candidate forum

Dougco incumbents tout district success, challengers criticize board culture

Moderator Jerry Healey (right) lays out ground rules before the Douglas County candidate forum.

Familiar divisions over teacher morale and pay, board openness and district spending were highlighted at a Douglas County school board candidate forum held just two weeks before election day.

Vouchers, the issue for which Dougco is best known outside the county, didn’t get mentioned once.

Three incumbents are facing three challengers in races that look similar to the three elections held since 2009, when a conservative majority took control of the board and started rolling out changes including the voucher program, breaking the district teachers union and new budgeting practices.

Incumbents Kevin Larson, Craig Richardson and Richard Robbins touted rising achievement rates, high school graduation rates, declining college remediation and the district’s top-level state rating as reasons to re-elect them.

“We had a very good school district in 2010, but it wasn’t great,” Richardson said.

“We have been successful … Continue the success we have in Douglas County,” Larsen urged.

But challengers Anne-Marie Lemieux, David Ray and Wendy Vogel argued the current board has gone too far in its initiatives and run roughshod over parents and teachers.

“They’ve turned our great district upside down,” argued Lemieux, calling board initiatives “poorly implemented.” Questioning the expertise of the board and Superintendent Elizabeth Celania-Fagen, Lemieux said, “This board isn’t necessarily bad guys. They’re just not asking the right questions.”

Richardson said, “We are in the midst of change. It is always difficult [to move from] a culture of entitlement to a culture of performance.” He was referring to the district’s controversial performance pay system.

Vogel called the reference to entitlement “incredibly offensive to our staff.”

The challengers repeatedly warned about low staff morale, with Lemieux saying, “We’ve had thousands of teachers leave this district. … Good leadership should recognize that we are losing great teachers.” Challengers argued the district’s evaluation system in “punitive” and isn’t oriented toward helping teachers improve.

The challengers also called on the incumbents to reinstitute comprehensive surveys of parents and teachers.

“This school board has not given parents a voice in several years,” Lemieux said.

  • Read what the candidates have to say on the issues in Chalkbeat’s Election Center

The incumbents quickly said they’re planning to do that.

“It will be coming down in the next 12 months or maybe even the next six months,” Richardson said. He and other incumbents also said the board is considering using parent and student surveys as part of teacher evaluations.

Ray was skeptical. “Three years ago we asked for a parent survey, so I’m having a hard time believing it will come down in the next six months,” he said. “I wonder what you’re afraid of hearing from parents and community members.”

“We are experiencing a real lack of communication between school district leadership and the community. … It’s got to stop,” Vogel said.

Finance also was a point of contention.

Challengers argued the board spends too much on central administration, leading to larger class sizes, high school schedule changes and maintenance problems at schools.

Incumbents argued that they’ve pushed spending authority down to school principals and argued that the state funding system is the root of budget problems.

Richardson noted that Douglas County taxpayers in effect subsidize other districts to the tune of $40 million because of high property wealth and relatively low state support.

“The people of Douglas County are a generous people … but $40 million far exceeds that level of generosity,” he said.

Robbins said, “We’re not against helping people out, but there just has to be a limit to that.”

A lengthy discussion of charter schools revealed few differences among the candidates, prompting Richardson to note “remarkable consensus.”

The candidates sparred a bit about outside influences on the campaign. Groups unaffiliated with the candidates have been active for both sides, producing flyers and ads.

Lemieux complained about ads “being paid for by people who don’t even live in our district.” Richardson said, “Ye shall know them by their donors.”

Some candidates also were quick to verify their conservative credentials in response to a question about teacher union support of some candidates.

“I’ve never been labeled a liberal before,” Lemieux said.

“I thought I was a conservative until I saw the commercial saying that I was a liberal,” Ray joked.

Only Vogel volunteered, “I am a liberal. It doesn’t make me a bad person.”

While most of the forum focused on local issues, Richardson tried to strike a grander note, saying, “Nothing is more important than getting [education] right. The future of civilization depends on getting this right, and I believe Douglas County will play a prominent role.”

The forum, held Monday evening at SkyView Academy in Highlands Ranch, drew about 150 people. Judging from the applause, the crowd leaned slightly toward the challengers. The candidates responded to a dozen questions, six drafted by each of them and six selected from questions audience members submitted on cards.

Dougco residents will vote on all candidates, but the winners will be selected by district. Richardson and Vogel are running in District A, Larsen and Lemieux in District G and Ray and Robbins in District F. Because the board has seven members, even a sweep by the challengers wouldn’t change the board majority.

