First Person

Voices: A call for transparency in Dougco

Susan Meek, a Douglas County parent and former district spokeswoman, says Dougco board members are spending too much time behind closed doors and failing to listen to their community.

A key component for building trust and cohesiveness in a school district revolves around transparency and accountability. The Douglas County school board has violated that trust with its public.

As demonstrated on this chart, a growing dependence on private executive sessions during what should be public meetings has been a troubling trend. Previous Douglas County school boards spent on average 8 percent of their meeting time in executive sessions. The current school board now spends more than half its time behind closed doors.

A Castle Rock police officer and Dougco security talk to Brian Malone, right, a Dougco parent and journalist who was taping the Dougco school board’s Aug. 7 meeting. Castle Rock police escorted Malone out of the building moments later because he was outside a taped-off area for media. <a href="" target="_blank">See video</a> of the encounter.

When questioned, the response is that the current legal issues around vouchers and the teachers union requires this extra time. However, the current school board spends 30 minutes less per public meeting on average than the previous school board.

What happens to the regular school business that loses out because the Douglas County school board is prioritizing the voucher lawsuit and busting the union over discussing pertinent educational issues? Such issues include the reasons behind the district’s state accreditation dropping from Accredited with Distinction to Accredited, bullying prevention, special education services, 21st century skills to prepare all students for life, and the list goes on.

Any business owner understands that resources are limited and their allocation is critical to either having a successful or failed business. If the school board believes deeply in the need to allocate their resources toward issues that result in two-hour executive sessions each and every school board meeting, those public meetings should then last an extra two hours beyond the time needed to still achieve the important and significant work required of running a successful school district.

Recently, the legality and validity of what transpires during those closed-door meetings has been called into question. On July 26, the board held a special meeting to discuss education reform efforts under consideration for the November election. The board erroneously cited its reason for executive session as “legal advice regarding statutory notice requirements for coordinating elections.”

This policy discussion would not provide a valid reason for an executive session as delineated by Colorado law. Nearly the entire meeting was held behind closed doors and no public discussions between board members took place during the 72 minutes of that meeting (about four minutes of the meeting was open to the public and consisted of votes without any discussion).

After repeated requests have gone unanswered, a public petition is now underway requesting the board to change its practices to improve transparency and to schedule a special meeting to discuss the education reform efforts they are currently deliberating. Yet the secrecy continues, free speech is being limited and First Amendment rights are being stripped away.

The following actions of the school board demonstrate unacceptable behavior by these government officials:

  • Public comment at board meetings has been changed to make the public’s participation much more difficult for the average citizen. It is scheduled at the beginning of the meeting when most working adults are commuting home, is limited to 30 minutes regardless of the number of citizens who sign up to talk and is scheduled to proceed a two-hour executive session where the individuals would need to wait around to attend the public portion of the meeting to begin.
  • The community engagement meeting that was previously scheduled for Aug. 21 was canceled with no public discussion as to why.
  • Emails and Colorado Open Records Act requests go unanswered or delayed beyond the legal requirements.
  • A parent was removed from the Aug. 7 meeting due to disorderly conduct simply because he chose to videotape outside of the designated area (a new verbal policy of the district enacted that night). You can see video of the removal here.
  • Employees are working under a draft handbook.
  • Employees are asked to accept positions without knowing what their pay will be.
  • Employees are prohibited from sending mass emails regardless of the topic without prior approval.

It is a common practice for school boards to engage with their public in a positive, respectful and healthy dialogue. By honoring the diverse expertise and abilities of the community members, the board of education can craft plans that are far superior to ones developed without public input. By working to limit the voices of the students, parents, employees and citizens, the board is acting in a manner that is detrimental to all.

As a Douglas County taxpayer with children in district schools, I encourage the board of education to look for ways to connect with the community and to be transparent with its actions. Instead of canceling public engagement meetings, it should schedule extra meetings to speak to the public about its ideas and plans for moving the district forward. The public is eager to listen and ready to engage.

The requests made to the board, the public petition and a video of the July 26 special meeting are posted at The public should not be taken out of public school board meetings. We have a right to know what our democratically-elected government officials are planning for our children.

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.