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.
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.
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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.
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.”
“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.
– 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.
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.”