Gag orders on teachers, cutting mental health support, operating in the dark — what’s happening in Woodland Park?

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Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The Woodland Park school board at a meeting on April 12, 2023.

By most accounts, the school district in Woodland Park in Teller County was doing well. 

Test scores were up, more students were participating in activities, the school climate was better than ever. There are schools with gardens. Good athletic programs. A fine drama program.

But two years ago, voters swept in a new school board with new and different ideas for the district. They enacted a series of lightning-speed policy changes — big ones that include mental health staffing and social studies curriculum and a gag order on teachers.

Now, many educators are feeling demonized and quitting, and parents are feeling demoralized and leaving. They say the nationwide culture war has come to roost in Woodland Park, just northwest of Colorado Springs, home to about 8,000 people.

At least one newly elected board member takes the war metaphor to heart. A month after taking his seat, David Illingworth laid out a strategy in an email to the board president.

Illingworth described the “flood zone tactic” — advancing on many fronts at the same time so “then the enemy cannot fortify, defend, effectively counter-attack at any one front. Divide, scatter, conquer. Trump was great at this.” He later told local media he was referring to a political strategy.

It’s unclear who the “enemy” is — teachers, administrators, students, parents, or all of the above. It’s also unclear whether anyone is winning. Three administrators with more than 60 years combined experience in the district resigned within a month of each other after the new interim superintendent was brought on in December. Others have been fired this spring. Teachers staged a sickout in March and students protested in December. 

“They're not interested in improving the school district,” said one teacher who is leaving. “They're interested in killing it.” 

Most teachers CPR News spoke to asked to be anonymous because the district has banned teachers from speaking to the media without the superintendent’s approval. Other educators who have spoken out have been removed from a school or fired.

The new interim superintendent Ken Witt said that the board is doing what it was elected to do: focusing on academics, transparency and choice.

“We're going to support our parents' ability to be involved in the education of their child, and we're going to make Woodland Park School District the destination school district in the area.” 

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Woodland Park Schools Superintendent Ken Witt, at a school board m meeting April 12, 2023.

What happens when an election changes the makeup of a school board in a school district? So far, a lot of changes. 

The changes began almost as soon as the new board was sworn in 2021. But the speed of new policy adoption coincided with the board’s December hire of a controversial figure in Colorado’s education world, Witt. 

Witt is the former president of the Jefferson County School Board who was recalled in a high-profile election in 2015. And what Witt and his board majority tried to do in Jeffco a decade ago is showing up again in Woodland Park. That includes approving more charter schools, introducing surprise board motions, changing the history curriculum, and fueling animosity for the teacher’s union. Witt is also turning to a familiar face. 

Brad Miller, the same Colorado Springs attorney who was hired by the Jeffco board, is now advising Witt, the Woodland Park board, and a number of other school boards in Colorado.

According to Witt, the district wasn’t doing well before the new board’s arrival. 

Over the last decade, enrollment had dropped in Woodland Park by about a thousand students to 1,800. That’s consistent with other small rural districts in the region like Cheyenne Mountain and Cripple Creek. He said the addition of a public charter school has brought 290 students back.

“Choice attracts families, being able to have something to choose from,” Witt said. “Choice doesn't exist if everything looks the same.”

Witt believes he has the support of parents, pointing to enrollment increases and the recall effort against the board failing to get enough signatures. 

“The community has spoken,” he said. “I believe that change has been voted in, in Woodland Park."

How did we get here?

The politicization of school boards is happening across the state and nation. And some wonder if Woodland Park is a canary in the coal mine for other districts in Colorado. 

“If you've been in education for a while, you should watch closely the politics of your local school board,” said former Woodland Park High teacher David Graf. “Pay close attention especially if you care about public education.”

Bret Miles, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives, the organization that represents school superintendents, said much power rests with local school boards in Colorado.

“What’s happening in Woodland Park is an example of how much local races matter,” he said. “As long as the school board has the power, and has the support of voters, has largely unengaged voters, is willing to go against the will of the voters, they can hire a like-minded individual who may not be a leader who the community supports. This can create an incredibly frustrating and challenging dynamic that only further divides a district and ultimately impacts students.”

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Former Woodland Park High School English and language arts teacher David Graf, stands outside the school on April 12, 2023.

In interviews with CPR, teachers used the words “fear” “terrified” “scared to death” and “intimidated” when asked about the school board and interim superintendent Witt.

