School Choice

Vouchers divide Dougco board candidates

HIGHLANDS RANCH – The hottest seat at Thursday night’s school board candidate debate at Mountain Ridge Middle School belonged to Justin Williams, an incumbent facing a crowd obviously displeased with the district’s voucher initiative.
Voting check image

“I know how you guys feel about it,” Williams conceded at one point, after many of the 60 audience members loudly applauded the frequent anti-voucher comments made by other candidates.

Douglas County’s voucher pilot may be stalled on appeal but it is alive and well as a key issue separating the seven candidates vying for three seats on the affluent county’s school board Nov. 1.

Two of the three races feature one pro-voucher candidate and one anti-voucher candidate. The third race features one pro-voucher incumbent and two anti-voucher challengers.

“I am mad. I am very angry,” candidate Gail Frances said of her decision to run for office. “It was the voucher situation that really instilled the fire in me.”

Candidate Susan Meek called the voucher pilot “a huge distraction,” noting the district’s proposed tax increases for operating and building dollars – ballot measures 3A and 3B – weren’t included in the questions submitted by community members.

“We have 3A and 3B out there and we don’t even have a question on that, which I think is pretty sad,” Meek said. “If 3A does not pass, the board is going to be faced with trying to cut $26 million next year.”

The moderator added a question about the ballot measures after her remarks.

Even if the three seats go to anti-voucher candidates, the board would likely retain a pro-voucher majority. All board votes on the voucher pilot in the past year have been 7-0.

Candidate Susan Meek
Candidate Susan Meek

And a sweep by anti-voucher candidates would be no easy feat, despite the tenor of Thursday’s debate.

While school board races are non-partisan, the three pro-voucher candidates are backed by the county Republican Party. It’s a formidable force in a county where – as of Tuesday – registered Republicans outnumbered Democrats 2-to-1. A third of voters classified themselves as other parties or unaffiliated.

Williams bore the brunt of the displeasure Thursday because the two other pro-voucher candidates were absent. Kevin Larsen had a previously scheduled trip and incumbent Craig Richardson was called away for a personal emergency.

Another key issue, the district’s proposed tax measures, divides the candidates along different lines.

Williams was on the losing side of a rare 5-2 board split to seek a $20 million operating increase or mill-levy override and a $200 million bond issue. Richardson voted for the tax increases and Larsen supports them.

“My vote was not, ‘No, we don’t need the money.’ We need the money,” Williams said. “My vote was that the community was in worse shape than the school district.”

Among the anti-voucher candidates, Meek, Frances and Susan McMahon support the tax increases – with some concerns.

Candidate Susan McMahon
Candidate Susan McMahon

For example, the $20 million operating increases is partly intended to fund a pay-for-performance program to teachers. But some said the plan lacks details.

Meek described the plan is “long on rhetoric, short on details” while Frances said, “Nobody is convinced that pay-for-performance is going to work.”

“Why are we not educating the community about the importance of the investment?” asked McMahon, questioning the district’s campaign for the ballot measures. “We need the resources.”

Candidate Kevin Reilly said the district “desperately needs funds” but he found it difficult to support the pay-for-performance plan and “they haven’t taken vouchers off the table.” Douglas County is appealing a Denver judge’s ruling that the pilot is unconstitutional.

“I see a poison pill that has been wrapped in chocolate,” Reilly said of the $20 million tax increase. “I don’t believe I can vote for it now.”

Douglas County school board candidates and key positions

District A, Northwest

    Susan Meek, 42, of Highlands Ranch, is an education strategist at Breakaway Ltd. and former district communications director.
  • On vouchers – Oppose
  • On tax increases 3A & 3B – Support
  • Quotable – “The community has been split right down the middle and we’ve had lots and lots of public comment on vouchers. It’s really been a very big distraction and we need to get back to what our focus should be – on educating the students.”
  • Campaign website
  • Read Meek’s responses to a candidate survey by Alexandra Harden, which includes 25 questions on choice, merit pay for teachers, parent notification of educator arrests and more.
    Kevin Reilly, 53, of Highlands Ranch, is a neuropsychologist in private practice who also consults at a local hospital.
  • On vouchers – Oppose
  • On tax increases 3A & 3B – Oppose
  • Quotable – “I am running for school board out of, originally, concern for the voucher program and also because of my concerns about how this district appears to be being dismantled.”
  • Campaign website
    Craig Richardson, 50, of Highlands Ranch, was appointed to fill a mid-term vacancy and is seeking a full four-year term. He is general counsel for the El Paso Pipeline Group.
  • On vouchers – Support
  • On tax increases 3A & 3B – Support
  • Quotable – Richardson did not attend Thursday’s forum because of a personal emergency.
  • Campaign website not available
  • Read Richardson’s responses to a candidate survey by Alexandra Harden, which includes 25 questions on choice, merit pay for teachers, parent notification of educator arrests and more.

