Douglas County

School district debates appeal in campaign act ruling

Superintendent Elizabeth Fagen listens as former school board candidate Julie Keim reads a statement critical of her and other district leaders during the Jan. 21 school board meeting. Photo by Jane Reuter
By Jane Reuter
Posted

Contrary to a late-December news release, Douglas County School Board President Kevin Larsen said the board hasn't decided if it will appeal a recent court ruling against the district. Critics of the Douglas County School District who spoke during the Jan. 21 board meeting are hoping it lets the ruling stand.

An administrative law judge ruled Dec. 24 that the school district violated the Colorado Fair Campaign Practices Act and attempted to influence the outcome of the November school board election. In a Dec. 27 email statement attributed to Larsen, he said DCSD would "immediately appeal" the claim.

Larsen said Jan. 22 an appeal isn't certain.

"We're having that deep discussion about what the right course is," he said. "We're looking at all the merits of whichever way we go. I don't know what the final outcome will be."

DCSD so far has paid more than $41,000 to the law firm representing it in the case.

Unsuccessful school board candidate Julie Keim, who filed the claim against the district in October 2013, has accumulated about $25,000 in legal fees. Community members have donated about $13,500 to Keim's legal fund.

The judge agreed with Keim that a district-financed paper emailed to 85,000 parents and community members as an independent review was designed to support the district's preferred candidates. Those four candidates narrowly won seats on the board.

Keim was among several community members who lashed out at the board during the public comment section of the Jan. 21 meeting.

Throughout the 30 minutes of mostly negative comment, board members and other district leaders at whom the criticisms were directed stayed silent.

Keim said the Dec. 27 news release about its planned appeal was an effort to spin the judge's ruling.

"It is time for the DCSD board of education and leadership to admit their wrongdoings, take the appropriate action for employees who have broken the law, and stop wasting public funds appealing a decision of guilt that was clearly established," Keim said. "You have broken the law. All of you have. You need to accept that and you need to move on."

"So far DCSD has already diverted $41,383 away from students ... to pay for this lawsuit," parent Anne Marie Lemieux said. "We request this lawsuit not be appealed. Rather, those who broke the law must be accountable for their illegal actions."

Others agreed.

"I am asking for the termination of district personnel involved," said Cindy Barnard, a plaintiff in the 2011 voucher case against DCSD.  "You have let other employees go for less."

The December news release also said the district would ask in its appeal that its legal fees be covered. That angered parent Cristin Patterson.

"You, rather than take action against those who specifically broke the law, intend to attack Julie Keim with an appeal seeking damages to cover court costs," she said. "I am completely astounded by your arrogance in attempting to downplay the violation and your refusal to admit wrongdoing."

The judge did not penalize DCSD because Keim did not ask for a fine or other punishment.

Others who spoke during public comment criticized a Jan. 17 staff presentation. DCSD paid education author Marc Prensky $12,000 and covered expenses for a two-day engagement. Prensky advocates for using technology in education, and many teachers said his ideas were extreme.

"I am here to say we have had enough," said teacher Julie McLean. "Enough of wasted time on days like (Jan. 17), wasted money on things that don't matter. We are tired of things that don't improve our schools and help us become better teachers."

Larsen did not offer direct responses to any of the comments the day after the meeting, but reiterated his desire to improve communications.

"There was temptation to refute many of the comments that went on, but I didn't want this to devolve into a back and forth," he said. "I'm glad we didn't exacerbate it. At the same time, I don't know if it'll go away."