Douglas County School District

Emotional 'Unplugged' meeting has upbeat ending

Attendees hopeful that officials will listen, act

Gary Colley, right, raises his hand to let school board president Kevin Larsen, seated at left, know he wants to speak during the April 1 Board Unplugged meeting at Castle Rock's Mesa Middle School. Photo by Jane Reuter
By Jane Reuter

The Douglas County School District's second Board Unplugged meeting lasted nearly three hours, and was punctuated by raised voices, frequent interruptions and philosophical clashes, but it ended on a cooperative note.

About 50 people attended the April 1 event at Castle Rock's Mesa Middle School, designed as a less formal version of the Douglas County School Board's traditional meetings held at the district administration building.

Despite several highly emotional exchanges, community members who have for months said they're concerned about the board's willingness to work with them expressed optimism about the evening's finale.

Board president Kevin Larsen promised to provide follow-up information on a variety of issues raised, some of it at the next regular board meeting on April 15. Those issues include cost of a potential district survey, details on a proposed K-8 special education school, costs for assessments and a data collection system and the potential re-establishment of a policy review committee.

"I think we are trying to find some common ground to come together," said Larsen. "With all humility, we will do our best. If we don't have the answers, we will say it."

Larsen also announced DCSD has hired a parent advocate, who will work with parents as concerns arise. Unresolved issues then may be taken to the administration or board level.

Six of the seven board members attended the informal meeting. Craig Richardson was not there.

Unlike the first Board Unplugged meeting held in March, during which participants were divided into groups to discuss specific topics, audience members sat on folding chairs arranged in a circle for a general discussion of their concerns.

Parent Laura Young Alfano expressed gratitude for the board's attentiveness.

"If this truly is the beginning, I am grateful," she said. "There are really few main issues where there is huge, deep divide. The (choice) scholarship program? Deep divide. Let's not start there. But there are a lot of other things where it's more about how things are done, how are they communicated. Hopefully this is really truly the beginning of listening and smaller groups."

Several audience members testified about low teacher morale. One man, who identified himself as Mike, said he represented his DCSD teacher wife, who didn't feel comfortable speaking out. As a teacher in another district, the man said he knows many DCSD teachers are seeking employment elsewhere.

"We used to get 10 resumes from Douglas County; now we're getting 60," he said. "We can't hire them all.

"They had no reason to leave as far as seniority or status. It was because they needed to get out of the district."

Board member Doug Benevento said DCSD last year hired more teachers from outside the district than it lost to other districts.

"I get there are probably folks who are unhappy, but it's unfair to characterize them as all, or say there's a great migration north because the numbers would indicate we have a great migration south," he said

"I happen to respectfully disagree with you," Mike said. "There's a reputation going on about Douglas County schools. Whether you have numbers to say it's not true, there's a reputation about it now."

Parent Kelle Palka agreed, saying parents know teachers' feelings better than board members.

"How many teachers are you confidants with that tell you, really, what's going on?" she asked. "We are their confidants. The majority are unhappy."

Larsen noted the turnover has varied "wildly" among DCSD's schools, and suggested schools with high turnover be scrutinized.

"Are they losing teachers that are positively leaving for an opportunity within the district, and are they being replaced with a teacher of equal caliber and experience or are they not?" he said. "Is the environment such that they're not enjoying it anymore? I think we can look at that."

"I'm certainly interested in exploring the alternatives to teacher evaluations so teachers take ownership," board member Jim Geddes said. "Once that happens, I think it will be much more acceptable to the teachers."

"The point of an evaluation is to make you better, not get rid of you," Larsen agreed.

Several audience members urged the board to listen to parents, and not discount their voices.

"You have a room full of people that are passionate about the school district," said former board candidate Julie Keim. "Please try to find ways to engage us. You would find us a lot less resistant if you would listen to us, talk to us, help us understand your priorities. We're resistant because you are shutting us out of the process."

The next Board Unplugged meeting is set for May 6 at Rocky Heights Middle School in Highlands Ranch.