Anti-voucher slate unifies DCSD school board

Teachers, parents and community members overflowed the boardroom and the lobby of the Wilcox Building in Castle Rock, Colorado, Tuesday night for the swearing in of four new members of Douglas County School District’s Board of Education. 

The new members, who are all against the voucher program that has divided the district, replaced the last remaining members of the conservative slate led by President Meghann Silverthorn that presided over Douglas County since 2009.

Inside the boardroom, the members began reorganizing. The first action was to elect Director David Ray, who served as a principal in the district for 23 years prior to his election to the board in 2015, as president.

“As I think about being the president of this organization, I want to get back to where we were in terms of our motto of ‘hard on the issues and easy on the people,’” Ray said. “I think that in the past few years, we've been hard on people and, to me, it's not necessary. We need to treat people well and focus on the issues that concern our kids.”

After Ray’s unanimous appointment by the board, Director Wendy Vogel was voted to the post of vice president, Director Krista Holtzmann to the post of secretary, Secretary Tammy Taylor to the post of assistant secretary, Director Anne-Marie Lemieux to the post of treasurer and Scott Smith to the post of assistant treasurer.

In the lobby, parents and teachers who could not make it into the boardroom livestreamed the meeting on their cell phones. Each time a new member was sworn in, and a prior member’s term expired, the crowd erupted into cheers. As the noise grew louder, a police officer forced the group outside, where the temperature dipped below freezing, claiming they were breaking the fire code by gathering in the lobby.

“I’d be willing to get arrested for this,” one teacher proclaimed as she stood staunchly in the doorway. “It may be a school night, but it’d be worth it.” 

But slowly, everyone trickled out and the officer locked the doors. Teachers joked that they would find the back exit and taunt members of the old board as they left.

As the meeting proceeded, community members who had signed up for public comment lined up to voice their concerns. Among commentators was Maddie Cassic, a junior at ThunderRidge High School who had spent an hour waiting outside before getting the chance to come into the boardroom.

“I’ve lost two teachers per year for the past three or four years, ever since I really was old enough to notice… I can also say that it really killed them to leave us in what they felt was a district that couldn’t adequately support us,” Cassic said. “Hopefully that can change.”Tim Florian, a facilitator in Douglas County School District, noted that a lack of respect and low pay are responsible for lack of retention of high-quality teachers in the district.

“As you rebuild this district — and you are rebuilding the district — you need to look at how you pay teachers,” Florian said. “Elementary, middle and high school teachers [need] to be treated equally because they're just as important at all levels of education.”

But in order for the board to focus in on teacher retention, it has to find a permanent superintendent, a search that has been necessary since the resignation of Liz Fagan in July of 2016. 

“The most important job of a board of education [is] to select a leader for our school district,” Holtzmann said, adding that the newly elected board members only had 30 minutes prior to the meeting to review the options for selecting a new superintendent. “Our district is definitely not expert in hiring superintendents. That's not the sole purpose of what all of our employees do.”

Holtzmann hinted at the danger of allowing the same board that chose Fagan to make another district-altering decision should the current board decide to assign Interim Superintendent Erin Kane to the position. A national search could be the best option, Holtzmann said, as it would allow the board to search far and wide for the best candidate.

“We’re putting all of our eggs in one basket [if we chose Kane],” Director Kevin Leung echoed. “That’s a huge risk to our school district.”

But Vogel disagreed, noting that hiring an outside firm to find the best fit would be costly and time consuming. 

“I just don't think [a national search] is necessary. I don't think we need to go look all over the country to find somebody,” Vogel said. “We have somebody [Kane] heading our district right now that's highly capable.”

After the selection process, a superintendent found in a national search would likely negotiate a more expensive contract than a local counterpart. Fagan, who was found in a national selection process, was paid $280,350 a year, more than six times what the average Douglas County teacher makes, and boasted a 90 percent disapproval rating from teachers according to the Douglas County Federation. Selecting another superintendent with a million-dollar price tag is likely to upset parents and teachers who have supported the current board members.

In the audience, concerned parents acknowledged the flaws of the past board, but often voiced support for Kane.

“Your predecessors for many years made decisions that are objectively terrible for the district, its staff and its students,” Tim Krug, a Douglas County parent, said. “That is not to say that every decision they made was terrible.”

Given the lack of unity on the issue, Leung recommended putting off a decision on what comes next until after the new members have had the opportunity to reach out to the community and weigh their options.

“Sometimes I believe we have to go slow to go fast. Sometimes I think we have to go as fast as we can when it comes to accelerating trust, respect and making sure there's great morale in our organization,” Ray said. “We have some incredibly amazing work ahead of us.”