By Cristin Patterson (via email)
March 7, 2014
Dear Mr. Nelson Garcia (9News Education Reporter),
This email is to follow up with you on our conversation Saturday, March 1, 2014 regarding the first Douglas County School District ‘Board Unplugged’ meeting. You opened your news segment Saturday night, saying that “For years, Douglas County Schools have been the subject of strong emotions. Monday night, at Cimarron Middle School, the district may be moving towards changing that.” You ended the segment with, “We will see how things go here, Monday night.”
Well, I attended the meeting on Monday March 3, 2014 with hope that it would be productive and the beginning of open, honest, and respectful dialogue between the school board and members of the community. Unfortunately, it was not. This meeting did not help to foster healing or coming together in Douglas County.
I joined about 60 parents, teachers and community members, hoping to offer productive input to our district officials. I had every intention to give this “outreach” attempt a chance to succeed.
As you know, the board decided to hold candidate interviews for the vacant board spot, in which there is no public input, as part of this meeting. The public portion of this “public forum,” a meeting for “public engagement and interaction,” didn’t begin until after 7:30pm because the candidate interviews ran late. This allowed only one hour of what was originally billed as 2 to 2-1/2 hours of public engagement about any topics relating to the district.
After the interviews, we took seats at about 10 tables. We were shown a presentation of Capital needs, showing things needing to be repaired or updated in our schools – over $260,000,000 worth! It was a lot of information and we tried to take legible, decipherable notes. We were told we would be discussing the presentation afterward, with our tables.
We were shown outdated bathrooms, cracks in parking lots, cracks in foundations, boilers that needed to be replaced, and we were told that our phone systems could fail at any time, among many other needs. In this same presentation was a proposal for a K-8 Special Education facility that would save taxpayers money and classroom space, and somehow help with our Capital funding, or else we needed capital funding to build it. None of the audience understood this and it raised strong concerns. A woman even stood up at the end of the meeting to voice her concerns, in tears, about what appeared to be a degree of segregation of children with Special Education needs. No answers or clarification were given except something about a 3 semester time-frame for reintegration back into regular classrooms.
After the presentation, the question we were to discuss at our respective tables was whether or not the district should ask voters to approve a bond to pay for these capital improvements, and if so, should it be on the 2014 ballot or the 2015 ballot? Table discussions began at 8pm. There were five board members present, along with the CFO, Bonnie Betz. Ms. Betz visited briefly with a few tables, but the board members did not circulate. Five tables had discussion with board members.
At 8:15pm, Mr. Larsen announced one person from each table would present a summary of their discussions. He passed the microphone to the first table who said that sadly, due to the widespread lack of trust in Douglas County, voters would never approve a bond. They expressed the need for a parent and teacher survey and asked when we could expect one. Mr. Larsen, said, “thank you,” to them and proceeded to give the microphone to the next table. People were asking why he was not responding to the first table before moving on. And he continued, undeterred, to the next table.
The next table said essentially the same thing, as quoted here, in the Highlands Ranch Herald:
“I’m that parent and most of us are that would (in the past) have voted and have voted `yes’ for the bond every year of our lives,” Laura Alfano said, but noted money spent to bring in a pro-district speaker before the November board elections, update the website and other financial decisions raised concerns. “If we need new phones and the roofs are falling down, why do we need a PR firm? Please help us trust you and we will help you build and fix everything.”
Again, there was no response from Larsen, or any other board members in the room. He just said, “thank you,” and proceeded to the next table until all tables had presented their summaries. With each table he passed off, emotions grew stronger. How could he be doing this at a “public engagement” opportunity? He would not respond. Not even, “we are aware of that and are taking steps toward improving that,” or “we will need to look into that,” – nothing. None of the board members seemed to be taking notes during the table summaries and it did not appear they were documenting any of our concerns. Several parents did record their table discussions, personally, and those recordings may be available to you.
At 8:30pm after each table had presented their summary, he ended the meeting with: “That was great feedback. Rather than get feedback on another issue (as planned), we can do that at another meeting.”
I asked Mr. Larsen, after the meeting was dismissed, how they were going to address our concerns. He told me they were taking notes and would collect our notes that were left on the tables. I don’t think there were many turned in because this was not communicated to us, and most had used the provided pamphlet to take notes during the presentation.
Mr. Larsen “thanked” the community members this week in a district email publication called ‘Newsline’ that is sent out to all DCSD parents.
He said, “I would like to thank those who took time out of their busy schedules to attend. I believe this was a great opportunity to talk about issues currently before the board, provide factual information, and gather community feedback.”
An article in the Highlands Ranch Herald has a very different summary.
“Larsen stated that he heard “loud and clear” the comments from audience members about trust and other issues, but said he wants to be sure the district is hearing from a broad cross-section of the community. “I don’t think the message we got last night was necessarily (from) a cross section of our entire population,” he said. ”
Since the Capital needs was the topic of discussion at this “unplugged” meeting, I also became concerned today when I came across this solicitation, on the DCSD web site, for Architectural design qualifications for a “Concept Design for 21st Century Learning Pre K-8 Magnet School,” dated February, 2014. (Click here)
I am concerned that the District is able to award $25,000 honorarium to EACH PARTICIPANT meeting the criteria established in the RFCD, and am concerned if there is already money allocated to the construction of this “School of Choice,” or if funding will be sought in the future. With so much need demonstrated to us for Capital improvements in our existing buildings, how can this be justified as a responsible use of our taxpayer dollars? I would like the District administrators copied in this email to answer where and when this proposal has been discussed with the public?
Thank you for the time you have dedicated to our schools and for listening.