DougCo school board likely to move quickly on voucher repeal
Author: Marianne Goodland - November 29, 2017 - Updated: December 1, 2017
The clock is ticking for a decision by the Douglas County School District Board of Education on its controversial voucher program.
The election earlier this month of four anti-voucher candidates reshaped the board from 4-3 in favor of vouchers to 7-0 against, means that the voucher program is all but certain to be trash-canned — the only question is how fast that will happen.
The board’s Tuesday night meeting was reserved early on for the pomp and circumstance of swearing-ins and electing leadership. Colorado Politics has learned that the board might deal with the voucher program in a special meeting within the next two weeks, even before the board’s next regularly scheduled meeting on Dec. 12.
The voucher program, known as Choice Scholarship, was approved by the Douglas County board in March 2011, just over 16 months after voters put in a conservative reform majority. That majority included four members elected in 2009 who were backed by wealthy Republicans who support taxpayer-funded vouchers. Under the Choice Scholarship program, Douglas County students could use the vouchers to attend private schools, even schools that aren’t in Douglas County.
The program never got off the ground. The nonprofit parents group Taxpayers for Public Education almost immediately sued to block its implementation. The lawsuit’s plaintiffs also included a handful of individual parents, including Kevin Leung, who is among the board’s newly-elected members. Leung told Colorado Politics Tuesday he will recuse himself on any board deliberations regarding the program, including a vote.
The lawsuit made its way to the Colorado Supreme Court, which in 2015 ruled the program unconstitutional based on the state’s Blaine Amendment, part of the Colorado Constitution. That amendment forbids the use of public dollars for sectarian, i.e. religious, education. The district, with more than $1.8 million in donations from the Daniels Fund and the Walton Family Foundation, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Last June, after ruling in a Missouri case that also hinged on that state’s Blaine Amendment, the Court sent the Douglas County lawsuit back to the Colorado Supreme Court. Cindy Barnard of Taxpayers for Public Education said the next expected action is in mid-December, when another round of legal briefs is due from the school district.
But by then, the whole matter may be moot.
DougCo board member Wendy Vogel told Colorado Politics that the board might hold a special meeting within the next two weeks to resolve the voucher program issue. New member Anthony Graziano said he believes the board will deal with the program by its next meeting on Dec. 12.
“It’s something we ran on,” he said, but added that it’s not yet clear what the board needs to do to put the issue to bed.
But for Tuesday, talk of vouchers was the unseen and unheard elephant in the room, while the board reconfigured itself with new leadership, celebrating the election and beginning the process of moving on with more pressing district needs, including the search for a superintendent, a potential mill levy issue to deal with millions of dollars in capital needs and how to persuade teachers, who are vastly underpaid compared to neighboring and competing districts, to stay in DougCo schools.
David Ray, who has been on the board for two years, was elected president Tuesday night; two-year member Vogel was elected vice-president. The last of the three carryover members from 2015, Anne-Marie Lemieux, was elected treasurer.
The swearing-in of the four new members — Leung, Graziano, Chris Ciancio-Schor and Krista Holtzmann — drew a standing-room only crowd to the district’s Castle Rock boardroom. That crowd spilled over into the hallway and out onto the street outside the building. At one point a few became unruly and about a dozen were briefly ejected by Castle Rock police. One woman loudly spoke a profanity to a police officer as she was escorted out.
Inside, a few groans were heard when Superintendent Erin Kane complimented the departing board members, including controversial term-limited President Megann Silverthorn, about the “love and care you gave this district.”
But once the former members were gone, the celebration was on, including a standing ovation for the new board once the swearing-in was complete and cheering from those outside the room, who watched the ceremony online.
“I’m not charismatic,” Ray said with a smile as he was elected president. “I’m just a bald guy” who wants to work with kids. “I look to my left and right (at the board members) and feel well served by people who will do what’s best for our kids.”
He also said the board will get back to its motto — to be hard on issues and easy on people — rather than what’s taken place in the last two years, which he said was to be hard on people.
Among the issues the board will deal with is what to do about its superintendent. Kane, who lacked any experience as a superintendent prior to her appointment, was named to the position in 2016. Since that time, however, she has been praised as a bridge-builder who has helped ease some of the rifts in the district. Kane told Colorado Politics she has not yet decided whether to apply for the permanent position.
But several board members indicated they wouldn’t mind if she applied. Ray told Colorado Politics that he is “very pleased” with the job she’s done, particularly in building relationships in the district.
“She’s settled some nerves,” Ray said. “We couldn’t have done better.”
His comments may have signaled a departure from his earlier views. Last January, Ray voted against a contract extension for Kane, as had Lemieux. Kane’s contract runs through the 2017-18 school year.
Vogel told Colorado Politics that she personally believes it would be a mistake to get rid of the superintendent.
“She’s done a fabulous job and has done what we’ve asked and then some,” said Vogel, adding that she hoped for the sake of “continuity and stability for the district that (Kane) would stay on.”
Lemieux said the superintendent search will continue, calling it the main job of the board.
“We have to have a full process,” but also complimented Kane on her work to improve morale and repair the fractured district and said she would support Kane applying for the permanent job.
Ray didn’t mention the voucher issue when he was asked about the board’s priorities for the coming months, instead discussing the superintendent search and the quest for voter approval of a mill levy override to fund millions of dollars in capital needs.
The board will also focus on student achievement, including an effort to regain its “achievement with distinction” accreditation from the state Department of Education, and retaining “seasoned veteran” teachers who are fleeing DougCo for better pay and morale in neighboring districts.
Kallie Leyba, head of the Douglas County Federation of Teachers, told Colorado Politics that about 50 teachers showed up for Tuesday’s ceremony. She rejected the notion that the union might seek a return to the collective bargaining table that the former board ended in 2012. That’s despite the fact that the federation’s parent organization, the American Federation of Teachers, put $300,000 into an independent expenditure committee that backed the anti-voucher candidates.
Collective bargaining “is not an expectation,” Leyba said Tuesday, although teachers are hoping for more of a partnership with the board than what they had in the past.
“We hope for a relationship where (teachers) are valued as professionals and our voices are heard,” Leyba said. And while she said the union would make collective bargaining a goal if members wanted it, she claimed that topic has not been broached.
As to AFT’s contribution, Leyba said it was about preserving public education, not collective bargaining.
“We want to support the new board members” and work on their shared goals, such as improving teacher pay and restoring the district’s “accreditation with distinction” status, which was lost during the previous board’s tenure.
Ray also strongly rejected any effort to bring back collective bargaining with the teachers’ union, calling it a “false expectation.”
“There’s no desire for that,” he told Colorado Politics. “If we take care of our employees well, there’s no need” for a union. But he also pointed out that teachers and the union have not been listened to during the past few years, to the district’s detriment.
For many who attended Tuesday’s board meeting, though, the night was about a new beginning.
“Hope!” said a group of people in the audience, when asked what the night meant to them.
Chris Saiz, a psychologist in the district, added that the change in the board means “working together and to value what we’re doing in public education. We’re all pulling in the same direction.”
Saiz also said he hoped the board “will capitalize on the positive energy” that will let teachers focus on teaching and not on the distractions that have plagued the district in recent years.
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 9:10 a.m. to correct Anne-Marie Lemieux’s elected position to treasurer.