that they say focuses on students and staff.

“The failed reform experiment conducted by the previous board members has underserved our children and resulted in the loss of valuable educational opportunities,” said Jason Virdin, spokesman of the activist group Douglas County Parents, formed in 2013 to represent parents and community members who oppose the reforms, in a statement following the Nov. 7 election. “We are excited to begin a new chapter in DCSD that puts students and learning at the center of all decision-making and leaves politics at the door.”


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