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Demonstrators gather to protest recent actions of the Douglas County District school board on Feb. 3, 2022, in Castle Rock. Hundreds rallied after the district’s board majority moved to unseat Superintendent Corey Wise and alter the district’s student equity policy. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Julie Hensley believes her SUV was targeted because of the cheery blue-and-yellow “Come Together” message spray-painted on her back window. 

The special education teacher at Legend High School in Parker was already at her desk at 7:30 a.m. on Wednesday when the hallways began to buzz with word that teachers’ cars were slapped with flyers: “You Are Bad! Get Out and Leave!” 

A student was the first to see the flyers and told a teacher, who quickly had them removed. 

“Heartbroken is the best word I would have for it,” Hensley said. “I felt disregarded. I felt a little unsafe. I felt threatened.”

Still, the teacher with 30 years working in schools, including six in Douglas County, has no plans to leave. The support she and other teachers are receiving from the other half of the community has sustained them through the rancor, including withering and sometimes anonymous criticism from parents and the recent ouster of Douglas County School District Superintendent Corey Wise by the school board’s new 4-3 conservative majority. 

Wise’s firing came a day after more than 1,000 teachers called in sick in protest of his removal. That in turn led to a failed effort by some community members to seek the names of absent teachers through a records request — a move educators saw as an attempt to subject them to embarrassment or even harassment. The request was withdrawn last week

Swings of the political pendulum are nothing new when U.S. presidents change. But the nation’s political divisions are taking hold in schools across Colorado and the country in ways not seen in generations, experts say.  

Disputes that sparked over COVID protocols and concerns about how race is taught in public schools have generated a degree of upheaval last recorded during desegregation in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, some contend.  

It’s a “perfect storm of issues that have really placed an intense focus on schools, school districts and school board governance,” said Carrie Sampson, an assistant professor at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University.

“I haven’t seen anything that extreme in my research,” said Sampson, who has studied how communities and school boards responded to the school integration movement. 

In Colorado, the divisions are sharpest in Douglas County and several other districts that saw new school board majorities born from last year’s contentious elections. 

In Montezuma-Cortez School District, Superintendent Risha VanderWey resigned in January after less than a year of leading the district of more than 2,600 kids in far southwest Colorado. Bayfield School District, a district of more than 1,300 students near Durango, fired Superintendent Kevin Aten during a board meeting on Feb. 8. And in Mesa County, some teachers and parents are bracing for the possibility that sweeping changes are coming. 

In each district, the changes came after conservative board members elected in the fall moved swiftly to put their mark on schools, from questioning aspects of school curriculums to seeking major shifts in leadership. 

Parents left frustrated by school closures and masking policies during the pandemic say the boards’ quick decisions to oust superintendents are a relief. Other parents who have leaned on administrators and teachers for both academic and moral support over the past two years have been reeling, questioning whether new board members are truly committed to what’s best for students.

“Teachers are tough people. We know there are people out there who support us and care,” Hensley said. “It just breaks my heart that politics and personal agendas and all of this stuff has gotten so involved in education. I don’t feel like we are even thinking about the kids or the teachers, only an agenda.”

Was “kids first” a sincere campaign plank?

All the political sparring among school board members, teachers, parents and other adults has left students wondering where their voices fit into the noisy debates, whether anyone is listening to them and when the focus will return to their education. It’s also forced some Douglas County students to wonder if they have a future in the district at all.

ThunderRidge High School freshman Eli Williams and his family are thinking about leaving Douglas County School District after escalating tension between the new board and many parents, teachers and students.

“Their whole campaign is ‘kids first,’ but in reality they are choosing their own agenda over the students,” Eli, 15, said of the new board members while participating in a school walkout with more than 100 of his classmates earlier this month. “And it’s a problem.”

Students from ThunderRidge High School walk out of school on Feb. 7 dressed in black, to protest the sudden firing of the superintendent, Corey Wise, and possible changes to the district’s equity policy. (John Leyba, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Douglas County School District’s four new board members were elected on a promise to steer the district of nearly 63,900 students in a new direction but have yet to explain their vision to the community, teachers or the students they vowed to put first while campaigning as a slate last year. 

