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If Meghann Silverthorn could change anything about her eight years on the Douglas County School Board, it would be the process and timing of policies implemented by the board, she said.
“You can't put things out there that only the board espouses,” said Silverthorn, sitting in a coffee shop in Parker on an afternoon in November. “You can't assume that because people support ideas, they will support everything.”
Silverthorn was term-limited, and her tenure on the Douglas County School Board came to an end with the swearing-in of new board members Nov. 28. First elected in 2009, Silverthorn was part of a majority board that embraced controversial reforms such as pay-for-performance evaluations for teachers and a form of school choice that would later include a stalled voucher program. She served as president of the school board since December 2015.
On Nov. 7, four anti-reform candidates were elected to the school board, signaling a change in direction from a majority board that held power for eight years.
While she doesn't know exactly what her next chapter will bring, Silverthorn is proud of her time on the school board — a tenure sometimes marked by controversy and contentiousness.
Getting an education
Silverthorn, 39, said her educational and personal background prompted her to run for school board. Her father was in the Army when she was growing up. She attended a number of schools overseas that thrived on academic rigor, high expectations and parent involvement, she said. She also grew up watching her grandparents “work very hard having little formal education.” Her grandfather, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, didn't make it past third grade.
“I'm the first in my family to graduate college,” Silverthorn said. “That education changed my family tree of two generations — that is very powerful.”
After high school, Silverthorn had plans to go to the Air Force Academy and was nominated by a member of Congress. But then a medical event disqualified her.
“I thought, well, I'm not going to be in the military, so what can I do?” she said.
She graduated from University of Colorado-Boulder with bachelor's degrees in aerospace engineering sciences and political science. There she met her husband of 12 years, Jeff, who is a defense contractor. He spends half of the year overseas and is currently in Afghanistan. When he is home, the two of them enjoy skiing, doing things around the house and spending time with friends. They live in Parker.
When she was in college, Silverthorn did work for the Air Force Research Laboratory. After graduation, she did 12 years of civilian service working as an analyst for the U.S. Department of Defense at its Lockheed Martin offices.
She left that position in 2015 to focus on the school board.
Steven Peck, who was chosen by Silverthorn in 2016 to fill a vacant seat on the board, said Silverthorn guided the school district through a period of “significant turbulence,” when what he refers to as “key leaders" — including former Superintendent Liz Fagen, members of her staff and a member of the board — resigned.
“Her legacy will be one part charter champion, two parts fiscal hawk, and three doses of reasonable influence,” Peck said of Silverthorn. “She will be missed."
Silverthorn, who was a member of the majority board throughout her tenure, also faced backlash from many members of the community who blamed an exodus of hundreds of teachers and administrators on policies espoused by the majority.
It was difficult for her to find common ground in a community that had extreme thoughts about how education should look, said David Ray, a sitting board member who served with Silverthorn for the past two years. The two often found themselves on opposite sides of issues.
"There were a lot of people she was trying to honor," said Ray, who was named school board president by his fellow board members on Nov. 28. "Especially people who had more of a political agenda than a local agenda.”
Of her leadership style, Ray said Silverthorn was consistent and skillful. She took her role as board president seriously and she was dedicated to the position. Ray pointed out that she attended "tons" of committee meetings and communicated with people through socal media or email.
"I really do like her as a person," Ray said. "We just philosophically were at such different places at what we thought the district and children needed.”
Among the most controversial topics of Silverthorn's tenure was when she and former board member Judith Reynolds held a private meeting with Grace Davis, a 16-year-old Ponderosa High School student who had organized a peaceful protest in March 2016 to ask why teachers were leaving the district. Davis said she was intimidated and bullied by the pair, which led to a independent investigation into the board members that, in the end, found no policies had been violated.
Silverthorn said she wanted to be straightforward with Davis and find a better solution to the teacher-turnover issue. She thinks different political views played a part. Looking back, she "probably would have done things differently."
"I never ceased to be amazed by what happened when I met with a student to find out what her concerns were. I don’t really know how it got to how it ended up," Silverthorn said. "I find it very unfortunate the way it turned out.”
Reynolds said Silverthorn was supportive throughout the aftermath, which included backlash from many community members. The district received more than 600 emails in support of Davis and requesting the immediate resignation of Silverthorn and Reynolds.
"I wish the whole thing would have been different," Reynolds said. "There are a whole lot of things that I wish would have gone differently from the get-go."
Looking back at her time as a school board member, Silverthorn lists her best moments as seeing the progression and involvement of students, hiring interim Superintendent Erin Kane, who Silverthorn said “created a sense of stability,” and shifting the conversation about parent empowerment and school choice.
“Even critics had to think about that more,” she said of school choice, which allows parents to select a type of school, such as neighborhood, charter or magnet, that fits their child's needs. “Choice is about what you want from your schools.”
Reynolds describes Silverthorn's approach as "firm, fair and friendly." Working alongside Silverthorn, Reynolds said her biggest accomplishment was when the school board passed a policy in July 2016 that allowed the administration of medical marijuana products, hemp oils and other cannabinoid products to qualified students on district property.
"That is something that has had a direct impact on not necessarily a huge number but a number of students that struggle with severe and serious health issues," Reynolds said. "It's something that allows those students to participate in school.”
Silverthorn lists her top three challenges as budget, communication and translation of what the community valued into the classroom. The political environment of the majority versus minority became difficult, she said.
“When one side has power, the other side always wants it,” she said. “… If you're not careful, that turns into a very sharply divided community.”
The weeks leading up to her final day on school board were strange and quiet, Silverthorn said. In her free time, she dyes silk, writes and reads. She likes researching politics and writing policy.
She's not sure what she will do next, but she sees herself staying involved in local government. She said she greatly values the time she spent on the school board.
“It's been one of the greatest privileges of my life to serve the people of Douglas County.”
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