In the past three months, the board has accomplished a surprising amount, contributing to the turmoil and upsetting many. CPR News found the board has:

  • Rejected applying for grants to keep most of the district’s mental health and social-emotional social workers and therapists.
  • Implemented a “gag” order on educators, prohibiting them from posting about school matters on social media or talking to reporters without prior superintendent approval.
  • Fired a middle school staffer for allegedly violating the “gag” policy though it was revised after she was fired and backdated, according to copies of the policies.
  • Adopted a conservative social studies standard after the state board of education rejected it. 
  • Discontinued an elective class after someone complained about a book being taught in the course, “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. 
  • In this school year, moved sixth grade from middle school to the district’s elementary schools with no apparent school board or staff discussion, and against the wishes of a majority in a survey.
  • Approved a charter school against the opinion of most surveyed families. A judge ordered the board to be honest after it hid the agenda item about the charter school under “board housekeeping.” The board also faces allegations that it didn’t follow charter approval procedures outlined in law.
  • Eliminated or fired several people in administration, including the person who responded to Colorado Open Records Act requests. There are also allegations that the board is purposely delaying open record requests and illegally withholding public documents. A judge ordered the release of one video showing board members speaking to a superintendent candidate after a board meeting.
  • Proselytizing publicly during comment periods at board meetings, using time instead meant for student and community testimony. The board president has also used his official board email address to proselytize, inviting fellow board members to join his church and receive Jesus as their savior.

Witt disagrees with the contention that there is significant pushback to the changes he is making.

“I think the vast majority of the community is ecstatic with the direction and results that they're seeing,” he said. “Organized opposition is often loud and highly visible, and rarely the majority.”

In other school districts, major decisions like these generally involve nuanced, public discussions between elected board members. They also involve seeking input from academic or mental health experts, conferring with educators, administrators and families. That hasn’t happened in Woodland Park.

Witt visited with teachers at each school after some of these decisions and explained his philosophy: His focus was on academics and he wanted to run education like a business. Decisions will be made fast, he said. They may fail fast, but then it’s on with the next better idea. 

A teacher at one of the meetings said she was confused by his multiple references to business.

“Unconfuse yourself,” he responded. “We run education like a business.”

The meetings were contentious and stormy, with teachers pleading with Witt to include them before making dramatic decisions. They asked for board members to visit the schools, walk the hallways and meet families. They say that isn’t happening either.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
A line forms to sign up for the public comment period before a Woodland Park School Board meeting on April 12, 2023.

Divide in the community

In Colorado, there’s nothing preventing a district from making major, rapid-fire changes. State officials have little authority when districts appear to cross the line or fail to meet on academic or board policy matters. The only tangible consequence so far in Woodland Park has been the loss of teachers and some families. 

Almost a third of teachers left after the year the school board was elected. It’s unknown how many will resign this year, but many expect the number to be considerable. And some families are leaving. 

At the April board meeting, Craig Johnson, who described himself as a “pro-life,” “gun-loving” Woodland Park native, announced he is moving his five children into another district.

Not everyone agrees. Deb Bruner has two grandchildren, one in the charter middle school and one in the other, traditional middle school in the same building.

“Each choice works well for that child,” she said. “ I want to express gratitude and encouragement for this school board making hard decisions in spite of the opposition.”

She said she’s appalled by the amount of hatred and dissension in the community now.

Ban on speaking to the media

Educators Mary Ward and David Graf both loved working in Woodland Park. 

Ward loved it even more when she got a job at the middle school. Graf taught at the high school for 15 years, as an English and social studies teacher. He was the associate head boys’ basketball coach and ran the yearbook. He also co-advised Sources of Strength, a suicide prevention group.

Neither educator is returning to the district next year. 

Like many other educators, Ward was shocked when the district suddenly announced sixth-graders, located in the middle school, would head back to elementary schools. Parents weren’t consulted and there was no board vote on the matter. Ward posted a message on the Woodland Park community Facebook page:

"It’s been announced that 6th graders will be moved to elementary schools next year. Come join us at Concerned Parents of Teller County [a Facebook page] if this is news to you. We need your voices and your solidarity before it’s too late."

Two days later, on March 2, Witt fired Ward, and accused her of insubordination by “encouraging participation in protests against district decisions,” according to the termination letter. 

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Mary Ward, who was fired from her support staff job at Woodland Park Schools, stands outside her child’s elementary school in Woodland Park on April 12, 2023.

The following week, the district informed school staff of a revised media policy. It banned any employee from talking to the media about the district without the written approval of the superintendent. It made the same prohibition for social media posts about the district.

When comparing the old and new policies, it’s obvious that the new one was backdated to Feb. 28, the day of Ward’s post. 

“That policy as it is written online currently doesn't look anything like how it looked on March 2, the day I got fired,” she said. “I didn't do anything wrong.”

In fact, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit has twice found such restrictions on public school employees’ speech unconstitutional. Still, Witt stands firm.

“I think the policy speaks for itself,” he said.

Graf just resigned. 

