School & District Management

Colo. School Board Race Shapes Up to Be Divisive

By Katie Ash — October 29, 2013 3 min read
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When voters in Douglas County, Colo., head to the polls next week to fill the four seats available on the district’s school board, they will be registering their collective opinion on both what they want their schools to look like in the future and how satisfied they are with the district’s high-profile policy changes of the past four years.

The race has been contentious, in part because of fallout from the school board’s highly partisan race in 2009. The Douglas County Republican Party endorsed four candidates in that race who were ultimately elected, creating a conservative majority on the seven-member board.

The turnover paved the way for a number of changes, including adoption of a tuition-voucher program and merit pay for teachers, that have caused a rift between the board and the local teachers’ union, the Douglas County Federation of Teachers. Because of the discord, the union did not sign a new contract with the district last year.

The Douglas County race is shaping up to be contentious because four seats are once again up for grabs, leaving the door open for another turnover.

Those vying for the spots are four Republican-backed candidates: Doug Benevento, James E. Geddes, Judith Reynolds, and Meghann Silverthorn; and four candidates who vow to change the direction in which the district has been heading: Barbra Chase, Julie A. Keim, Bill Hodges, and Ronda Scholting, who are endorsed by the teachers’ union. Mr. Benevento and Ms. Silverthorn are running for a second time.

Battle Over Vouchers

In 2011, the district drew national attention for the introduction of its choice scholarship program—a voucher program that would allow students who have been in the district for at least one year to receive funds to be applied toward private school tuition, including religious schools. Although voucher programs are not new, they typically target low-income students or those with disabilities, not students in a suburban district like Douglas County, a high-performing, 67,000-student school system south of Denver. The program, intended to start as a pilot in 2011, has since been held up in legal battles.

The district’s efforts also were the subject of a flattering analysis, “The Most Interesting School District in America?,” co-authored by Max Eden and Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a market-oriented think tank in Washington that supports school choice. (Mr. Hess also writes an opinion blog hosted on Education Week‘s website.)

Critics chastised Mr. Hess for not disclosing that he wrote the paper as a consultant for the district, and chided the district for paying for it.

The board also drew fire from organizations like the Strong Schools Coalition, a nonpartisan advocacy group formed last year in response to the changes, for what those groups see as a lack of transparency and a breakdown in communication with parents. In 2012, the board spent nearly half its time meeting behind closed doors, compared with 6.5 percent of the time in 2008-09, said Laura Mutton, the president of Strong Schools and a district parent.

Kevin Larson, the school board’s current vice president, said the uptick can be attributed, in part, to legal advice stemming from the voucher lawsuit and labor negotiations.

Money Issues

District finances are also at issue in the Nov. 5 election. The district ended the fiscal 2011 year $66 million in the black—as it was making nearly $35 million in cuts to schools. That news spurred a town-hall meeting with Superintendent Elizabeth Celania-Fagen, who said the funds were not a surplus that could have softened the budget cuts, but were earmarked for expenses, such as full-day kindergarten.

Candidates’ campaign-finance records have also raised eyebrows. According to the reports, which include contributions made up until Oct. 10, the Republican-backed candidates raised nearly $156,500, while the candidates endorsed by the teachers’ union raised about $42,500.

Groups unhappy with the district’s changes criticized the Republican-backed candidates for raising most of their money—$140,000—from two individuals: Alex Cranberg, who donated $25,000 to each of the four candidates, and Ralph Nagel, who donated $10,000 to each. Mr. Cranberg, who lives in Austin, Texas, and Mr. Nagel, of Denver, serve on the board of the Alliance for Choice in Education, a Denver nonprofit that raises scholarship money for low-income students. The other four candidates gathered smaller amounts of money from a broader base of local residents.

A version of this article appeared in the October 30, 2013 edition of Education Week as Divisiveness Marks Pivotal Colorado School Board Race

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