Douglas County GOP hosts school board

The Douglas County School District decision to extend school vouchers to some students is facing challenges from four national and local organizations. Photo by Courtney Kuhlen |
The Douglas County School District decision to extend school vouchers to some students is facing challenges from four national and local organizations. Photo by Courtney Kuhlen |

Several Douglas County School Board members shared their views on education reform, the dissolution of the board's relationship with the teachers' union and other headline-making issues during a Jan. 16 Douglas County Republicans public forum.

Their comments met with rousing applause from the politically friendly audience. All six current board members are Republicans.

Though Colorado school boards are designed to be nonpartisan, the school board's political affiliation and support are not hidden. The Douglas County Republicans endorsed the six current members — as well as recently resigned seventh member Doug Gerken — in the 2009 and 2011 elections. The board's fast-paced reform efforts have triggered mixed reactions, but board members say they have support from across party lines.

Franceen Thompson, a member of the nonprofit, pro-school-choice group Great Choice Douglas County, kicked off the forum with a brief address. The grassroots Strong Schools Coalition, which bills itself as a nonpartisan source of school district information, is distributing misleading information to the public, she said.

“We really need to get our message out,” Thompson said, suggesting yet another group - the nonpartisan Douglas County Parent Alliance, as “a great source if you just want to get the facts.”

School board member Kevin Larsen, who took the floor first, said the group's united vision and direction works to its benefit as it tries to implement a “world-class education.” But parents, he said, “are the ultimate decision-makers.”

“It's been a year of change,” he said, briefly describing the introduction of a market-based-pay teacher compensation system, new measurements of teacher performance and the 2012 expiration of the long-held collective bargaining agreement with the teachers' union. All those changes have given rise to questions, concerns and fears, he said.

“When those kinds of things change in a system, it's important to get a pulse,” said Larsen, who's been talking with staff at dozens of schools to hear their concerns. “When you open up that door and have that dialogue, a lot of the fear is alleviated.”

Board member Craig Richardson said the board also is allowing principals to determine the best use of their school's district-allocated funds — either spending it each year or carrying it over from one year to the next.

“We want fewer decisions to be made at the Wilcox (administration) building and more at schools,” he said, adding the district also wants to get away from “the boom-and-bust funding that typified the district.”

Board members fielded a variety of anonymous, written questions from audience members on the court-embattled voucher program, among other issues. The program, instituted in 2011 and quickly halted by a lawsuit and subsequent Denver District Court injunction, now is awaiting a ruling from the Colorado Court of Appeals. But that likely won't be the final word.

“There is a possibility the case will go to the U.S. Supreme Court,” Richardson said. “Our program was modeled on programs that have been approved by (federal judges).”

Some of Colorado's constitutional amendments don't apply at the federal level, and if the choice program is approved there, it could open the door for many other states to enact similar changes.

Highlands Ranch-based Republican state Sen. Ted Harvey, among the audience members, declared his support.

“You're fighting the fight of angels and we are on your side,” he said.

The public forum was one of the first such events hosted by the local Republican Party, said vice chair Tanne Blackburn.

“A lot of people don't really know what the school board's doing, or what their plans are,” Blackburn said. “It was a matter of providing information.”