Dozens of parents and students from STEM School Highlands Ranch crowded a school board meeting Tuesday night to fight for the future of the school. The Douglas County Board of Education has proposed only a one-year extension of the charter contract instead of the five years the school sought.
Outside the meeting on Main Street in Castle Rock, protesters waved signs in support of the school.
Parents told the board that students are still reeling from the May 7 shooting that killed Senior Kendrick Castillo and shouldn’t face uncertainty about the school’s fate.
After three hours of sometimes angry and tearful public comment, the board decided to table the decision to extend STEM’s contract by one year. Instead, both sides will try to negotiate an agreement before June 29, which is the day before the school’s contract expires.
STEM is an independently run charter school. In January, board members had recommended a three-year extension which the school balked at. STEM moved to appeal the decision to the State School Board. Both sides jointly agreed to resolve the disagreement — then the shooting happened. Efforts were then directed to the support of students, staff and families of STEM.
If the two sides don’t come to an agreement, a one-year extension to the current contract goes into effect.
Board members stressed that the one-year extension proposal was not a threat, but rather “a way for us to be able to continue with those negotiations,” said board member Wendy Vogel.
Board member Krista Holtzmann said STEM should continue to serve students but she had significant concerns about the school even before May 7 and those have not been resolved, adding that “new facts” have come to light since then.
“We have to have cooperation. I just haven’t seen that,” Holtzman said.
Several students and parents said the uncertainty of the school’s future is “revictimizing” a community reeling from the tragedy. Parent Nicole Churchill-Jones asked the board to approve the five-year charter contract.
“It would be good because it puts our students, our teachers, our staff, our whole school at ease,” she said. “Our stress level is already through the roof.”
Most who testified said the school has served their children well, both for academic and mental health support. Some parents said STEM saved their children who were bullied at other schools or weren’t academically challenged elsewhere.
Gregg McGough said his son, a “high performing, over-achieving geek,” thrives at the school. He said the school should be praised for its preparedness and the actions taken that prevented greater loss of life.
He was concerned that the administration “appears to be hiding.” He said all contact information for the STEM board and school administration was removed from the STEM website and all official emails were sent from do-not-reply emails accounts.
STEM executive director Penny Eucker argues that a one-year contract would be costly.
The school would like to issue a $15 million bond next spring to buy part of their building that is now leased, pay off a loan and build a field house. Eucker said investors like long term commitments. A one-year contract would make the bond interest rates higher, which might add a cost of $5 million.
She and others argued that it feels like STEM school is being singled out when other charter schools without the same high ratings received five-year renewals in January.
The board agreed to meet with STEM sometime within the next six business days to try to finalize a contract in June. If no agreement is reached, the board will meet in a special session on June 29 to vote on the one-year extension.
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