Clearing The Smoke In D-11

The day after Eric Christen and Sandy Shakes were ceremoniously dumped from helping oversee the largest school district in Colorado Springs, the president of School District 11 sounded like a kid in a bureaucratic candy store.

“It’s a new way of thinking for me in terms of board leadership,” said John Gudvangen, who has spent the past year – his first as a D-11 board member – in verbal jujitsu with Christen, and to a lesser degree Shakes.

“Previously it’s been, ‘how do we keep this train on the tracks?’ And now we have the opportunity to strategically plan, and be vigilant about outcomes.

“We haven’t been able to do that before. Instead we’ve been barraged with, ‘two or three or four people on the board have good ideas and everyone else is bad and evil and mouthpieces for the union…’

“That’s all in the past. Now we can focus on the problems of school achievement and adequate staffing – this is the good work, the hard work that is meaningful and exciting. We need to have some serious conversations. How do we invest in teacher training, and get the best math and science teachers to work in this district? How do we get the best teachers and pay them appropriately?”

Adding to Gudvangen’s exuberance is the fact that the morning after Christen and Shakes were recalled by an overwhelming 72 and 71 percent of the vote, respectively, a third pro-voucher board member, Craig Cox, submitted a short letter of resignation announcing his intent to also be gone by the end of the year. At the same time, D-11 voters overwhelmingly rejected two replacement candidates who were viewed as clones, ideologically, of Shakes and Christen, opting instead for newcomers Jan Tanner and Charlie Bobbitt. The outcome of the election is a clear indication that voters in this increasingly urban school district are fed up with the outbursts and angry, aggressive posturing that have marked the past three years since Shakes, Christen, Cox and a fourth board member, Willie Breazell, seized a board majority with the help of national school voucher activists.

The four claimed they wanted to install sweeping reforms in the district. However, during a period when Shakes temporarily parted ways with the other three, she highlighted that the bulk of those changes, which were secretly being orchestrated from outside interests, which involved a for-profit, free-market approach to public education and an “obsessive desire to destroy teachers’ unions.”

“There’s nothing wrong with what they’re doing, if it’s done without an agenda,” Shakes said in an extensive 2005 profile in the Colorado Springs Independent It’s totally appropriate to question what public schools are doing — but not if you set it up so the end results are going to support what you want to happen.

“Make no mistake. This is not about reform. This is about a scam to take public funds and work it into private pockets,” she says. “And what’s outrageous is they are playing the heartstrings of the poor and minorities [as the chief beneficiaries].”

A month after that profile was published, Shakes became disillusioned after a newly-elected school board toppled her from serving another term as president. She subsequently rejoined her onetime-pals-turned-nemeses-turned-pals-again and, in June, helped fire the district’s superintendent of a year. Community activists had enough, and moved forward with the recall to remove Shakes, and Christen, the most aggressive of the four.

This week, the day after the recall, board president Gudvangen – who previously served two terms on the board of an adjacent school district and is a past president of the Colorado Association of School Boards – said he received a “disappointing” phone message from Breazell, who remains on the D-11 board.

“Breazell said something like, ‘you won this election and we have this mediocre [school district]. How does it feel to know have people in place who support mediocrity?’

Says Gudvangen: “As chaotic and disruptive as it’s been, some of us have brought up ideas during the struggles of the last year, only to find them immediately torn apart  – having it be all about meanness and spitefulness and namecalling – it’s frustrating to hear a message like that.”

Cara DeGette is a longtime editor and columnist at the Colorado Springs Independent.