More than two dozen Woodland Park teachers and staff call out sick protesting school changes

Jenny Brundin/CPR News
Campaign signs in Woodland Park in Teller County often label certain candidates as “conservative.” There has been an increase in overt politicization of traditionally nonpartisan school board races. The Teller County Republican Party has donated to four candidates on one of the slates.

Twenty-five middle school teachers and staff in the Woodland Park school district northwest of Colorado Springs called out sick Wednesday to protest sudden changes in district schools. It’s the latest turmoil in the small district since a controversial new interim superintendent was selected in December.

The district announced Wednesday it will move sixth grade from middle schools to the already existing three pre-K through fifth-grade elementary schools. The district said the new configuration is a better use of space for Woodland Park Middle School and a public charter school, Merit Academy.

Teachers and staff members are upset because interim superintendent Ken Witt notified them of the changes on Tuesday. The move took place without consulting or collaborating with building administrators, students or parents, according to a group called Support Woodland Park Schools.

Some parents plan a demonstration in front of the middle school Thursday morning to support the staff. But district officials said in a letter to middle school staff that it received multiple complaints about the sick-out and that it caused significant disruption. 

“It is unconscionable that some would target Woodland Park families to elevate adult angst at the expense of our student’s classroom learning,” the district said in a press release.

The letter to middle school staff stated that starting Thursday, pay for employees who remain absent from work without a well-documented excuse will be docked. It said those who persist in their absence “will be subjected to appropriate disciplinary actions.”

The letter said such measures are necessary to maintain a productive and efficient learning environment for students.

District officials said bringing sixth grade back to elementary school allows students to “establish a solid foundation” in math and literacy before transitioning to a more complex middle school environment.

“Staying in elementary school for sixth grade allows students to focus on their academic and personal growth without feeling as much social pressure.”

It said the change allows sixth graders to take on leadership roles in the elementary school.

The selection of Ken Witt as interim superintendent has roiled the Woodland Park community. Witt was the president of the Jefferson County School District board from 2013-15 when he tried to push controversial changes to the history curriculum. Students districtwide walked out of school drawing national media attention. Witt and two other board members were eventually recalled.

In Woodland Park, one of Witt's first actions was paving the way for the school board to adopt the conservative American Birthright social studies standards, shortly after the state board of education had rejected those standards. A popular high school educator who spoke out on behalf of her students was also transferred to a district elementary school.

The interim superintendent is expected to address the middle school staff in person Thursday morning, according to parents.