District C, North and Central

    Gail Frances, 65, of Highlands Ranch, has taken a hiatus from the financial services industry to run for the board.
  • On vouchers – Oppose
  • On tax increases 3A & 3B – Support
  • Quotable – “The reality is we are on the road to public school destruction.”
  • Campaign website
    Kevin Larsen, 48, of Highlands Ranch, is an actuary and assistant vice president at Hannover Life Reassurance Co. of America.
  • On vouchers – Support
  • On tax increases 3A & 3B – Support
  • Quotable – Larsen did not attend Thursday’s debate because of previously scheduled travel.
  • Campaign website not available; Facebook page
  • Read Larsen’s responses to a candidate survey by Alexandra Harden, which includes 25 questions on choice, merit pay for teachers, parent notification of educator arrests and more.

District F, Northeast

    Susan McMahon, 44, of Parker, is a former small business owner and entrepreneur.
  • On vouchers – Oppose
  • On tax increases 3A & 3B – Support
  • Quotable – “I’d like to make very clear that running for a leadership position on the Douglas County school board and being a plaintiff (in the voucher lawsuit) are not a conflict of interest. They are the same. Citizens like myself who care about their communities and their schools get engaged, take a stand and work to make a difference.”
  • Campaign website
  • Read McMahon’s responses to a candidate survey by Alexandra Harden, which includes 25 questions on choice, merit pay for teachers, parent notification of educator arrests and more.
    Justin Williams, 38, of Parker, is an investment adviser. First elected to the board in 2007, he is seeking a second term.
  • On vouchers – Support
  • On tax increases 3A & 3B – Oppose
  • Quotable – “My vision of a school board and serving on a school board is not to be necessarily pro-public education, pro-neighborhood schools, pro-charter schools or pro-private schools. I am pro-education.”
  • Campaign website
  • Read Williams’ responses to a candidate survey by Alexandra Harden, which includes 25 questions on choice, merit pay for teachers, parent notification of educator arrests and more.

School Choice

With another Butler lab school in the works, the north side is unofficially a magnet magnet

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Preschool students at School 55, which could become the second Butler lab school in Indianapolis.

Indianapolis Public Schools may open a new magnet school on the north side, a move that would further cluster sought-after programs in one of the district’s most affluent areas.

The school board heard a proposal Tuesday to convert School 55, also called Eliza Blaker, to the second lab school in collaboration with Butler University. If the board approves the plan, current students would have the choice to remain at the school, but new children would be admitted by lottery.

It would mean that in the area north of 46th Street along the College Avenue corridor — which encompasses some of the city’s most affluent neighborhoods as well as some lower income neighborhoods — every elementary school would be a magnet.

The district is making progress in a campaign to increase diversity in the most sought-after programs. But the decision to place another magnet school on the north side is likely to draw criticism from parents who would like to see them in other areas.

These schools are “concentrated,” said board member Kelly Bentley, who represents the area around School 55. “We are 80 square miles, and yet, those programs are all isolated in a less than 10 square mile area of our district.”

“We’ve got a big district out there, and there are areas that I think could really benefit from some of these programs,” she added.

Indianapolis Public Schools elementary campuses

If the IPS administration converts School 55 to magnet school, it will increase the cluster of magnet programs on north side of the district. Most elementary schools on the east, south and west sides of the district are traditional neighborhood schools.

The district currently operates School 60, which is about 3 miles south of School 55, as a lab school in collaboration with Butler. The school is open to students from across the district, but families who live nearby and children with parents who work at Butler have an advantage in the magnet lottery. As a lab school, it’s also a place where Butler education students gain on-the-ground experience through classes and as teaching assistants.

That’s one reason why the proposal calls for locating the second magnet campus on the north side: There are other locations that might be a good fit, but students from Butler need to be able to get to and from the campus for classes, said school leader Ron Smith. “A Butler lab school does need to be near enough … to make it a viable option for coursework.”

The school uses the Reggio Emilia educational philosophy. Like Montessori schools, Reggio emphasizes hands on learning and allowing students to choose what they study. School 60 has some multigrade classrooms and some that are single grades as part of the experimental approach of a lab program, which aims to test out educational ideas. It is one of the most popular schools in the district and last year, 266 applicants were placed on the waitlist.

When the Butler lab program began at School 60 about five years ago, most of the prior students were forced to leave, and the school restarted by building up from the early grades.

The new magnet dramatically altered the makeup of the school. Before the lab program began, School 60 educated a heavily black, low-income population. Nearly 92 percent of students were black, and more than 85 percent were poor enough to receive subsidized lunch. Since becoming a magnet, the school’s enrollment has transformed: Last year, 62 percent of students were white and 28 percent were eligible for subsidized meals.

But Smith said the picture is beginning to look different this year. With the help of new district admissions policies aimed at diversifying magnet schools and outreach from current parents, who have hosted events and gone door-to-door to recruit families, Smith said, the school has enrolled substantially more children of color.

If the board approves the proposal, School 55 would likely see a less dramatic shift in demographics because all of the current students would be able to remain. The campus is only about half full, so it could absorb some new students without displacing any of the current children.