The district — Colorado’s third largest — is further fractured after being deeply divided in November, when politics dominated board elections.

“The community is in turmoil,” said board member Susan Meek, who was elected in 2019. She worries whether the board will be able to capture “true community input” in the search for a new superintendent after Wise was fired.

Board members met in a special meeting on Wednesday night. After hearing from dozens of parents, teachers, students and community members during public comment — many of whom expressed distrust of the board and questioned why the board is moving so fast to appoint a new superintendent — the board created a job description for a new superintendent and voted to post the job opening through Feb. 25.

Highland Ranch High School students walked out of school on Feb. 7, some dressed in black, to protest the sudden firing of the superintendent, Corey Wise and possible changes to the district’s equity policy. Some carried signs reading “Yes, Becky, you can go home,” referring to recently elected Douglas County School Board member Becky Myers, who became so flustered during a meeting that she asked if she could just go home. (John Leyba, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The meeting shed little light on the new direction that majority board members Mike Peterson, Christy Williams, Becky Myers and Kaylee Winegar have said they want to take in guiding the district.

On Wednesday, newly elected board president Peterson reiterated that he wants to take the district in a new direction, but that the district’s goal to “help any student achieve his or her potential” won’t change. He said he doesn’t believe Wise was effective in accomplishing that.

“So just to be clear, we let go of the prior superintendent to move in a different direction, but the direction that we’re moving in is the same direction with the same ends,” Meek said after questioning majority board members about the specifics of the new direction they have in mind.

“I think it takes time to build trust, and actions need to be congruent with the words, and so I just think it’s going to take time to rebuild trust with our community based on where we are right now as a community,” Meek told The Colorado Sun in an interview.

Peterson acknowledges the deep division in his community.

“We need to improve it as a board,” Peterson told The Colorado Sun. “We need to find common ground as a board.”

Peterson has repeated the need for the district to move on after firing Wise. He said it was clear to him that there was a “misalignment” in the direction the community wants to go and “the ability and the desire” of Wise to lead in that direction.

“A unilateral termination was appropriate and frankly is not uncommon in that situation,” Peterson said, adding that new board directors often change up leadership. He refused to elaborate on the specifics of what he perceived as a disconnect between the community and Wise.

DCSD Superintendent Corey Wise listens to public comment at a Douglas County School Board meeting. (Jessica Gibbs, CCM)

Peterson said the board is not erasing or dramatically changing the district’s equity policy, which was adopted last March, in part to reinforce inclusive schools for all students and staff, including those who identify as LGBTQ

The board passed a resolution directing “the superintendent to recommend potential changes” to the policy and how it is implemented in schools. Those recommendations must be presented to the board by September. Peterson said nothing about the policy has changed. Parents have reached out to him with concerns that there has been “misalignment” between the intent of the policy, which he believes to be good, and how it has been implemented. 

Some parents and community members worry the district is putting too much of an emphasis on groups rather than individual identity, while others have reported “privilege walks” in schools in which individual students are singled out based on their identity, said Peterson, who said he has a gay brother, a daughter adopted from China and another daughter who received special education services.

One of the flyers left on the windshields of vehicles parked at some Douglas County schools on Feb. 16, 2022. (Jennifer Brown, The Colorado Sun)

“I have direct skin in the game in ensuring belonging and inclusion,” Peterson said. “This is something that I as a father, as a brother, as just a community member, I want to see kindness, belonging, inclusion succeed because we need that type of culture to have successful educational outcomes and successful social outcomes.”

The district’s Equity Advisory Council will meet over the next several months to review the policy and then the board will decide whether the it should be changed to reflect “the common ground that’s embraced by the larger community,” Peterson said. “All voices.”

All the political conflict has raised fears that the district will lose many teachers, who Douglas County Federation president Kevin DiPasquale said feel unsafe and targeted after finding flyers on their vehicles.

In January, a union survey with 136 responses from members found that 61% were thinking of leaving the district and 43% were thinking of leaving education altogether.

“It’s difficult to be happy when you see your superintendent fired without any performance issues because it says to the rest of the 8,000 employees that you don’t matter as well,” DiPasquale said. “It’s difficult to have trust when you see someone’s actions show who they really are.”

