By John Aguilar
Published November 5, 2016 in Denver Post
A conservative civic leadership program headed by a former Republican U.S. congressman has assumed a significant role — and stirred up controversy — in the Douglas County School Board’s protracted effort to seat a final director.
Leadership Program of the Rockies, which has a connection to one of the candidates vying for the vacant position, has been characterized by a number of district leaders and community members as a wedge organization that is having the effect of politicizing what should be a nonpartisan process.
The leading candidate for the post, health care executive and military veteran Steve Peck, took a Leadership course last year as did board member Judith Reynolds and board president Meghann Silverthorn in years past. At a board meeting last month, board member Anne-Marie Lemieux said Pecks’s involvement with Leadership, which supports school choice and voucher initiatives, amounted to an “extreme political affiliation.”
She pleaded with Silverthorn, Reynolds and Jim Geddes, all of whom are backing Peck for the seat, to settle on an alternate candidate who is less “politically controversial.”
“We don’t need that,” she said, especially at a time when the board has been bitterly divided over which philosophy of education to promote in the 67,000-student district.
The selection process is at a deadlock, with no candidate able to muster the four votes necessary to move forward. The rules dictate that Silverthorn, as president, make the choice in the absence of a consensus. That could happen as early as Monday.
Board member Wendy Vogel said the three board members representing the conservative public school reform movement, through their intransigence in not considering anyone but Peck, are putting their ideology ahead of their concern for the district.
“Their priorities and points of view are more important than those of the people we were elected to represent,” she wrote The Denver Post in an e-mail.
Vogel, and her two allies on the board, said the Leadership connection is only part of their objection to Peck. They cite the fact that the candidate has hardly any education experience and little involvement with district schools.
They also cite the fact that the candidate has only lived in the district he wants to represent for less than half a year and sends his children to a private school. They also worry about his lack of commitment to backing a possible bond measure and mill levy override that would raise much needed revenues in the district.
Board member David Ray said it’s noteworthy — and concerning — that so many Douglas County School Board directors, past and present, have been through Leadership Program of the Rockies courses. That includes former members Kristine Turner and Jill Repella, who is now a Douglas County commissioner.
“It does give one pause to understand why this common thread is so prevalent in our current and past board directors,” Ray said. “Everyone has the right to their personal affiliations and ideologies, but as a school board we are required to perform in a nonpartisan manner.”
Former U.S. Rep. Bob Schaffer , who is chair of Leadership’s board and principal at Liberty Common School in Fort Collins, said the organization is not controversial and education policy is only a small part of its focus.
“We spend an enormous amount of time focusing on the Founding Fathers and the Declaration of Independence in an academic setting,” he said. “We make a compelling case to adhere to the precepts of the Constitution — namely that government should be small.”
Embedded in that guiding message is the idea that parents, rather than government bureaucrats, should be the ones intimately involved in their children’s education. Thus his organization supports charter schools and voucher programs, he said.
“And the groups that tend to form to oppose these notions are the teachers’ unions and Democrats,” Schaffer said.