It was his class, the Civil Disobedience elective, that won’t be taught next year. Graf’s students read John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and more. After a resident complained, Witt determined the book used to discuss modern social movements, “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, who is Black, didn’t align with the newly adopted social studies standards. 

That standard is also kicking up controversy. 

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Pikes Peak dominates the view from Woodland Park High School in Teller County, April 12, 2023.

Colorado called Birthright standards ‘too extreme’

The American Birthright standards were created by a national conservative coalition, The Civics Alliance. It accentuates American ‘exceptionalism’ and patriotism and downplays civic engagement, which it calls “activism.”

Last fall, the state school board rejected the Birthright standards, stating they were “too extreme” for Colorado, worried they didn’t meet a new Colorado law that directs social studies to reflect the history, culture and social contributions of specific racial and ethnic groups and LGBTQ individuals, among other requirements. 

Just a few months later, Witt introduced the Birthright standards to Woodland Park.

“In all honesty, in my opinion… the proposed American Birthright standard is better aligned with the Woodland Park School District purpose and core beliefs,” said Witt during the board meeting that adopted them.

In an interview, he said the standards are “complete and accurate both on the foundations of this country and the workings of our government.” He noted that three of the seven state board members thought the standards were excellent.

Witt hired the board president of Education reEnvisioned BOCES, where, as executive director Witt earns a full-time salary in addition to his district salary, to make sure the social studies curriculum conforms to the Birthright standards.

The revised introduction to the Civics course description reads: Explore the Hebrew, Greek, and Roman sources of the American political system, and the Christian synthesis of Hebrew, Greek, and Roman thought, with its emphasis on the equal dignity of all individual humans in the eyes of God.

The World History course description speaks of European colonization as “unifying” regions of the world and refers to the pre-colonial civilizations “whose warlike nature must be understood in order to comprehend the character and the magnitude of the civilizing process.”

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Woodland Park School Board Vice President David Illingworth II at a school board meeting April 12, 2023.

To Graf, these standards are deeply worrisome. He calls the standards “level 1 or 2,” when students should be mastering higher concepts and analysis. His other issue with the standards: “They take away understanding the full story of our American past.”

Questions remain about how the district is able to adopt a social studies standard that was rejected by the state school board and whether the Birthright standards meet state requirements. In its contract with the state, the district must assure they “meet or exceed state standards.

Witt is unfazed and said that the standards will meet or exceed state standards. He said he’s planning on making the curriculum extremely transparent and ensuring that “our parents can review all curriculum in Woodland Park School District.”

Regardless, state authorities don’t have the power to enforce education standards.

“We expect districts to meet the statutory requirements, including the requirements related to academic standards,” the Colorado Department of Education said in a statement. “CDE is not granted authority by the general assembly to review local curricula.”

“If there's no one at the state that can see that and step in and stop it, then what's the purpose of having a state board of education?” asked one teacher.

Social, emotional supports in schools

Meanwhile, teachers say a lot of the progress they’ve seen emotionally and mentally in high school kids is already unraveling amid all the turmoil.

“We have reversed it,” said a high school teacher. “Because now they're afraid their teachers are quitting. Now they're afraid their friends are going to a different school. Or some classes won't be taught.

“But the real issue is who's going to help the kids and I'm not being hyperbolic here. They're in real danger.”

Students and others begged the board at recent meetings to keep mental health staff.

Sophomore Ali Orellana, crying at the podium, told the board that they took one of her teachers away from her.

“Did you know that when you moved her you also moved a trusted adult, a mentor, a leader? Did you know she welcomed everyone into her doors when they needed advice, a friend?”

Sixth-grade teacher Amber Hemingson also tearfully told the board that when her husband died of cancer, school social workers gave her life-saving support.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
A sobbing Amber Hemingson, a sixth-grade teacher, embraces Woodland Park High School math teach teacher Nate Owen, April 12, 2023, after she pleaded with the school board not to do away with grants for social workers and other mental health supports.

Hemingson said she’s been devastated to see social and emotional staff will be gone next year.

“My students desperately need the support,” she said.

In meetings with teachers at school, Witt told teachers that they were not the Department of Health and Human Services, and “delivering social services through school tends to deter a lot of focus on the children.” He reiterated his academics-only focus. 

Board president David Rusterholtz said that “the state is not in charge of the mental health of your children” at a recent board meeting. Board member Suzanne Patterson expanded on that in a letter to a parent stating she will “NOT take [money] that is backed by dirty bureaucracy … It comes with benefits for socialism.”

She equated money for social workers and counselors with “dirty big bureaucrats” that send surveys to students about sex, pronouns and transgender people. 

But teachers worry that without support staff, students will suffer.

Strategic plan for student safety, well-being shifts

Several years ago, Teller County saw a spike in youth dying by suicide and drug overdoses. So, the district created a strategic plan that focused on retaining educators, high-quality curricula and building a social and emotional “ecosystem.”

