Familiar divisions over teacher morale and pay, board openness and district spending were highlighted at a Douglas County school board candidate forum held just two weeks before election day.
Vouchers, the issue for which Dougco is best known outside the county, didn’t get mentioned once.
Three incumbents are facing three challengers in races that look similar to the three elections held since 2009, when a conservative majority took control of the board and started rolling out changes including the voucher program, breaking the district teachers union and new budgeting practices.
Incumbents Kevin Larson, Craig Richardson and Richard Robbins touted rising achievement rates, high school graduation rates, declining college remediation and the district’s top-level state rating as reasons to re-elect them.
“We had a very good school district in 2010, but it wasn’t great,” Richardson said.
“We have been successful … Continue the success we have in Douglas County,” Larsen urged.
But challengers Anne-Marie Lemieux, David Ray and Wendy Vogel argued the current board has gone too far in its initiatives and run roughshod over parents and teachers.
“They’ve turned our great district upside down,” argued Lemieux, calling board initiatives “poorly implemented.” Questioning the expertise of the board and Superintendent Elizabeth Celania-Fagen, Lemieux said, “This board isn’t necessarily bad guys. They’re just not asking the right questions.”
Richardson said, “We are in the midst of change. It is always difficult [to move from] a culture of entitlement to a culture of performance.” He was referring to the district’s controversial performance pay system.
Vogel called the reference to entitlement “incredibly offensive to our staff.”
The challengers repeatedly warned about low staff morale, with Lemieux saying, “We’ve had thousands of teachers leave this district. … Good leadership should recognize that we are losing great teachers.” Challengers argued the district’s evaluation system in “punitive” and isn’t oriented toward helping teachers improve.
The challengers also called on the incumbents to reinstitute comprehensive surveys of parents and teachers.
“This school board has not given parents a voice in several years,” Lemieux said.
The incumbents quickly said they’re planning to do that.
“It will be coming down in the next 12 months or maybe even the next six months,” Richardson said. He and other incumbents also said the board is considering using parent and student surveys as part of teacher evaluations.
Ray was skeptical. “Three years ago we asked for a parent survey, so I’m having a hard time believing it will come down in the next six months,” he said. “I wonder what you’re afraid of hearing from parents and community members.”
“We are experiencing a real lack of communication between school district leadership and the community. … It’s got to stop,” Vogel said.
Finance also was a point of contention.
Challengers argued the board spends too much on central administration, leading to larger class sizes, high school schedule changes and maintenance problems at schools.
Incumbents argued that they’ve pushed spending authority down to school principals and argued that the state funding system is the root of budget problems.
Richardson noted that Douglas County taxpayers in effect subsidize other districts to the tune of $40 million because of high property wealth and relatively low state support.
“The people of Douglas County are a generous people … but $40 million far exceeds that level of generosity,” he said.
Robbins said, “We’re not against helping people out, but there just has to be a limit to that.”
A lengthy discussion of charter schools revealed few differences among the candidates, prompting Richardson to note “remarkable consensus.”
The candidates sparred a bit about outside influences on the campaign. Groups unaffiliated with the candidates have been active for both sides, producing flyers and ads.
Lemieux complained about ads “being paid for by people who don’t even live in our district.” Richardson said, “Ye shall know them by their donors.”
Some candidates also were quick to verify their conservative credentials in response to a question about teacher union support of some candidates.
“I’ve never been labeled a liberal before,” Lemieux said.
“I thought I was a conservative until I saw the commercial saying that I was a liberal,” Ray joked.
Only Vogel volunteered, “I am a liberal. It doesn’t make me a bad person.”
While most of the forum focused on local issues, Richardson tried to strike a grander note, saying, “Nothing is more important than getting [education] right. The future of civilization depends on getting this right, and I believe Douglas County will play a prominent role.”
The forum, held Monday evening at SkyView Academy in Highlands Ranch, drew about 150 people. Judging from the applause, the crowd leaned slightly toward the challengers. The candidates responded to a dozen questions, six drafted by each of them and six selected from questions audience members submitted on cards.
Dougco residents will vote on all candidates, but the winners will be selected by district. Richardson and Vogel are running in District A, Larsen and Lemieux in District G and Ray and Robbins in District F. Because the board has seven members, even a sweep by the challengers wouldn’t change the board majority.