Melinda Highsmith, who teaches eighth grade math at Castle Rock Middle School, is eyeing her own exit from teaching. She is close to retirement and she said the recent board actions in Douglas County are pushing her to leave as soon as she is financially able. 

The prospect of teachers walking away from the district in droves weighs on Highsmith, who has spent 29 years in education — 20 in Douglas County.

“We can’t keep people here when they don’t trust who they’re working for,” Highsmith said while demonstrating outside the district’s main offices alongside several hundred teachers, students, parents and community members the day before the board cut ties with Wise.

Protesters wielded signs admonishing new board members for meeting covertly, urging the board to keep Wise at the helm and showing support for educators. One sign read, “Colorado is known for 300 days of sunshine. Don’t leave us in the dark.”

Highsmith taught through another period of chaos in the district, after the board flipped to a conservative majority in 2009.

“I survived our previous board that was similar to this one,” she said. “It took a lot of years to recover from that, and I toughed through it. That’s why I want to help the younger teachers so that they don’t have to tough through it.”

“This is not transparency”

The division that has reached a fever pitch in districts like Douglas County isn’t impacting all districts across the country, noted Sampson, of Arizona State University. It’s primarily roiling suburban districts and in areas with “more conservative pockets of folks” and mostly white families who have been consumed by concerns around school closures, masking policies and what children are learning, she said.

But similar scenes of discord are brewing in Colorado districts that had sudden shifts in the balance of power on school boards.

Mesa County Valley Board of Education President Andrea Haitz, right, and her fellow newly-elected conservative majority board members Will Jones, left, and Angela Lema, center, listen prior to the board adjourning into an executive session to review the contracts of district administrators on Feb. 7. (Gretel Daugherty, Special to The Colorado Sun)

New Mesa County Valley School District board president Andrea Haitz’s voice shook as she opened a special meeting on Feb. 7 in front of a bristling crowd of hundreds jammed into the board’s meeting room and spilled across a plaza in front of the building in Grand Junction.

Since Haitz and two other far-right, conservative-backed board members took office at the end of November, this appeared to be the largest crowd they had faced. And it wasn’t made up of the right-wing base that had elected them as a “conservative bloc” and had filled previous board meetings.

This crowd, made up overwhelmingly of more moderate and left-leaning progressive types, was there because of fear that the now-conservative majority was planning to fire the district’s two top administrators and the equity director during the hastily-called meeting. What had happened in Douglas County days before was on the minds of many in the crowd that included teachers, parents, grandparents and students.

The crowd wanted to let the board know it opposed a potentially disruptive switch in administrators, especially given the way the administrators had just managed to get the district through the challenges of a pandemic without major disruption.

“This is the opposite of what they (the board) ran on. This is not transparency. This is disappointing,” said Sean Gregersen, who teaches gifted and talented elementary students in the district. “Our administrators have done an amazing job. They kept us open while the rest of the nation was closed for the past two years.”

Mark Schmalz, who teaches education at Colorado Mesa University and sends hundreds of interns and student teachers into the District 51 system, expressed his concern with the new board members and called the current administration “the best leadership we have ever worked with.”

He said he fears the politicization of the board under the conservative majority will prompt his students to go elsewhere to teach.

School boards have historically been nonpartisan, but elections have taken a partisan turn as national politics have seeped into local school board discussions.

The new board, for now, has backed off on firing top administrators, but there are lingering fears that the board might interfere with curriculum decisions and even ban books. 

Palisade High School students hold signs in support of the current administration of the Mesa County Valley School District 51 in the conference room at R-5 High School before the beginning of an executive session Feb. 7. (Gretel Daugherty, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“I think there’s been a tremendous amount of energy fostered by what’s going on in national politics, which has suffused our school board elections and made them to an extent polarizing extensions of national politics,” said Dan Hopkins, a professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania who wrote a book on the nationalization of American politics.

Hopkins noted that with the decline of local newspapers, more people have gravitated to national news coverage, meaning that people who are politically engaged have become more emotionally charged by national discourse, which they bring to school board meetings. 

