Updated 6:54 p.m.
About a thousand Douglas County School district teachers, parents and supporters gathered outside district offices in Castle Rock in below-freezing temperatures on Thursday to protest some of the recent actions of the school board majority and to advocate for transparency and due process.
“We teach our students right and wrong, it’s time to teach the board,” read one of the signs a protesting teacher held. Large groups of students also joined the rally with signs that said “Honesty matters” and “Kids first? Here we are.”
In the last few weeks, the slate of board members elected in November 2021 voted to change an equity policy against the objections of 65 principals and central office staff, and have been accused of violating open meeting laws by privately meeting with Superintendent Corey Wise to pressure him to quit.
More than 1,500 teachers called in absent on Thursday in protest, forcing the district to close schools. There are about 3,300 teachers in the 64,000-student district. In a letter to staff, the district stated all DCSD employees who didn’t indicate they would be taking a sick or personal time off day Thursday were expected to report to their normal work location at their regularly scheduled time.
Threats to name teachers who call-out sick on Thursday were circulating on social media. That didn’t sit well with many parents.
“I feel like it is unethical and I feel like it is a threat, and I think it’s horrific and disgusting and inhumane,” said parent Keri Beaumont.
Teachers, parents, students come out in support
Teacher and parent Melinda Highsmith said she was braving the cold in Castle Rock because of the secrecy of the school board majority’s actions.
“It's really important that the community and the kids see that there's just no room for politics in education, and things are getting ugly,” she said. “It's not good for kids.”
Highsmith also said that many teachers support the superintendent and aren’t happy with the push to get rid of Wise.
“Every teacher that I know loves him. He's been in public education for almost 30 years in Douglas County. He knows what's best for kids,” she said. Spontaneous shouts of “Keep Corey” punctuated the rally, as educators, parents and students marched around school district headquarters. A petition, SaveCoreyWise.com was started that has garnered more than 8,700 signatures.
“If anybody in this district shows integrity and bleeds blue (the school color of Legend High) because he loves this district so much, it’s Corey,” said veteran social studies teacher Kendra Gish who has known Wise for many years. “He has been here for 26 years, he did his student teaching here, his teaching, he was a dean, he was an administrator, he was a principal … director of schools, and now a superintendent. He is the best person for this job.”
Gish, who has taught in Douglas County for 21 years, said the turmoil has been hard on teachers, and for many teachers at the rally, the past week brought back memories of an earlier era in Douglas County school board politics.
“I am terrified,” Gish said. “I’m terrified for our kids’ education. I’ve lived this. I’m absolutely terrified of what’s going to happen.”
She’s referring to a school board era that began in 2009. Gish remembers issues with transparency and fiscal responsibility and ultimately an academic decline in the district. A school board majority with a “reform” agenda ushered in a now-defunct voucher program and an unpopular performance-based teacher pay plan. Nearly 18 percent of teachers left the district in 2014.
When Gish heard about the private meeting in which Wise was asked to resign or be fired, she felt whiplash.
“The minute I heard it I had a panic attack,” she said. “I’ve never had a panic attack. I started shaking. I couldn’t breathe. I’ve never experienced that before. But all of the trauma I experienced from the previous board came back and it came back in a huge wave.”
A big contingent turned out from Legend High School in support of the superintendent. Wise was a principal there for many years.
“I know our teachers have a really big love and respect for him,” said high school senior Sydney Roguske.
“He’s crossed lines, helped build bridges between different perspectives,” said first-grade teacher Joelle Brummett. “This just really upset me.”
Closed session meeting planned Friday
The board of education is scheduled to meet in a closed executive session tomorrow night, followed by a discussion about the superintendent’s contract and the future direction of the district. The school district declined to comment about Thursday’s rally.
Concern about an abrupt change in district leadership with questions raised about transparency and due process was registered Thursday outside of Douglas County.
Nearly 100 superintendents from across Colorado are meeting for the winter conference of the Colorado Association of School Executives, which represent the state’s superintendents.
Bret Miles, executive director said what’s happening in Douglas County fosters distrust, impacting the entire school culture from building principals to educators.
“If districts have the responsibility of local control, you have to do it right. When this kind of thing happens, we need county businesses and community members to step out and clearly communicate to the board that process matters.”
“Superintendents are watching this and they’re watching this really closely,” said Miles. “They are more discerning than ever about which positions in which districts they’ll work for.”
Change to equity policy controversial
Another issue that has angered many at the rally was possible changes to the district’s equity policy. The policy calls for for establishing a system for identifying racist practices and discriminatory behaviors. The new board majority recently passed a resolution calling for changes to the policy, which they say has led to “shaming and retaliation against teachers, students and staff who express views and opinions that are counter to others’ views and opinions,” according to school board member Kaylee Winegar.
Beaumont, a mother of three students in the district, said the equity policy was years in the making and had input from administrators, parents, teachers and students and received unanimous approval from the board last year.
“It is devastating,” she said.
Her friend Christine Robinson, who is Latina, said there aren’t many brown people in Douglas County, her home for the past 20 years.
“As soon as we start to control how history is presented, then we’re already in trouble … we start banning books and those sorts of things.”
She recalls when former President Donald Trump was elected, there were kids at her grandson’s school who began chanting “build the wall, build the wall.”
“That had to hurt his feelings quite a bit to be one of the only (Latino) kids in the school and hearing that … It’s just very important to be sure that you’re represented and there are policies in place that help protect the kids from that sort of thing.”
‘It shows solidarity’
For many parents and students who attended the rally, it came back to simply supporting the teachers.
Christine Rodriguez has a fifth-grader and a seventh-grader in the district and said that anytime a community sees teachers worked up enough to call in sick, then it’s a “big deal.”
“And I feel like we need to be out here to support them in that,” she said. “I hear about teachers leaving the district. I hear about fellow parents looking to move out of the district and take their kids elsewhere. Douglas County is a very privileged county where people have that ability, but there are certainly people that don't have that ability. Who's left to help and stick up for them?” Rodriguez said.
Groups of high school students from Ponderosa High, Chaparral High, ThunderRidge High and Legend High, among others turned out to the rally.
“It shows solidarity, that kids really care about their teachers,” said Josh Ilano, a student at Legend High School. “Kids are mobilized. Kids are energized to speak on issues they really care about.”
He questions the board majority’s campaign slogan, “Kids First.” Ilano said kids want their teachers to be cared for so “if the board doesn’t care, are we truly first?”
“It’s really concerning that this board is going behind teachers' backs, going behind what kids and parents want, for their interests. It’s their interest and their motives rather than anyone else,” he said.
Hundreds of cars honked support for teachers, with only one or two shouting derogatory comments towards teachers. Educator Caren Keller said it was gratifying to see so many people turnout at the rally.
“You don’t feel alone anymore.”
CPR's Alison Borden contributed to this story.
Previous coverage of the Douglas County School District:
- Feb. 2: Douglas County schools to close Thursday as teachers call ‘sick out’ to protest school board majority
- Jan. 31: Douglas County School board’s conservative majority make surprise move to oust superintendent after potential illegal meeting
- Nov. 4: A conservative slate of candidates won big in the Douglas County school board race this year. The election results elsewhere were more complicated
- Oct. 26: Face masks required for Douglas County schools, judge rules
- Oct. 20: The Douglas County School District is suing its county health department over orders that make masks optional for students
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