By: Suzie Glassman/NewsBreak Denver
(Castle Rock, CO) On a bright, cool Sunday morning, DougCo school board president Mike Peterson and superintendent Erin Kane, along with Sagewood Middle School principal Ben D'Ardenne, DCSD communications officer Stacy Rader, and DCSD's director of parent, community, and civic engagement Alison Rausch gather in a parking lot to map out the houses they'll hit with campaign flyers in the Cobblestone Ranch neighborhood.
Familiar with the neighborhood, D'Ardenne directs the group to an area of homes more likely to house older voters who may not have kids in the district. The goal is clearly to reach those who could be reluctant to vote yes on ballot initiatives 5A and 5B, a mill levy override (MLO) and bond that would raise teacher and staff salaries and build new neighborhood schools.
"Teachers, district staff, and families with kids most likely already know about the request for funding," says Peterson. "We're trying to reach those who don't."
Conversations with voters
Brochures in hand, the group gets to work, careful not to knock on the many doors with "no soliciting" signs. As Peterson walks, he sounds hopeful that the board's work and the district's leaders will turn public opinion in favor of the two initiatives.
"My favorite is when I knock on a door, and the person who answers wants to get into a debate," says Peterson.
"Last weekend, a resident said there was no way he would support that 'bull shit' board," Peterson shrugged. "I told him I was the president of that 'bull shit' board. We didn't come to an agreement, but you can't win them all."
Other residents are easier to sway. One gentleman said he moved here from California and couldn't understand why teachers in DougCo get paid so much less. "What about the teacher's union? Can't they negotiate better wages?" he asked.
Peterson responded that the local teacher's union hadn't had a collective bargaining agreement with the district since 2012, and several iterations of the board (regardless of political persuasion) have voted no on any attempts to reinstate one.
"It's difficult for people to understand how the district got this way," says Peterson. But he's confident the board's one employee, Kane, has done a fantastic job educating voters on school funding in Colorado.
He says that once voters realize that wealthy Douglas County gets less per-pupil funding from the state because it earns more in property taxes, in a state-driven effort to equal the playing field for poor counties, it's like a lightbulb goes off.
"I've stood in front of a room of people with their arms folded and watched as they slowly lean in to what I'm saying. By the end, they're asking how they can help," says Peterson.
Opposition from the Republican party
Peterson says he can handle the pushback from independent or Democratic community members who don't agree with some of what he's done as president of the school board. Still, it's harder to understand scorn from members of his party.
"People have called me a sell out for supporting a tax increase," he says. "But my third campaign priority as a candidate clearly stated I wanted to close the compensation gap between our district and surrounding ones. I don't understand why they're surprised."
In Colorado, the only way to increase the budget is to ask voters to improve an MLO, something the conservative majority in DougCo hasn't been willing to do. Only one MLO has passed in more than a decade.
"Perhaps, the best case scenario is that the DougCo Republican party hasn't actively opposed the measure," he says.
Optimism remains high
Peterson says most people respond favorably to the door-knocking, if not outright surprised.
One woman answered the door looking shocked to see Peterson on her doorstep. "I know you," she said. "I'm not sure if that's good or bad," laughed Peterson.
While she didn't give away her position on the issue, his presence made an impression.
Peterson says he's optimistic they've managed to change a good majority of the minds of the 61% of people who said they wouldn't support the new funding measures during a poll of DougCo voters earlier this year.
Mostly, he hopes they've had enough time to get the word out.