School boards are an “accessible” level of government for community members and organizers where they can directly advocate and voice their concerns, said Sampson, of Arizona State University.

And while there have always been lightning rod local issues that divide communities — such as the redrawing of district boundary lines, the firing of a popular teacher or the end of a football program — Hopkins has seen a shift as the issues and rhetoric stemming from national politics bubble up across communities.

National politics have also influenced how constituents think about their local school boards, Hopkins said. Many people previously voted for incumbents who may have differed politically on national issues. But now, as COVID has become so politicized, it’s easier to identify an individual’s political preferences and voters have been more likely to encounter candidates urging them to vote in line with their views on national issues, he said.

Hopkins pointed to another historical trend at play: the rallying of a minority political party. Political sentiment often turns against the party that controls the White House. In 2017, Democrats mobilized for a lot of local elections following the election of Donald Trump. Now, the opposite is happening.

“Conservatives are very animated about the state of the country and threatened by the election of Joe Biden,” Hopkins said.

Racism, homophobia and fears of book burning

Since Mesa County’s new board members took power on the five-person board, they have stumbled on the laws governing open meetings and the rules for how meetings are to be conducted. (Haitz forgot to call the meeting to order, do roll call, or recite the Pledge of Allegiance at the Feb. 7 meeting.) They also dropped mask mandates, ignoring the recommendations of local health authorities.

While campaigning before their base, the conservative bloc opposed critical race theory and questioned the need for LGBTQ support systems. They campaigned on more parental control of curriculum, a position supported by a curriculum transparency bill that was introduced in the state legislature last month. Republican Rep. Tim Geitner of El Paso County is the sole prime sponsor of the bill, which is being promoted by a national conservative organization.

One of the first actions of the three new board members — Haitz, a real estate agent; Angela Lema, the owner of a beauty school; and Will Jones, a part-time coach and bouncer at a strip club — was to attempt to dump the district’s in-house attorney and hire a Colorado Springs law firm known for representing conservative school districts and religious groups. The conservative bloc did so without consulting the two other board members.

After being blasted for this attempt that would add significant costs to the district and for unilaterally making decisions without a meeting of the full board, the new members backed down. Instead, they voted to hire two local attorneys. 

It was those two attorneys who met with the board behind closed doors to consider employment contracts while the district’s in-house attorney was left to stand in the back of the crowd. The outside attorneys met with the board again in a second executive meeting two days later.  

The board issued a news release stating the meetings weren’t held with the intention of firing anyone, in spite of the rumors swirling through the community.

Public statements about what happened behind closed doors were made in the days following that meeting to allay fears that administrators were going to be fired.

The next regular school board meeting, on Tuesday, drew another large crowd of around 250 even though the possible firing of administrators was off the table. The crowd was a mix of progressives and the local anti-vaccine, anti-CRT group Stand for the Constitution. That group, which backed the conservative bloc, has promoted Trump stolen-election falsehoods, and supports embattled Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters. Members of the group have filled past board meetings that have been marked with sometimes rude and rowdy public comments.

Assistant Superintendent Brian Hill. seated at left, receives an ovation from the audience after he arrives at an executive session of the Mesa County Valley School District 51 school board in Grand Junction. Several hundred people attended the opening remarks of the meeting to show their support for Hill, Superintendent Diane Sirko and Tracy Gallegos, the district’s director of equity and inclusion, after the new school board called the meeting to review their contracts. Hill was selected last spring to succeed Sirko, who has announced her plans to retire in June. (Gretel Daugherty, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The supporters of the current school district administration proved at the Feb. 7 meeting that they won’t stand down quietly. They carried signs declaring “No More Secret Deals,” and “We Support Hill, Sirko, Gallegos,” referring to current Assistant Superintendent Brian Hill, Superintendent Diane Sirko, and Tracy Gallegos, the district’s director of equity and inclusion.

The crowd erupted into loud cheers and clapping and shouted, “We support you, Dr. Hill!” and, “Be brave, Hill!” as he threaded his way into the meeting through the tightly packed crowd.

Hill, who moved to Grand Junction from Texas to take the assistant superintendent job in 2019, had tears in his eyes. He had signed a contract this past summer that would move him into the superintendent’s job when Sirko retires as planned in June.

