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.

Hello Again

Debora Scheffel chosen by acclamation to fill State Board of Ed vacancy

State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A Republican vacancy committee unanimously selected Debora Scheffel to fill the opening left by Pam Mazanec on the State Board of Education.

Mazanec, a staunch defender of parental rights and school choice who represented the 4th Congressional District, resigned at the end of January to focus on her other obligations. Scheffel previously represented the 6th Congressional District on the board but lost that seat in 2016 to Democrat Rebecca McClellan.

McClellan’s narrow victory gave control of the board to Democrats for the first time in 46 years. Scheffel, who serves as dean of education at Colorado Christian University, moved to Douglas County, and ran unsuccessfully for school board there in 2017.

Scheffel’s selection does not change the balance of power on the state board because she replaces another Republican. Scheffel faced no opposition at the vacancy committee meeting, which took place Saturday in Limon.

Scheffel has said she wants to continue Mazanec’s work on behalf of rural schools and in support of parent and student choice, as well as work to protect student data privacy, a cause she previously championed on the board.

The district takes in all of the eastern Plains, as well as the cities of Longmont, Greeley, and Castle Rock.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis struggles to balance how much money schools need with what people will pay

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Without a massive influx of cash from taxpayers, Indianapolis’ largest school district could be in dire financial straits. But the fate of the referendums asking voters for more money is in limbo.

Even as the Indianapolis Public Schools board revealed plans to reduce how much money it is seeking from voters, the administration portrayed the district’s financial future as precarious. During a board discussion Thursday, officials underscored how critical it would be for the tax increase to pass. It’s unclear, however, whether the district will get the extra cash it needs to avoid making painful cuts.

Critics have suggested the request — $936 million over eight years — is too high and that the district has not offered enough detail on how the money raised would be spent. With only tepid support for the tax plan, district leaders appear poised to reduce the amount they are seeking. That move could win over new allies, but it could also undercut their efforts to gain support.

Next year, the administration is expecting spending could outpace income by more than $45 million. The plan for filling that gap hinges on raising more than $46 million from a referendum that will go before voters in May.

Without that extra money, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said, the district would have to burn through its savings or make vast cuts that could include freezing teacher pay, cutting school budgets, and reducing transportation.

The district would need to begin making cuts immediately, said board member Kelly Bentley. “It’s just going to get worse the next year, and the next year,” she added.

The district’s future will look brighter if leaders are able to win public support for more funding, although it’s no longer clear how much money they will ask for. The original plan, which was approved by the board in December, includes two referendums to raise property taxes. One would ask voters to give the district as much as $92 million more per year for eight years for operating expenses such as teacher pay. Another measure, which the district is not expected to change, would pay for $200 million in improvements to buildings.

Ferebee said the amount he originally proposed was based on what the district needs rather than what would be politically feasible. In the face of community feedback, however, the district is crafting a plan that would have a lower price tag. Next, the district will need to explain what services will be cut to keep down costs, he said.

“I anticipate people will want to know, ‘what are the tradeoffs?’ ” Ferebee said. “We owe it to the community to provide that explanation, and we will.”

Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008, when state lawmakers created the current school funding system. About 60 percent of those referendums have been successful, according to data from Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Stephen Hiller, who has been studying referendums with the center for nearly a decade, said that it’s likely that many districts have had to reconcile how much money they would ideally want with how much taxpayers might be willing to pay. But that conversation likely happens before a referendum is announced and approved by the board.

“I think IPS has it a little more difficult here that it’s happening in the open after they’ve approved it in a very public way,” he added.

School board president Michael O’Connor said that the district’s willingness to change the plan is a sign that local government works.

“We live in the community within which we serve, and all of us have heard pretty plainly and clearly, ‘we think that number might be too big,’ ” he said. “We are being responsive to our constituents.”

Reducing the referendum could be enough to win over many supporters. Several groups that have supported the current administration in the past have not yet taken a stand.

Tony Mason of the Indianapolis Urban League said in a statement that the district needs more money to pay high-quality teachers and meet the needs of its diverse students. But he raised concerns about the potential impact of the tax increase on residents with fixed- or low-incomes.

“IPS will still need to continue in its efforts to make the case for the substantial amount it is requesting,” Mason said. “The IUL is an avid supporter of education, particularly for urban schools that struggle with unique challenges.”

Chelsea Koehring, who taught in the district and now has two children at the Butler Lab School, shares the view that the district needs more money. But leaders have not offered enough details about how the money would be spent, she said, and changing the request raises red flags.

“People, you should’ve had this together before you asked,” she said. “Lowering it at this point — I don’t know that that’s going to instill confidence in anyone that they have any clue what they are doing.”

Correction: February 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to reflect that Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008. Some districts have held multiple referendums.