Students at Ponderosa High School in Parker walked out of class Wednesday to protest a growing exodus of their district’s teachers.
The protest is the latest eruption of rising anger directed at the school board and administration, which has led to two online petitions, including one demanding the ouster of district Superintendent Liz Fagen.
Grumbles began when voters elected a conservative board majority in 2009, and have only grown since then. The causes: Fagen’s hiring in 2010, the board’s 2011 decision to grant taxpayer-paid vouchers to private, mostly religious schools, and the board’s decision to end collective bargaining with the union for teacher contracts in 2012.
The voucher program, known as Choice, was tossed out by the Colorado Supreme Court last year but now awaits a decision from the U.S. Supreme Court on whether the high court will hear the case.
In November, parents and teachers fought the conservative school board by championing a slate of winning candidates “opposed to corporate education reform.” The balance on the board shifted from a 7-0 conservative majority to a 4-3 conservative majority.
Last November, the district asked its employees to participate in an online survey that asked whether they understood the district’s priorities and whether employees felt “empowered as they make progress on this important work.”
The survey asked about teachers’ perceptions of safety, school choice, “world class education” and “system performance.”
District employees told The Colorado Independent they feared Fagen would retaliate against them if they spoke honestly about their disgust with the district.
The reason they were afraid? The survey wasn’t anonymous. Some employees who responded received a follow-up a month later identifying them by name and asking about their specific responses to some of the questions.
One key question: Would employees “strongly recommend” the district as a good place to work?
“No,” answered 62 percent of the teachers who responded.
They were allowed to select from 22 explanations of their answer. The top two responses from more than 50 percent of those surveyed: The pay is low and the “political tension/negativity of select community members creates an unhealthy environment that I do not enjoy.”
Courtney Smith, who heads the DougCo chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, told The Independent she believes the answer refers to angry parents, students and teachers who are fed up with six years of Fagen’s administration.
Roughly a third of the district’s employees decided to answer the survey, about 2,800 out of 7,700. About 1,720 certified employees, which included both teachers and teacher’s aides, responded.
And while teachers were overwhelmingly positive about the relationship with their evaluators, more than one-third of the respondents said they wouldn’t recommend the district because there was no bargaining agreement between the administration and “associations” — meaning the union.
The fear of retaliation doesn’t surprise school board member David Ray, one of the new members elected last November. He told The Independent last month he heard regular complaints from employees, including teachers, about the survey, which he said was a distraction from teaching.
As Ray tells it, the fact that 62 percent of teachers wouldn’t recommend others work in the district was “disturbing.”
But he was more disturbed the majority of employees opted out of responding and that teachers had no opportunity to weigh in openly, he said.
The district is operating in an environment of oppression and fear, Ray said, and teachers tell him daily they don’t know whom to trust.
“That’s not good for our kids,” he said.
Fagan told The Independent after survey results were released in January that “we want to have good, strong relationships with employees.”
That said, Fagan added the best relationships should be between employees and their evaluators, but the district is working with its departmental leaders to establish trusting relationships. She relies on principals and department leaders to forge key relationships like those she had when she was a principal in Iowa.
Fagen acknowledged the survey wasn’t anonymous, but said it was confidential, and that “no one was looking at individual responses.” The follow-up survey was automatically generated based on answers, not identities, she said.
That’s echoed by board President Meghann Silverthorn, who helped write the survey.
“There were no wrong answers,” she said, in response to employees who feared giving wrong answers. “We wanted opinions,” about issues including whether the teachers understood the district’s strategic plan. And the survey showed that employees, including teachers, do understand the district’s plans and priorities, and could explain them if called upon to do so. But employees weren’t asked if they supported the priorities, only if they understood and could implement them.
At 36 percent, Silverthorne said the response rate could have been better, but she was pleased it exceeded a single-digit response rate on a survey six years ago.
“There’s always people who will be fearful,” Silverthorne said, but the survey’s purpose is to help the district move forward.
Talking about the problems is necessary to finding solutions, she said.
The district renewed Fagen’s contract last year for another five years, with an annual base salary of more than $273,000 per year. It shot up to more than $288,000 for 2016.
Douglas County is the third-largest school district in the state, but her salary makes her the state’s highest-paid superintendent, according to Complete Colorado.
Teachers frustrated with leadership are leaving for better pay and working conditions in other districts. Smith said crossing the county line could mean a $10,000 annual bump in pay.
The Ponderosa student petition on the walkout, which now has more than 1,600 signatures, said that 33 teachers have left that high school in the last three years. Ponderosa is the smallest high school in the district.
Teacher turnover rates in DougCo are nearly 17 percent, according to 2015 stats from the Colorado Department of Education. That’s double the turnover rate found in the neighboring Littleton school district and nearly double that of Cherry Creek.
Fagen told KMGH Wednesday the district supports those who leave “for better personal opportunities” elsewhere.
And the question about whether employees, particularly teachers, would “strongly recommend” working for the district, which drew a 62 percent “no” response, was designed to identify who would give a “ringing endorsement” for the district, Fagen told The Independent.
A Facebook page, Speak for DCSD, which drawn nearly 6,000 members, garnered dozens of comments about the survey. Some teachers called the survey a joke.
Said one, “I could not participate because I was certain that if I answered truthfully, which is that I am completely disillusioned with the new plan in place and the outcomes I’ve seen, my job would be in jeopardy.”
Another teacher added: “I lied. I realized the survey was a set-up, and then quit answering the questions honestly…Teachers I know who ended up finishing it were scared not to and scared to tell the truth.”
The survey was a form of bullying, that teacher said.
Kevin DiPasquale, who has been teaching in the district for 16 years, said he filled out the first survey but ignored the second one that came to him by name. The mistrust of the administration, he said, comes from policy changes over the last five years that slashed professional development and stymied the collaborative relationships teachers had enjoyed with the district for years.
But DiPasquale said he stays in the DougCo district for his students, including his children.
“If someone doesn’t stay and speak out, who will make sure public education is left for those who will follow?” he asked.
The new board members, he said, have stayed true to their word they would unite the community.
“The ray of hope is huge,” DiPasquale said. “Just knowing that professional teachers and staff are supported is tremendous in trying to rebuild morale.”
As to Wednesday’s protest, Ponderosa Principal David Haggerty sent out a letter to parents Tuesday to notify them that students who walked out would be marked with unexcused absences, even if the parents had okayed participation.
Fagen offered to meet with the protest’s student organizers, Haggerty said, but they declined.
One parent, Jennifer Long, noted on the Speak for DCSD Facebook page that when hundreds of DougCo students skipped school to go to the Broncos parade just last month, the district did nothing.
Photo credit: Kage Newkirk