Douglas County schools focus of local education debate

Castle Rock-based documentary filmmaker Brian Malone spent the last two years watching — and filming — Douglas County School Board members champion vouchers that sent students and taxpayer money to private and religious schools, policies that meant more classes for teachers, and a push for market-based pay rates over union negotiations.

Those policies led to a sizable fund balance of $83 million for Douglas County School District in 2011-12, Malone said, along with more work for teachers, budget cuts for schools, and a legal battle over the constitutionality of the voucher system.

Malone, who presented the self-funded documentary he made about his observations Monday night at Mesa Theater, “The Reformers,” said after a free viewing of the film attended by nearly 150 people that he fears Mesa County Valley School District 51 could be the next school district to see policies that favor private schools and profits. District 51 School Board members Jeff Leany and Ann Tisue visited Douglas County’s district administration last month, a trip both said was productive and may give them ideas for considering some of that district’s reforms in Mesa County, although they did not specify which reforms they may entertain.

Mesa County Republican Women have endorsed three candidates for District 51 School Board to “help” “our two,” Mesa County Republican Women President Linda Gregory said, referring to Tisue and Leany at a recent Republican luncheon. The three candidates endorsed by the party, Pat Kanda, Mike Lowenstein and John Sluder have each said they are interested in changing education, either through returning to older methods of teaching or new reforms, but have not decided on specific methods.

Mesa County Democrats will not endorse candidates this fall. Teacher representative group Mesa Valley Education Association and citizen group Save Our Students are supporting three other candidates in the seven-person race for three seats this November: Greg Mikolai, Tom Parrish and John Williams.

Although Republican-backed candidates were elected on a reform agenda in 2009 and 2011 in Douglas County, Malone said it’s not politics people should be worried about in this election.

“Despite what the local perception may be, it isn’t about politics. There’s a veneer that it’s about politics,” Malone said, adding he has seen people champion the same reforms in majority Democrat communities as well. “It’s about economics. It’s about profit. Profiteers will metastasize to whatever is the dominant party.”

Mount Garfield Middle School teacher Heather O’Brien told the audience she is paying attention to this year’s school board election because she is concerned about the possibility of District 51 becoming like Douglas County, especially because Tisue and Leany skipped the last day of MVEA negotiations earlier this year and because a friend of hers told her he got a call from the Mesa County Republican Party saying they were rallying the vote to “take back the school board.”

“If some people want to view this as a battlefield then we need to arm ourselves with information and knowledge,” she said. “I urge you to vote and don’t just vote party line…This election, the stakes are too high. If you aren’t informed as a voter and if you don’t inform your friends, co-workers and colleagues, you may be helping to create something you never intended.”


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