The new campus could help diversify the program, said Smith: “It’s our intention that every family currently at School 55 would choose to remain as a part of the lab school program.”

blast from the past

Who is Dan Loeb? The billionaire investor that chairs Success Academy’s board has a checkered past

A screenshot taken from an American Enterprise Institute event published in 2014.

Success Academy’s board chairman and major charter school donor Daniel Loeb made headlines this month for posting a racially charged comment on Facebook that compared an African-American New York state senator with the Ku Klux Klan.

Loeb deleted the post, apologized, and left Success Academy and other charter school organizations scrambling to condemn his behavior — and explaining why he would remain on their boards.

Loeb represents a double-edged sword for charter schools. He is a wealthy and well-connected hedge fund manager, who has given millions of dollars to the charter school cause. But his actions force Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz and other charter leaders to make a calculation: Is his behavior a fair price to pay for the boost to their cause?

So far, they have apparently decided that it is. He has not yet been removed from Success’s board. Here are other things Eva Moskowitz has had to grapple with — which include a string of insensitive comments, but also his support for other progressive causes— as she has navigated her relationship with Loeb over the years:

He’s a nonpartisan ally — and antagonist. Loeb supports both Democrats and Republicans, and he also attacks candidates and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. For example, he’s a major backer of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, but he has given to Republican mayoral candidate Nicole Malliotakis and supported Mitt Romney in past presidential campaigns. At the same time, he has lashed out at both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, often in withering and offensive terms, while also telling friends he would not vote for Donald Trump.

This isn’t the first offensive comment he’s made. Far from it, in fact. Loeb is fast-fingered on Facebook and frequently uses derogatory language to lash out at people who have made him unhappy. Here are a few of the examples that have been reported previously:

  • Another time Loeb compared the unions and their supporters to the KKK: Loeb posted the following on his Facebook page in 2016, first reported by Dealbreaker: “If you truly believe that education is the dividing line (and I concurr) then you must recognizer and take up the fight against the teachers union, the biggest single force standing in the way of quality education and an organization that has done more to perpetuate poverty and discrimination against people of color than the KKK.”
  • Using a derogatory term for people of color: Loeb once got into a fight with Fairfax Financial, a Canadian insurance company, which resulted in a lawsuit. Reported Reuters in 2011: “Fairfax’s filing quotes Loeb as saying he found the situation somewhat ironic because “the odds are much greater of being strung up by a Canadian Jew than a Canadian schwarze.” Loeb, who is Jewish, used “schwarze,” a derogatory Yiddish word for a black person, to describe Watsa, who is of Indian ancestry.”
  • Making light of domestic violence by comparing Obama to an abuser: In a 2010 letter to hedge fund managers who had supported Obama, Loeb wrote, according to CNBC: “I am sure, if we are really nice and stay quiet, everything will be alright and the President will become more centrist and that all his tough talk is just words; I mean he really loves us and when he beats us, he doesn’t mean it; he just gets a little angry.”
  • Making a xenophobic, homophobic attack against a rival: A damning 2013 Vanity Fair profile dredged up an anecdote from 1999, when Loeb was feuding with John Liviakis, a San Francisco public-relations executive. In an “imaginary monologue” in the voice of Liviakis, Loeb wrote under a pseudonym: “Then I will laugh at you fools for buying my shares and I will celebrate with a bottle of grappa, some fresh feta, and a nice young boy-just like in the old country.” Liviakis sued him for libel.

Loeb’s allies say his mean-spirited comments don’t necessarily reflect deep-seated beliefs. “I have known Dan to be a champion for underserved children who has worked tirelessly for years on their behalf,” said Jenny Sedlis, the head of StudentsFirstNY and a former deputy to Moskowitz, last week. “I know from first-hand experience the post he made does not reflect his true beliefs or the person he is.”

He has championed progressive causes in the past. Most notably, Loeb helped get gay marriage on the books in New York by throwing his influence into winning over Senate Republicans. This position put him in line with most Democrats and with Moskowitz, who has had wide support in New York City’s gay community for nearly 20 years. It also suggests that some of his internet posts, which have included seemingly homophobic comments, do not necessarily reflect the entirety of his beliefs.

It’s also not his first ethical challenge. Loeb had an account on the marital cheating site Ashley Madison, though he later said he did not use the site to engage or meet anyone on the site. He also has garnered criticism for the way he uses online message boards, where some business insiders say he plays fast and loose with federal regulations about the ways hedge fund operators can communicate with investors. And multiple accounts have him hitting a Cuban child with his car during a vacation in 2002, although he and his friends tell different versions of that story.

His friends and investors have their own problems. At Third Point Management, Loeb manages $17 billion and has a host of high-profile investors — including someone else who landed in hot water for speaking freely this summer. Anthony Scaramucci told Vanity Fair that Loeb was “one of the best investors of his generation. . . . He is the guy that would chew through the wallboard to create a return for his investors.” At the time, Scaramucci had invested about 10 percent of his own fund’s $500 million with Loeb. Now, of course, he’s better known as the man who served for 10 days as Trump’s White House communications director before resigning after making a profanity-laden public attack on other White House officials.