Finding a home

Denver school board permanently co-locates charter elementary in middle school building

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep's first charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

A Denver elementary charter school that was temporarily granted space in a shuttering district-run middle school building will now be housed there permanently.

The school board voted Thursday to permanently place Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest charter school in the Kepner Middle School building, where it is sharing space this year with three other school programs. Such co-locations can be controversial but have become more common in a district with skyrocketing real estate prices and ambitious school quality goals.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest is part of a homegrown charter network that has shown promising academic results. The network also has a school in Aurora and is expected to open a third Denver school next year in the northwest part of the city.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest was first placed at Kepner for the 2015-16 school year. The placement was supposed to be temporary. The district had decided the year before to phase out low-performing Kepner and replace it a new district-run middle school, Kepner Beacon, and a new charter middle school, STRIVE Prep Kepner, which is part of a larger network. The district also temporarily placed a third charter school there: Compass Academy.

Compass has since moved out of Kepner but the other four schools remain: Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, Kepner Beacon, STRIVE Prep Kepner and the Kepner Legacy Middle School, which is on track to be completely phased out and closed by June 2019.

In a written recommendation to the school board, district officials acknowledged that permanently placing Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest at Kepner would create a space crunch.

The Kepner campus has the capacity to serve between 1,100 and 1,500 students, the recommendation says. Once all three schools reach full size, officials expect the schools will enroll a total of approximately 1,250 students. Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest currently serves students in preschool through third grade with a plan to add more grades.

“DPS facilities staff are currently working with all three schools to create a long‐term vision for the campus, including facility improvements that ensure all three schools have what they need to continue to excel,” says the recommendation from Chief Operating Officer David Suppes and Director of Operations and Support Services Liz Mendez.

District staff tried to find an alternate location for Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest but were unsuccessful, the recommendation says. The district does not have many available buildings, and competition for them among district-run and charter schools can be fierce. In northeast Denver, seven secondary schools are currently vying for the use of a shuttered elementary.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis needs tech workers. IPS hopes that George Washington will help fill that gap.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indiana companies are looking for workers with computer expertise, and Indianapolis Public Schools leaders want their students to fill that gap.

Next year, George Washington High School will launch a specialized information technology academy designed to give students the skills to pursue careers in IT — and the exposure to know what jobs even exist.

“Half of what kids aspire to be is either someone they know does it or they’ve seen it on TV,” said Karen Jung, president of Nextech, a nonprofit that works to increase computer science preparation in K-12 schools. Nextech is partnering with IPS to develop the new IT program at George Washington.

For teens who don’t know anyone working in computer science, meeting role models is essential, Jung said. When teens see women of color or artists working in computer sciences, they realize there are opportunities for people like them.

“Once we put them in front of and inside of workplaces … it clicks,” Jung said. They believe “they would belong.”

The IT program is one of three academies that will open in George Washington next year as part of a broad plan to close nearly half of the district’s high schools and add specialized focus areas at the four remaining campuses. In addition to the IT academy, George Washington will have programs in: advanced manufacturing, engineering, and logistics; and business and finance.

The district is also moving to a model without neighborhood high schools. Students will be expected to choose high schools based on focus area rather than location. This year, many current high schoolers were required to reapply in an effort to make sure they enroll in academies that fit their interests.

The district will host a showcase of schools to help parents and students with their selections. The showcase runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Indiana State Museum.

Stan Law, principal of Arlington High School now, will take over George Washington next year. (Arlington will close at the end of this year.) He said the new academies offer an opportunity for students to see what they need to master — from soft skills to knowledge — to get good jobs when they graduate.

“I want kids to really make the connection of the purpose of high school,” Law said. “It is that foundation for the rest of your life, in terms of the quality of life that you are going to live.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Stan Law

When the IT academy launches next year, students who select the program will be able to spend about one to two classes per year focused on information technology, said Ben Carter, who runs career and technical education for IPS.

Carter hopes the academies will reshape George Washington and other IPS campuses by connecting potential careers with the work students do everyday at school. Students who share a focus area will be in a cohort, and they will share many of the same core classes such as English, math and history, said Carter. Teachers, in turn, will be able to relate what students are studying in their history class to projects they are working on in the IT program, for example.

To show students what a career in information technology might look like, students will have the chance to tour, connect with mentors and intern at local companies.

“If I’m in one of these career classes — I’m in software development, but then I get to go to Salesforce and walk through and see the environment, to me as a student, that’s inspiring,” said Carter. “It’s like, ‘oh, this is what I can have.’ ”

He added. “It increases engagement but also gives them a true sense of what the career is.”