That meant more grants for social workers and mental health supports, developing a class that helped bring hope, health and strength to the school culture, instituting “advisories” in every classroom that offered academic mentoring and social-emotional support. The school built a “cool down corner” where students could decompress. Staff got training on restorative approaches and de-escalation.

Hallways felt calmer, kids were more relaxed. It was dramatically better.

But, even after the district’s mental health supervisor literally pleaded with Witt to reapply for the grants of $1.5 million to fund 15 counseling jobs, Witt maintained his academics-only stance. 

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Woodland Park School Board President David Rusterholtz, center, and Woodland Park School Board member Sue Patterson, right, at a school board meeting April 12, 2023.

In an email obtained under a Colorado Open Records Act request by a Woodland Park resident Matt Gawlowski, the mental health supervisor Laura Magnuson implores Witt not to cut support for students. She told him a lack of resources in rural areas like Woodland Park means more untreated mental health disorders, high rates of parental abuse and neglect, and youth with behavioral challenges.

“I worry about the safety of our students concerning bullying, suicidality, threats, acts of violence, and family supports without these positions in place,” she wrote.

She worried that despite increased test scores, a positive school climate, and no suicides in the past four years, the “strategic plan seems to be shifting abruptly.”  

Witt told Magnuson he planned to keep one core counselor in each building and the social workers who attend to students with federally required special education plans. 

He believed that grant money has “strings attached,” and said that the district had “created a dependency for parents and students on public support,” according to the email.  

Magnuson continued to correspond with Witt, telling him that safety screenings performed by the mental health staff are effective ways to stop school violence.

“When I asked about the plan to mitigate acts of violence, including mass shootings, you responded that we have campus security.”

At the end of the email, Magnuson resigns.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The speakers podium and a crowded meeting room before the Woodland Park School Board meets April 12, 2023.

Just days before the grant application deadlines, Witt told the chief academic officer not to reapply for funds for mental health support and staff. There was no communication to families about the decision or any discussion in a school board session.

“They want to eliminate the structures that are in place for the wellbeing of children who are in need,” one high school teacher told CPR News. 

Witt said the district is exploring “cooperative arrangements” with sheriff and police departments that involve “well-trained volunteers” in each school.

Nothing is required in state law regarding mental health services. Districts don’t have to apply for grants, and there is no bare minimum of services required, except for students with disabilities.

Research shows that by seventh grade, 40 percent of students will have experienced anxiety or depression and multiple studies and meta-analyses show greater access to mental health services leads to better academic outcomes.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Woodland Park High School in Teller County, April 12, 2023.

What does Woodland Park’s situation mean for other Colorado school districts?

If Woodland Park is a test case, it proves that local school districts in Colorado have the power to decide that they don’t want to provide mental health services to students who are not on a special education plan. It also means districts can adopt academic standards that may not meet state standards as long as they say they do in their contract, and districts appear to be able to prohibit teachers from speaking to the media, despite similar happenings elsewhere being ruled unconstitutional — so long as no one challenges it in court.

Erin O’Connell, who led the recall campaign, said her ultimate focus is policy or legislative change to bring some oversight to school boards.

“I appreciate local control because different places have different needs,” she said. “But I would like to see some checks and balances when people are overstepping their bounds or pushing a private agenda” or using loopholes in policy to avoid public debate on school matters.  

Now what for Woodland Park?

Many are bracing for what they expect to be a mass exodus of teachers. Other educators, especially those with deep roots in the community, want to stay but say it’s like beating their heads against the wall.

“No appreciation, no acknowledgment of how hard we work and how much we care,” said one elementary school teacher. “It just feels so different now. It's so divided, it's so antagonistic. It’s no longer a group effort.” 

Witt doesn’t seem worried.

“In my experience the number of people who say they’re going to leave and the number of people who do are very different numbers,” he told a group of teachers.

Witt is confident he’ll attract new teachers who are drawn to what he calls the laser focus on improving academic achievement and providing choices.

“When you focus on change, you're going to get some staff turnover. But that's actually part of making change happen, is making certain that the right people are involved and that the people aligned with where you're going are attracted,” he said.

Other educators will stay, banking on the November election when three of the newest board members are up for re-election. Replacing them could be an uphill battle in an older and largely conservative district.

“I have hope,” said one teacher. “I love my school. And I just want to be there and try to do what I can to keep it moving forward and in the right direction.”

Another will stay but was told by her doctor to boost her anxiety medication.

“I’m terrified for next year,” she said. “I worry we're going to collapse. I don't know what their plan is but my ultimate fear is that public education and Woodland Park will be destroyed.” 

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The Woodland Park school board at a meeting on April 12, 2023.

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