“I got a little emotional,” he said after the meeting. “We hear the anger and see the angry emails every day. It can be a really thankless job.

“And then this,” he said, holding a hand out to indicate the crowd of supporters.

In that crowd, elementary-level special education teacher Jenn Jurgens said she was there because she wants “what is best for our kids.”

Some of those kids sat in the front row at that meeting, in plain sight of the board members before they filed out to confer in private.

Others blended into the crowd outside. Daniel Farrel, a senior at Grand Junction High School, said he attended because he wants to go into politics. He said he had met and spoken with board members Lema and Haitz and supported whatever decision they would make.

Another high school senior, Laurel Collins, said she is frightened that diversity and equity programs in the schools will be dropped or diminished by the new board.

“I see racism and homophobia in school every day. They are big issues,” she said.

“I see book burning potentially in the future,” she added.

Mesa Valley Education Association President Tim Couch said the teacher’s union will now focus on trying to get along with the new board majority. After being reassured there will be no immediate firings of administrators, the union is only asking that the board not hold any more meetings at times of day when teachers can’t attend, he said.

“We want to be a force of change and we want to come to mutual agreement,” Couch said.

“Pawns in a larger political game”

Michael Petrilli, president of the conservative policy organization Thomas B. Fordham Institute, argues that the kind of sharp rhetoric lobbed in school board meetings is just a different version of what has long been shouted by teachers unions.

There’s a “new group of political actors who are engaging in this political rhetoric,” Petrilli said.

“The unions have been deeply involved in the politics of school boards for decades, and it’s really these other groups that are now just catching up,” he said.

Culture wars have roiled school boards before, Petrilli said, but “we are in an intense cycle of it right now thanks to all these debates around race and all the debates around COVID responses.”

Demonstrators gather to protest recent actions of the Douglas County District school board on Feb. 3, 2022, in Castle Rock. Hundreds rallied after the district’s board majority moved to unseat Superintendent Corey Wise and alter the district’s student equity policy. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Anger over extended school closures may have “radicalized” parents and helped them become more aware of other problems in the school system, he said. The leadership changes expedited by newly conservative boards shouldn’t come as a surprise, Petrilli said.

“It would be very hard for school board members to try to work through an existing, working superintendent who doesn’t share their values, their vision to get things done,” he said.

But, he added, such “abrupt changes” don’t generally benefit districts, particularly at a time many kids are trying to catch up in school.

More gradual changes made through good governance often help reduce disruption to students, said Kevin Welner, a professor at the University of Colorado School of Education and director of the National Education Policy Center. 

Immediate changes that send a district into a completely new direction, such as firing a superintendent without cause, make “the teachers and the students feel like they are pawns in a larger political game,” Welner said. Quick changes can also affect the quality of students’ education through teacher exhaustion, resignation, shortages and trust of the district.

All the politics overwhelming school boards have pulled their attention away from issues that are central to students at a time many are already more reactive than proactive, said Sampson, of Arizona State University. 

“This is yet another, I think, era of politics that have caused districts and … the leadership in school districts to just constantly be in reactive mode” and not be able to invest as much time and effort in developing strategic plans that would tackle inequities and other urgent problems, she said.

They have also created a sense of fear within some districts when talking about issues related to race and equity.

“Even the word ‘race’ or ‘equity’ becomes a point of attack in some of these more volatile areas and districts,” Sampson said.

Eli, the ThunderRidge High School student thinking about leaving Douglas County School District, is both scared for the future and disappointed in the adults tasked with shaping it. He wonders whether students’ voices are truly being heard as new board members charge ahead in a new, undefined direction.

“If you’re really just like saying that you’re going to put students first, then do it,” he said. “Like, so many people have reached out, so many people have, like, voiced their concerns, and they’re not listening. Like hearing that students are uncomfortable or unsafe or feel disappointed should not even be a part of the conversation at all. So why is it there?”

Special to The Colorado Sun Email: Twitter: @nlofholm

Erica Breunlin is an education writer for The Colorado Sun, where she has reported since 2019. Much of her work has traced the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic on student learning and highlighted teachers' struggles with overwhelming workloads...