CASTLE ROCK — In a district divided over the direction of its outspoken school board, many of those who packed the Douglas County school district meeting room Tuesday night wore red or black to show their allegiances.
Red for teachers and supporters of the teachers’ union. Black for fans of a board that is unapologetically conservative.
Mark Baisley, Dougco’s GOP party chair, sent a mass email Monday encouraging attendance at the meeting to “demonstrate a greater outpouring of support for our champions on the school board than the left-wing radicals will show.”
The email was apparently designed to avoid a repeat of last month’s community forum at Sierra Middle School in Parker, when a largely critical crowd – many of them teachers – questioned the district’s finances and the board’s focus on its voucher pilot.
“Outside liberal forces are coming down hard on the parents and citizens of Douglas County for having elected a conservative school board,” Baisley wrote. “This group has teamed with the ACLU and national union thugs to take away our parents’ rights in education choices for their children.”
Facebook pages and email listservs on both sides were buzzing Monday to get out supporters.
The result Tuesday was another standing-room-only crowd, alternating loud applause and stony silence through more than two hours and nearly 30 speakers.
One speaker called it a “PR war.” Another said it was like watching the audience at the State of the Union address, with first one section clapping and then the other – but rarely together.
This time, board supporters were out in force, with speaker after speaker thanking members for their “transparency” and “accessibility” as they fight for increased school choice.
“I would like to extend a big huge thank you to the Douglas County school board for all of your hard work, your dedication and your innovation,” said parent Katherine Vitale. “Never have I seen a school board make information and themselves so accessible to those they serve.
Calling for open contract negotiations with union
Vitale was among a handful of board supporters who asked that contract negotiations between the district and teachers’ union be opened to the public.
“As parents, we have a right to know what is being discussed that will directly affect our kids,” she said. “We are all here for kids, right?”
Board President John Carson said the board is considering calling for open negotiations, which would include discussions of teacher pay and benefits.
“We’re taking a pretty good look at that right now,” Carson said. “We will see shortly whether we decide to move forward on inviting the union to join us in doing that.”
Contract negotiations are traditionally closed in most Colorado school districts, though there have been recent efforts to open them.
In Colorado Springs District 11, at least one session was public last year after a parent filed a lawsuit demanding the talks be open. A conservative group, Americans for Prosperity, led the effort, which included picketing outside closed-door meetings.
And state Rep. Kathleen Conti, R-Littleton, is sponsoring a bill to open negotiations between teachers’ unions and school boards statewide. The bill, HB 12-0118, has been assigned to committee.
Karin Piper, a Dougco parent, said closed-door negotiations are part of what’s fueling the growing tension between the board and the union, the Douglas County Federation of Teachers.
“Simply put, we don’t care who started it,” she said. “We’re the parents and we’re pulling the van over and ending it.”
Piper said she’s gathering signatures on a petition to open contract talks that she’ll present to the board.
New budget plan for high schools sparks concerns
Questions about the district’s budget continued Tuesday, with several speakers continuing to ask about a surplus in reserves and urging the money be spent in classrooms.
But the focus on money shifted somewhat with the district’s announcement of a proposal to require high school teachers to teach an additional class next year.
The plan would allow the district to cut an estimated 80 teaching jobs and save up to $5.7 million, as Dougco tries to trim between $18 million and $26 million from its 2012-13 budget.
As state education funding has dropped in recent years, class sizes in the suburban district have surged – hitting as high as 46 and 52, Superintendent Liz Fagen said at Tuesday’s meeting.
So high schools would switch to offering more, but shorter, classes in an effort to reduce class sizes. With fewer teachers, though, most students would not be able to take a full load of eight classes in the new eight-period days. Some schools would limit students, by grade level, to five to seven classes.
Dan McMinimee, the district’s assistant superintendent of secondary instruction, described the proposal as a “worst-case” scenario dependent upon state funding, which legislators have yet to finalize.
Jenny Park, a Douglas County High School senior, said the continuing cuts are affecting students.
“We are already … charging students to ride the bus. We have already cut graduation requirements. We have already cut teachers. As a member of the student government at my school, the main question I receive is when it will stop. In short, it won’t,” she said.
“It is time we start questioning the decisions that brought us all here today.”
Jake Walden, a senior at Castle View, said students there would only be able to take a full course load if they have a 3.5 grade point average or above, “effectively segregating students into those seen as high-achieving and those relegated to a lower position.”
Union releases full climate survey results
Board members were more responsive Tuesday than at last month’s meeting, when some speakers criticized them for failing to answer questions.
Carson answered several speakers’ questions directly and frequently called upon staff to provide details.
He was characteristically blunt in his answers, particularly after one speaker lamented the “dysfunction in the district” and told board members it was their responsibility to “take ownership.”
“There is no dysfunction in this school district,” Carson said, noting the high public turnout at recent meetings. “We used to have two or three people at these meetings, now we have hundreds of people. We have never had this kind of public engagement in this school district and I’m proud of it.”
And he was openly critical of the teachers’ union, which he said “leaked” to the media a survey showing employee morale has plummeted.
“We welcome the dialogue,” he said. “But to leak things with malice in that way for the sole purpose of trying to do damage to the school district serves absolutely no constructive purpose.”
Union president Brenda Smith, who spoke about the survey at last month’s meeting, did not address the board Tuesday. The union last month posted preliminary results of the survey and, Tuesday night, released the full report.
Smith said the delay was due to the processing of lengthy responses to open-ended questions in the survey conducted by the Denver firm, Augenblick, Palaich and Associates.
The 47-page final report, completed by 2,305 respondents, appears to show employees feeling supported in their schools but far less so by the district and board. Just 23 percent agreed with the statement, “I feel the district level administration and system support my work in the classroom.”