HIGHLANDS RANCH – Anger on both sides of Douglas County’s controversial school voucher program, its equally controversial performance-pay plan for teachers and the perceived politicizing of the school board drove debate at a candidates forum Monday night, as six of the eight people seeking a seat on the county school board came together to field questions submitted by voters.

Douglas County school board candidates share a laugh during Monday's forum. From left, challenger Kevin Reilly and incumbent Craig Richardson, who oppose each other in District A, and Gail Frances, running in District C.

Douglas County voters will be asked this fall not only to fill three of seven seats on the school board, but also to approve a $20 million mill levy increase for operating dollars and a $200 million bond issue, questions 3A and 3B on the Douglas County ballot.

On Monday, one candidate indicated he won’t be voting in favor of the increases and two more were lukewarm in their endorsement of them, citing lingering mistrust of the school board and its policies.

“I have never before voted against a mill levy or bond issue,” said Kevin Reilly, a Highlands Ranch neuropsychologist who is one of four candidates seeking election to the board from District A, in northwest Douglas County. He said he won’t be voting for 3A and 3B because he fears the increases would fund vouchers and pay-for-performance, and nothing else.

Gail Frances, running for school board in District C in opposition to the voucher plan, said she wants to support 3A and 3B, but feels trepidation. “What I’m hearing from parents and neighbors and teachers is that they’re very concerned about the fiscal responsibility of this board, and concerned about what will happen with this money. Will it be used to fight on behalf of this voucher program?”

District legal bills are mounting

Craig Richardson, the incumbent from District A – appointed to the seat a little over a year ago to fill a vacancy – steadfastly denied that monies generated by 3A and 3B would be used to pay court costs.

The district has already incurred more than $360,000 in legal bills fighting to support its voucher plan, which would have used public money to help send up to 500 Douglas county students to private schools this fall. Last month, Denver District Court Judge Michael Martinez ruled the plan unconstitutional and issued a permanent injunction against it. School officials say they will appeal, but the issue has divided the community, with many insisting public schools have no business subsidizing private- and religious-school tuition fees, and others insisting anything the district can do to expand parental choice is worthwhile.

“Not one dime from 3A or 3B will be used for the Choice Scholars program,” Richardson insisted. “It will be used for capital projects, and it will be used to keep class sizes from getting out of control, and to start paying great teachers.”

More than $380,000 has been donated to a district legal fund to defend the voucher program, including $330,000 from the Daniels Fund and $50,000 from oil and gas developer Alex Cranberg. In addition, the Daniels Fund is offering a $200,000 match – meaning district officials have to come up with a similar figure to secure that funding.

Performance pay also based on ‘market value’ of teachers

Richardson is a keen supporter of the district’s revamped performance-pay plan for teachers, calling it “transformational.” The plan would pay teachers based on their performance ratings and on their “market value,” with teachers in hard-to-fill subjects garnering greater salaries than their peers. “If you’re a calculus teacher, and you’re doing a great job, I think you should earn six figures,” Richardson said. “Teachers who prefer a culture of entitlement will find other opportunities.”

But Susan McMahon, a Parker woman seeking to oust incumbent Justin Williams in District F, said she fears competition taken to the extreme in schools. “When it gets so extreme that our professionals are fearful of sharing their best practices from one school to another, then we’re going down the wrong track,” she said.

The debate Monday was cordial and polite, with most of the questions submitted in advance and read by Eldorado Elementary school principal John Melkonian, who made sure each candidate had equal time to answer each question and with no real sparring among the candidates or with audience members. But Richardson, as the only incumbent at the forum, was clearly on the hot seat in regard to vouchers. The board voted 7-0 to pursue the controversial program, and has consistently voted to pursue its legal defense.

“My view is that at the center of competition is parental choice,” Richardson said Monday in response to a question about competition in Douglas County schools. “Parents are the most accurate decision-makers about what works for any child. The more we empower parents to make informed choices, the likelier we are to see better educational outcomes.”

Candidates bash politicizing of school board

Beyond the issue of vouchers, several candidates criticized the existing board for placing party politics ahead of educational considerations. Two years ago, the Republican Party transformed what had traditionally been a non-partisan school board race when it endorsed – and successfully elected – a slate of four candidates, dramatically altering the shape of the school board. All the candidates endorsed by the teachers union went down to defeat.

On Monday, Susan Meek, a candidate in District A, pledged not to accept funds from any union or political party, and urged her fellow candidates to do the same. “I want to begin the process of removing politics from the school board,” she said. Meek knows better than many how partisan politics has infused education in Douglas County. Until March, she was communications director for the school district.

Kevin Reilly said that he, too, will accept no donations from any partisan group or union. “I’m not endorsed by any party. I’m running out of concern for re-establishing some balance in terms of the board’s decision-making,” he said.