PARKER – Teachers, students and parents packed a middle school auditorium and spilled into the hallways during a school board community forum Tuesday night that was long on criticism and short on answers.
Some 20 speakers, many of them teachers, used the occasion to vent concerns about deep cuts to schools that have swollen class sizes and to accuse board members of starving public education in their quest to implement the state’s first district-run voucher program.
Students also took up the cause, with a group of high school students calling themselves SMART – Students Making A Reliable Tomorrow – telling board members “the quality of our education is declining.”
Katie Kade, a senior at Chaparral High School and one of more than a dozen students who attended as SMART, said she has 43 classmates in her Advanced Placement math class: “It really is affecting us at our schools.”
- See video highlights of Brenda Smith’s speech to the school board
- Clip of response to Smith’s comments and school board member Justin Williams’ subsequent remarks
- Read a summary of the survey by Augenblick, Palaich and Associates
- School board member Justin Williams responds to this article and a parent responds to Williams’ commentary
Susan Meek, a parent and former district spokeswoman who lost her bid for a school board seat in November, was warmly applauded as she questioned why the district’s fund balance continues to grow.
“At the same time, we have higher class sizes, we have increased fees for families, we have bus fees,” she said. “Why aren’t the available resources being maximized in the schools?”
But much of the focus Tuesday night at Sierra Middle School was on teachers, as union president Brenda Smith presented the results of a survey showing employee morale has fallen steeply in recent years.
“What you see is an outcry for change,” she said. “This survey solidifies we have a problem.”
Smith said the union contracted with Augenblick, Palaich and Associates – a firm previously used by the district for finance studies – after district leaders brushed off her concerns about staff morale.
More than 2,400 teachers and clerical staff responded to the survey, conducted in November and December, which used the same questions as prior district surveys to track trends.
Smith described the results as “astonishing,” with only 14 percent of respondents agreeing the district is headed in the right direction, down from 77 percent in 2007-08. Only 23 percent said they feel district leaders support their work in the classroom, down from 71 percent in 2009-10.
“It would be easy to say it’s just because of the economy,” which has led to four years without raises, she said. “But it is a direct result of the direction the district has taken in the past two years.”
That’s when a newly elected conservative majority on the board hired a new superintendent and went to work on a voucher pilot that was later stopped by a Denver judge.
Smith said Augenblick is continuing to sort through the responses to the open-ended questions contained in the survey and more details will be available within the next two weeks.
“We ask you tonight to join us to change the direction of the district and return the focus to our students,” she told board members, who have yet to formally respond to the survey results.
In fact, board members had little to say in response to questions from speakers, despite being goaded by audience members. It’s common practice in some larger school districts, such as Denver, that board members listen but do not answer questions during public comment sessions.
Board member Justin Williams did question one of Smith’s recommendations, which was “no more cuts” for Douglas County students.
“I don’t know how we could guarantee that there’s not going to be more cuts,” he said, noting cuts aren’t the board’s fault. “They’re the legislature’s fault, they’re the principals’ fault and they’re the teachers’ fault.”
It wasn’t clear what he meant but the remark drew hisses and shouts of “boo” from audience members.
Pam Mazanec, a voucher advocate who spoke after Smith, also found little favor with the crowd.
“I’ve heard about the survey that the union was able to get. I say that survey and results mean nothing … if we do not know the why behind this crash in morale,” she said, her voice nearly drowned out by the audience.
“I would also add that some of the behavior here tonight, I hope they don’t allow this from their students,” she said, adding, “This is a good reason why many parents want school choice.”
As Mazanec walked back to her seat, a male voice in the crowd shouted, “This is what democracy looks like,” and applause broke out.
District spokesman Randy Barber said district officials are not ignoring the survey results, though they’re uncertain how employees were selection for inclusion. The district plans to resume its own climate survey this spring, after suspending it during last year’s strategic planning, and will ask similar questions of a broader audience that will include staff and community.
“Is it feedback, is it something we’re going to pay attention to?” he said of the union’s results. “Certainly.”