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New Dougco board moves cautiously in first meeting

CASTLE ROCK – The newly-seated members of the Douglas County school board had been in office only about an hour Tuesday when their first campaign promise came due: do more to expand parental choice in the form of charter schools.

And there to collect it was Mark Baisley, vice chairman of the Douglas County Republican Party – which had taken the unprecedented step of endorsing candidates in the traditionally non-partisan school board race – and chairman of the board of a proposed new charter school, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) High School, Middle School and Academy Charter School.

The proposal was not without controversy. District staff, who have been working with the school’s proponents for months, had some serious reservations about it, particularly around enrollment. In all, they cited 12 “areas of concern.” They recommended conditional approval, but only if the charter proponents met some firm conditions and strict deadlines.

A vote on the charter approval was initially scheduled for Nov. 17. It would have been decided by the old board, since the Nov. 3 election results weren’t certified in time for the new board to be seated by then. But the STEM school backers requested a delay, citing a need for more time to respond to district concerns.

If Baisley was hoping the new GOP hand-picked board would overlook such concerns and automatically grant the school its charter, he was disappointed. Board members pressed for assurances that district concerns would be addressed. But they did extend the deadlines, and softened the language to make it harder for the school to lose its charter.

“The language does seem draconian,” said Doug Benevento, who defeated incumbent Kristine Turner for the District E seat on the board. “There may be other options,” he said, referring to the recommendations that failure to meet any of the deadlines would automatically result in a denial of the charter request.

“No one wants to see this succeed more than I do,” said Meghann Silverthorn, who defeated Emily Hansen to take the District G seat. “But I am concerned about putting the district in a difficult position.”

In the end, board members lowered the minimum students that agree by Feb. 15 to enroll in the STEM school for next fall, from 595 to 525. The school can continue to enroll new students, but after Feb. 15, the school can only enroll students from outside the district, so as not to adversely affect enrollment at other Douglas County schools.

The board also extended the deadlines to meet certain other conditions – such as developing performance standards, coming up with a detailed budget and hiring a principal – from March 1 to April 1.

“There’s some date changes, but these conditions are pretty darn close to what the district was recommending,” said new board chairman John Carson, the only incumbent to win re-election in the district.

There are other things besides charter schools on this new board’s agenda. “Transparency” is another issue the GOP-endorsed slate campaigned on. Carson on Tuesday announced that Silverthorn will head up a committee to look into ways to make district spending as transparent as possible, and board member Cliff Stahl will begin working with the district communications staff to redesign the district’s web site so that the public has easier access to budget materials.

Stahl will also head up a “governance” committee to study whether the school board should take a more active role in decision-making, or adhere to the past policy of letting individual schools set their own policies.

The new board also expects to keep a close eye on the state legislature, particularly as legislators tackle the ongoing state budget crisis and eye K-12 funding. “If there’s anything you see coming on the horizon, particularly from a member of our Douglas County delegation, let’s have some conversation,’ Carson told Jason Hopfer, the district’s legislation liaison. “Because we want to be in synch with our delegation.”

Teachers have been especially concerned about this new board because there was considerable bashing of the American Federation of Teachers, the Douglas County teachers’ union, during the campaign. All the candidates endorsed by the AFT lost.

“There’s been so much rhetoric thrown around during the campaign, there’s a lot of unease out there,” said Brenda Smith, president of the union. “We’ve always worked closely with the district, but they talked about wanting to get the union out of Douglas County. I’m going to be watching from that direction, to see what they potentially, if anything, will do. I don’t believe there will be great changes, but still there’s an uneasiness among most of our staff members because they don’t know what budget cuts may be coming down.”

On Tuesday, Carson may have been extending the hint of an olive branch to teachers. “We want to be the model of reform in Colorado,” he said, just moments after being elected as the board’s new chairman. “We recognize we have great employees and fabulous teachers. We’re going to want to really engage our teachers as well as our taxpayers as we move forward.”

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