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Tempers flare at Dougco board meeting

Because of readers’ requests, EdNews is posting full videos of public speakers from Tuesday’s board meeting. See them here.

CASTLE ROCK – Douglas County’s voucher program may be in legal limbo but the issue continues to inflame passions among supporters and opponents of the district’s conservative school board.

Dougco school board member Meghann Silverthorn appeals to audience and board members for calm after contentious exchanges.
Dougco school board member Meghann Silverthorn appeals to audience and board members for calm after contentious exchanges.
Jessica Glazer

Cindy Barnard, a Dougco parent who is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that has stalled the voucher plan, questioned board members Tuesday about legal expenditures in defending the plan, which she said now total more than $900,000.

District leaders have pledged to use only private donations to defend their voucher pilot as they appeal a Denver judge’s ruling that the plan violates the Colorado Constitution and state law. They’ve raised more than $800,000 for their legal defense fund, according to records provided in response to an open-records request.

But Barnard said that leaves a fund deficit of more than $100,000, a figure the district disputes, and she urged board members to post accurate records of voucher expenses and revenues.

Her comments angered John Carson, the school board president who has championed the voucher program and who blamed Barnard for the dollars spent.

“I would just like the record to show that you are the cause for those legal expenditures,” he said, and some in the audience began to boo. “You are the cause of those expenditures. You are the cause … period.”

Call for more security at “hostile” board meetings

Barnard said she was happy the private donations were rolling in, noting “I do not want district funds spent on a program that as of today has been found to be illegal and unconstitutional.”

That prompted cheers and applause from an audience weighted, that night anyway, more toward board critics than supporters.

It was one of several exchanges during a relatively brief public comment session that showed the factions formed over vouchers, along with the role of the teachers’ union, appear to be hardening rather than softening as time passes.

“I would like to ask for additional security at these meetings, especially due to the damage to cars in the parking lot.”
– Katherine Vitale, speakerOne speaker, Katherine Vitale, commended board members for their “tenacity” and said she and other supporters are increasingly concerned about the “hostile” crowds at board meetings. She said a bumper sticker was ripped off her car and other supporters’ cars have been scratched with keys.

“I would like to ask for additional security at these meetings, especially due to the damage to cars in the parking lot,” she said.

And a visibly upset high school student who declined to give his name accused board members of bullying Barnard and declared, “You disgust me.”

“If you were to do that in the school system, you would be fired, you would be removed from the school as a disruption,” he said. “You are the problem here, not the solution.”

Later, the student said his first name was David and he was reluctant to give his last name because a parent is a Dougco teacher.

“I know that emotions are very high, people are very upset, on both sides,” school board member Meghan Silverthorn said after David sat down. “If we could just take a step back, take a little bit of a deep breath … Let’s engage productively, let’s listen to each other.”

Parents ask for survey responses to be considered

Much of the public comment centered around parent surveys that board members last month declared were invalid because of a low response rate. Of the district’s 76,500 parents, only 4,900 – or 6 percent – filled out the survey forms.

But several parents encouraged board members to consider the responses anyway, reading aloud from positive and negative comments written on the forms.

“I ask that you validate the comments and concerns of parents who took the time to respond to the parent survey last spring,” said Brian White of Castle Rock.

Some critics have charged the district deemed the survey results inconclusive because 55 percent of respondents said they did not support the district’s voucher plan.

Change in plan

  • Dougco Superintendent Liz Fagen said the district is changing a July 25 deadline for teachers nearing retirement who are eligible for a severance bonus. Additional details.

Board members did not reply to survey comments. They did, however, answer a teacher concerned about a July 25 deadline for those nearing retirement.

After the recent dissolution of the collective bargaining agreement with the teachers union, school board members voted to phase out a bonus given to veteran teachers leaving Dougco. Teachers learned earlier this month they had to decide by July 25 whether they wanted to retire and take the bonus.

But Deborah St. Martin, an elementary teacher, said the deadline was impossible to meet because state pension plan officials were unable to process paperwork that quickly.

Superintendent Liz Fagen said that deadline has been changed and teachers will now have until next June to retire and receive the bonus. A letter explaining the change was released Wednesday.

Voucher appeal may drag into next year

Barnard, who is president of Taxpayers for Public Education, one of the groups that sued over the voucher pilot, said there’s some discrepancy in district documents over what’s being charged to the legal defense fund.

For example, the cost of filling open-records requests filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, another plaintiff in the lawsuit, was moved out of the fund.

Rob Ross, Dougco’s in-house legal counsel, said the defense fund is for expenses incurred by outside attorneys. He said the fund currently has an $8,000 deficit but that the Walton Family Foundation has pledged another $100,000, so the fund will soon be replenished.

Board members approved the voucher pilot, which would use public dollars to help send students to private schools, by a 7-0 vote in March 2011. A Denver judge declared the plan unconstitutional last August and the district filed its notice of appeal with the Colorado Court of Appeals.

In April, opening briefs were filed by the district and the state, its co-defendent in the suit. Taxpayers for Public Education and other plaintiffs filed their responses last week. District and state officials now have until Aug. 3 to reply to those responses, and oral arguments would then likely be scheduled.

Ross said a ruling is not likely until late this year or early next year.

In other action Tuesday, school board members approved the termination of employment for Dougco teachers union president Brenda Smith and four other full-time union staff members. In several large Colorado districts, teachers elected as union presidents leave the classroom but continue to receive full or partial compensation from the district.

Dougco school board members made it clear last fall that they no longer wanted to count full-time union representatives as district employees. Smith said the union had offered to reimburse the district for the teachers’ full salaries, benefits and any other costs – in part to allow union staff to continue in the state pension plan – but the district declined. The union has filed a grievance over the issue.

District officials said they treated union staff like any other downsized employees and gave them the opportunity to apply for classroom positions or enter the substitute teaching pool. One of the six full-time union staff members will be teaching this fall while the others did not seek positions, Smith said. She said they plan to continue representing teachers.

Video highlights from Tuesday’s board meeting

Full video from Tuesday’s board meeting

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