DougCo schools always in the spotlight; here’s how stakes are changing

Suzie Glassman

By Suzie Glassman/NewsBreak Denver

(Castle Rock, CO) The Douglas County school board is no stranger to controversy or national attention. A 2013 report by the American Enterprise Institute called DougCo schools the most interesting district in America for "pursuing perhaps the nation's boldest attempt at suburban school reform."

The 2017 school board election again drew national attention when the race centered on a controversial voucher program approved by the 2011 board but ruled unconstitutional by the State Supreme Court.

A slate of four candidates who advocated eliminating vouchers by not appealing the state decision and nixing a pay-for-performance program won. The result ended years of a reform-minded agenda, but not without attracting large amounts of national attention and significant donations from political and union groups.

Four years later, the school board flipped again when four candidates running as part of a Kids First Slate won. They campaigned to end masking in schools and to change the recently-approved educational equity policy.

The conservative-minded candidates out-raised their opponents 2:1, receiving large individual donations and gaining support from the 1776 Project, a political action committee "dedicated to electing school board members nationwide who want to reform our public education system by promoting patriotism and pride in American history."

Now that the dust has settled, what's left is a community deeply divided along partisan lines about the direction it wants DougCo schools to head and whether or not it can trust the board on spending, equity, and curriculum.

School boards caught in a perfect storm

While Colorado school board elections are technically nonpartisan affairs, they've been anything but in the county for more than a decade.

Paul Teske, dean of the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado Denver, told the Denver Post, "The Douglas County School District was on the 'leading edge of the school board elections becoming pretty politicized.'"

Yet, to many who study school board policy, the stakes feel higher than ever.

"School boards are caught in a perfect storm," says Carrie Sampson, assistant professor in the division of educational leadership and innovation at Arizona State University.

“First, we had President Trump, then the pandemic, then President Biden and those who deny the election's legitimacy, the killing of George Floyd, and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, plus issues around gender identity and what should be taught in schools.”

"I think what's been striking about the last few years," says Jeffrey Henig, professor of political science and education at Columbia University and author of several books on the nationalization of education politics, "is not that the role of national groups has changed, but the national actors involved and the focal issues have changed."

"More than ever, school board elections and public comments are centered around culture war battles, like opposition to critical race theory (CRT) or teaching a more pro-America history.

"School safety is no longer about school safety but rather gun control," he said.

Sampson notes school board meetings are one of the few places the public can comment about these issues, and everyone in the room has to listen. She's seen organized groups come together to make public outcries at board meetings when some members don't even have children in the district.

Yet, often, the issues up for debate aren't particularly relevant to the board, like CRT. Colorado schools don't teach CRT. And the DougCo equity policy likely won't change much, according to superintendent Erin Kane.

DougCo as a barometer for national politicians

Douglas County has voted Republican in every Presidential election since 2000, according to BestPlaces.net.

Paul Teske, dean of the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado Denver, told the Denver Post, "the county has become a barometer for national politicians on how wealthy, suburban Republicans are leaning on different issues."

The district is large (#3/178 in the state and #59/13,800 in the nation), and political donors see the county as a testing ground for more radical education policies, writes the Denver Post.

"There's a sense among some on the right that they were losing suburban voters in the Trump era who were turned off by aspects of his personal style and some of his issues," says Henig.

"And that these issues, like masking and CRT, might appeal to those suburban voters and pull them back into the fold for the congressional elections that are the big game for some of these big money people."

Judging by the last Presidential election, where DougCo voters were split 52.4% Republican to 45.2% Democrat, a much smaller margin than ever, Henig's theory is playing out.

He says the language used in these school board campaigns is often designed and disseminated nationally to pull those turned off by politics back in. Henig believes before bigger conservative groups began fanning these national issues, parents weren't upset about what their kids were learning.

"They weren't angry at their kids' history teachers, they were just angry about this story (that CRT is being taught in the classroom). And the boogeymen, if you will, that are being created by this messaging," he said.

The real work of the school board

When you put aside hot button topics on the national news, school boards deal with some very concrete and historically boring and technical issues," says Henig.

"They manage the district's budget and make decisions about building and closing schools; sometimes those more mundane issues are at odds with the political party which supported them."

In June, the DougCo school board voted 6-0 to notify the DougCo and Elbert county clerks' offices to put an MLO/bond issue on the ballot. Yet, increasing property taxes generally runs counter to Republican ideology.

Sampson said she'd seen board members elected on a single hot-button topic who eventually served multiple terms and changed their stance on some political values. "It's hard to look at minority students standing in front of you, telling you about issues that matter to them, and not be swayed," she said.

At the board's June retreat, a presenter asked each member why they wanted to serve on the board. Each director said they care about the district's kids and want to provide them with the best education possible.

DougCo's newest board members will serve four years before facing another election unless efforts to recall them are successful.

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