At their first public meeting following the firing of former Superintendent Corey Wise, members of the Douglas County School Board were given a warning: One of the few issues uniting them could be in peril amid the glaring division among leadership.
All seven school board directors have consistently agreed that improving compensation is an urgent issue in the district. Some have said passing a mill levy override — and possibly a bond — in November could be the only remedy.
The board unanimously voted to form a Mill Bond Exploratory Committee, or MBEC, on Jan. 25. The ad hoc committee’s purpose is to assess operational and capital needs of the district, as well as the likelihood of passing a mill levy override or a bond in November.
A Feb. 8 study session covered a lengthy list of capital needs in the district, from new buildings to bolstering security to updating IT equipment. The 2021-22 Master Capital Plan identifies between $765 million and $847 million in capital projects, including $423 million for new construction.
During the session, Sandra Brownrigg, chairperson of MBEC, said the district could be headed down a “death spiral” with the odds of voters passing funding measures this year decreasing after two weeks of board controversies, she said.
“If I were one of the people who sits at home and pops popcorn and watches this like it’s a reality TV show, I would be on social media going…there’s just no way that you guys can come together,” Brownrigg said.
In the past two weeks, the board majority took controversial steps toward changing the district’s equity policy. Minority board directors publicly alleged the majority violated open meeting laws by privately plotting to oust the superintendent. The board majority later fired Wise without cause. Large protests unfolded throughout the district, and a lawsuit followed.
“Letting a superintendent go in February and putting funding on the ballot in November, those two things usually don’t go hand in hand,” Brownrigg said. “Having a conversation in public about your colleagues probably doesn’t increase the likelihood people are going to vote for funding.”
Brownrigg gave the district a 60% chance of passing a funding measure in November, but that’s if the district stabilizes and directors can find some unity, she said. She walked through what leads to a “death spiral” for public school districts.
“Political pendulum swings, which we have been going though for the last 10 years and look like they may continue, lead to divided leadership, which leads to superintendent turnover,” she said.
Superintendent turnover leads to destabilized district leadership, then mistrust among employees and the community, and ultimately, an inability to pass funding initiatives, she said.
In terms of timeline, different challenges surface at each upcoming election, Brownrigg explained.
During the 2022 gubernational election, the district can expect higher voter turnout, younger voters and people more receptive to educational advocacy, she said.
In 2023, the board minority is up for election. Brownrigg said it “is possible but not likely” to pass funding that year, where there will be lower voter turnout expected. The presidential election is in 2024, which would normally be the second-best time to pursue funding after November, she said.
“We have 100,000-plus Republicans in this community — fiscal conservatives,” she said. “Last time we had over 90% voter turnout. I’m going to bet you that 100% of tax-averse fiscal conservative will be there. And if we continue to be divided, they’ll vote against the funding.”
And in 2025, a board majority is up for election, “not a good year to ask for funding,” she said.
Director David Ray referenced Brownrigg’s “death spiral” flow chart and emphasized superintendent turnover is near the top of the domino-chain reaction to financial crisis.
“You are saying to us that the likelihood of this success in November is not, given that factor,” he said.
Brownrigg told the board they “can turn it around” and pass funding, depending on how quickly they “course correct” the district after a turbulent few weeks.
“I think we, both sides, needed a little bit of a scolding, and I accept that. So, thank you,” President Mike Peterson said. “I also appreciate your optimism of thinking that this could still come together.”
Peterson said he would be working toward better communication and transparency among board directors. The board could strive for a unified front as it looks to fill the most recent of several superintendency vacancies in the past few years.
“We have a superintendent issue. I get it,” Peterson said.
But Director Elizabeth Hanson was frank.
“I’m not being authentic if I’m not telling you that I don’t have an ounce of trust for any of you,” she said.
She said she is open to working toward repairing relationships among directors but saw that as increasingly unlikely, particularly after interviews Peterson and Director Kaylee Winegar gave to Fox News criticizing the local union and defending Wise’s firing.
Director Susan Meek said the board had received 1,200 emails that week and “there is a lot of anger and hurt and frustration” in the district. The community is polarized, she said, to the point directors have received questions about dividing the district in two.
“The typical individual that gets behind advocating for MLOs (mill levy overrides) and bonds” are the people directors have to restore the most trust with, she said.
Ray said he doubts the board can successfully work together on district issues or strategies around ballot measures without first addressing the broken relationships among them.
He suggested using the district’s experts in mental health and social-emotional learning to facilitate repairing their working relationships.
“Until we’ve restored some relational trust, this is going to continue to be something that gets in our way,” he said.