Dougco board addresses principal shake-ups

CASTLE ROCK – Simultaneous school protests erupted at several locations across Douglas County Thursday – an expanded version of what has been happening for months in the divided school district.

Two of Dougco parent Meredith Massar’s daughters join friends in a “peaceful protest” outside the Douglas County Public Schools administration building Thursday.

Protesters raised concerns about familiar topics – budget cuts at a time when district reserve funds are growing, bigger class sizes and questions about how the district plans to pay for its pay-for-performance plan, which is now under revision.

Meredith Massar, 37, said when her now seventh-grade daughter was in third grade, she was in class with only 17 other students. Her middle daughter, now in fourth grade, had about 27 students in her third-grade classroom. Her first-grader is in now in class with 28 students.

“What will third grade look like when my first grader gets there?” Massar asked, as her daughters held banners and waved at passing cars in front of the district headquarters on Wilcox Street in downtown Castle Rock.

Massar said class size was limited by the teachers’ collective bargaining agreement. But Dougco teachers are now working without an agreement. 

Therefore, she said, “there is no cap on class sizes” and that the ability of teachers to individualize instruction has been damaged.

Principal shake-ups rattle parents

Also Thursday, a larger crowd of about 100 gathered at Heritage Elementary School to express dismay over how the district handled the abrupt firing of the school’s principal, Alan McQueen.

McQueen, along with Buffalo Ridge Elementary Principal Ally Berggren, lost their jobs last week after allegedly violating the district’s policy against substance abuse during work hours. Berggren resigned.

A few parents who attended Thursday night’s school board meeting said they were upset that the district sent email messages to parents that they believe violated the privacy rights of the two principals and kicked off a vicious rumor mill among parents, staff and students.

The Dec. 7 note to Buffalo Ridge parents, signed by the district’s Director of Elementary Education Patty Hanrahan, read:

We regret to inform you that effective immediately, Ally Berggren, Principal, has resigned her position for violating District policies regarding substance abuse [GBEC]. Ally is receiving treatment with support from the district and asks that you respect her privacy.  We recognize that you are concerned for her well-being and would like to send her positive messages. Please respect her personal needs moving forward and allow her time to focus on her recovery. 

Buffalo Ridge Elementary is a wonderful school.  We recognize that your community is a family and will work together to make this a positive transition. Lynn Bisesi, BRT/AP will serve as the leader of Buffalo Ridge until the interim principal for the remainder of this year can be named. We will continue to communicate with you regarding next steps. Thank you in advance for your support through this difficult situation.  

Please contact me directly with any questions.  

The district’s substance abuse policy requires immediate suspension and allows for termination if an employee is “knowingly in the possession of or under the influence of alcohol or any controlled substance” while on district property, at any school-sponsored or a sanctioned activity off district property, or on the way to work, according to a story in Our Colorado News.

Buffalo Ridge parent Kelly Contos said she was fine with the district following its policy but that the district’s release of personal information has wreaked havoc on staff and students. Another parent accused the district of violating HIPAA, a federal law that protects the privacy of people’s health information.

“Nobody questioned the policy,” Contos said. “They are upset by the way it was handled.”

Cristin Patterson, whose son is a second-grader at Heritage, had similar concerns.

“We feel he was treated unfairly,” Patterson said. “I speak on behalf of hundreds of parents. We are hurting. The way the situation has been and is being handled is not OK.”

Board President John Carson questioned why only a couple parents showed up at the meeting.

“I take it they couldn’t make it tonight?” Carson said.

Dougco Supt. Liz Fagen
Douglas County Superintendent Liz Fagen / File photo

Superintendent Liz Fagen said the district is prohibited from discussing personnel issues, which prompted a groan from the audience.

Board member Craig Richardson said he had “supreme confidence” that the “overwhelming majority of people who live in this county would agree with decision making in this case.”

“I am aware of the facts,” Richardson said. “There was no other decision to take in this case.”

As Richardson talked, Contos spoke up from the audience saying it wasn’t about the policy. To which Richardson replied, “We’re not having a discussion right now.”

Member Doug Benevento said a message had to be sent to the community to explain what happened.

“Hopefully it was something respectful to employees involved,” Benevento said.

$21 million boost to district’s value

On a different note, board members were pleased to learn that due to an accounting mistake in 2006, the district is worth $21.7 million more than they thought it was, based on net assets.

Board member Dan Gerken wanted to emphasize that this was only a case of “understated assets” and that there was “no fraud, no money missing or anything like that.”

His comments were confirmed by the auditor and Dougco schools CFO Bonnie Betz.

“This means the district is more valuable than we thought we were,” Richardson said. “It doesn’t mean we have more liquidity. It doesn’t mean cash was withhold from classrooms or hidden somehow.”

Fagen said she was glad to correct the “five-year-old error so we can move forward with cleaner numbers.”

Betz went over the district’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, noting that the district has an $18.1 million fund balance, which is greater than expected due to $1 million in additional property taxes collected and a cancelled $1 million transfer from the general fund to another fund.

Executive session questions

Before the board met Thursday, members held a two-hour executive session to discuss, among other things, the district’s adherence to the safe schools policy and school board districting boundaries.

“These are public documents … that impact every citizen of Douglas County. I’m curious why any of this would be discussed behind closed doors.”
– Cindy Barnard

Resident Cindy Barnard, a parent who became a plaintiff in the lawsuit challenging the district’s voucher pilot program, asked why those items were discussed behind closed doors.

Further, Barnard said any tweaks to the district’s safe schools policy in the past would have been discussed by a district policy review committee which since has been disbanded.

“That gave the public the opportunity to review policy.”

Board member Richardson said state law explicitly allows the board to get legal advice privately to protect attorney-client privilege.

As for the school board boundaries, he pointed out that all board members serve at-large. However they must live in certain boundaries to ensure representation from across the county. District D and E didn’t have enough people; while F and G had too many. So lines are being redrawn to clean up boundaries and make the population in each district more equitable.

The boundaries are examined every four years to reflect current Census data.

“There is nothing sinister or mysterious,” Richardson said. “Were we to do otherwise we would waive the privilege.”


Laura Mutton, representing the Strong Schools Coalition, brought up the issue of the district’s pay-for-performance plan for teachers, questioning how the district planned to pay for it.

“When asking the community to support a bond and mill levy in 2011, the district made it clear that pay-for-performance could not proceed without additional funding,” Mutton said. “It causes great confusion in the community to … see cuts to our high schools and then see a new pay-for-performance plan under development less than a year later. Where are the resources coming from to support this system?”

Board member Kevin Larsen said that even though a proposed tax increase didn’t pass in 2011, the district was committed to paying teachers based on their performance rather than on their years of service.

“Just because 3A didn’t pass doesn’t mean you can’t have pay-for-performance,” Larsen said.

Richardson concurred. However, he added that the speed at which the district’s ability can launch the system is “degraded.”

“We’re not going to stop because we have a disagreement,” he said. “We will  relentlessly push for a concept we believe in.”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede