Debbie Gurley moved to Douglas County for its school system. Now, because of the school system, she’s moving out.
She and her husband bought their Highlands Ranch home in 2012 so they could enroll their soon-to-be-kindergartener in the high-performing district where they hoped he’d be educated until college.
Gurley is an Army veteran and stay-at-home mom with a U.S. flag waving on top of her garage in the Westridge subdivision. She volunteers in the elementary school lunchroom, knows all the kids’ names and seems to have snacks and Band-Aids always at the ready. She’s the kind of parent any school would be lucky to have involved.
That is, unless the system doesn’t want much involvement, or scrutiny, in which case things can – and did – get ugly.
It was just a few months into her son’s kindergarten year when Gurley started wondering why the teachers were so scared, distrustful and jumpy? Why was there so much turnover among the staff? And how did this all jibe with DougCo’s school board’s efforts toward “Reinventing American Education”?
“I’m not political. I didn’t come to this with any big vision of what I think the school or the district or the world should be run like. I just wanted to know how this ‘reinventing’ thing was going to be good for my kid,” she tells The Colorado Independent.
It was a red flag when, accompanying her son’s class on a field trip one day, she asked his teacher, “What’s going on in the district?” The teacher stopped and let the students stroll down the path of the nature center before she broke into tears.
“I can’t talk about it,” she told Gurley. “But it’s horrible.”
Gurley started asking more questions about high attrition and low morale in the district, whose all-Republican school board had put in place massive changes. It let its teachers’ union contract expire, instituted market-based pay and set up the nation’s first suburban school-voucher program. The district also required academic standards that were purportedly a more challenging substitute for the Common Core, which Superintendent Elizabeth Fagen has derided as “the Common Floor.”
Teachers, in the meantime, struggled to balance buzzwords and paperwork with their responsibilities to students.
As Gurley came to see it, the reforms were bringing chaos, not progress. She noticed that the inclination among teachers, administrators, bus drivers and parents was to be guarded and suspicious until someone would assure them “she’s on our side.”
“I’m in the building and they feel like they have to vet me before they can talk to me. The teachers don’t know whom to trust. It feels that Big-Brotherish, an elementary school. It’s crazy. I’ve never lived anywhere like this – so ruthless.”
In May 2014, Gurley finally had enough.
“I would like you to know that all is not well in the district,” she wrote Fagen and the board of education.
“I see teachers and principals leaving in seemingly unsustainable numbers. These people aren’t just making a statement. They are making life-altering, tear-filled decisions to resign and go teach in other districts. Please explain to me your view of these departures,” she wrote. “I want you to know that there is a groundswell of opposition to the way you are leading the district. It is not just a few parents on the fringes that are upset.”
“We are going to find a way to make you hear us.”
Fagen wrote back in roughly 20 minutes, setting up a meeting with Gurley, the school board president, the district’s attorney and the heads of elementary schools and human resources. Gurley says they all seemed more interested in defending the board’s massive reforms than in listening.
“I was like, five administrators to meet with me? Really? It was clear right from the start they were trying to intimidate me into silence.”
But she has spent the next two years being anything but silent.
Even after the board of education cut a public comment period in their meetings down to one minute, Gurley waited until late at night for her 60 seconds to speak on the record about district-wide discontent. She worked around administrators’ efforts to stonewall her from seeking public information. And, sidestepping the district’s attempts to muzzle its workforce, she launched a district-wide survey to gauge teachers’ feelings about their jobs.
Of the 350 surveys teachers returned last summer, less than a dozen were positive about the reforms. Most were scathing indictments of a regime teachers said was devaluing education and prioritizing conservative dogma over teaching kids. Teachers – who, even in affluent parts of the county, have to scrape for copy paper and other supplies – poured their hearts into surveys filled out with red ink and impeccable penmanship.
“Morale is extremely low. Stress is extremely high because everyone feels unsafe. There’s a prevailing message that nobody cares. In fact I don’t know why I’m taking so much time to do this survey because I’m pretty convinced nobody cares,” wrote one teacher who attached six type-written pages to her survey.
Most teachers in the district didn’t respond. Many said they were too scared of retribution and being pushed out of their schools like dozens have been over the past four or five years. Neighbors who are teachers would speak freely with Gurley at social events, but not in public.
“The teachers in my building who speak up are run out,” wrote one teacher with 14 years in the district.
“I need to pay my mortgage,” wrote another.
Gurley’s husband Jeremy grew impatient with her activism, likening her efforts fighting for teachers to the U.S. involvement in Iraq. This isn’t your fight, he told her. They need to stand up for themselves.
She tried several times to pull back. She held her tongue with friends who told her they were voting to re-elect the conservative school board members last fall because it was the Christian thing to do. She tried keeping quiet earlier this year when the district armed administrators with long rifels.
“Keeping my distance didn’t work as long as our child’s in this district. For now, this is, in fact, our fight,” she says.
Gurley was outraged last month when school board members overtly tried to intimidate a Ponderosa High student out of staging a demonstration against the rampant turnover at that school. Sixteen-year-old Grace Davis had recorded board members Judith Reynolds and Meghann Silverthorn threatening her and her parents. Gurley spent three days transcribing the audio. The transcript triggered a groundswell of parents calling for ouster of the board members.
Interviewed this week in the “#istandwithgrace” T-shirt she had printed in solidarity with Davis, Gurley said she’s pessimistic about the grassroots attempts to turn around the district. She’s especially disheartened by the most recent tactic conservatives are taking to hold on to their control: Potentially parting ways with Fagen to make it look like they’re responding to parents’ complaints about the district. A video of former school board member Justin Williams speaking earlier this month spells out that political strategy. After the November 2015 election, the conservative majority retains its control by only one vote.
“They’re gearing up for the 2017 election by changing the narrative, but not making any real changes to the root of the problem. It’s a tactic I can see working. And I’m not sure, at this point, they can be stopped or that things can be turned around,” Gurley says.
She describes a sense, especially in Douglas County’s more affluent communities, that parents will compensate for shortcomings in the system by paying for tutors or sending their kids to public schools.
“I’ve given it my honest try, but I feel like it’s unwinnable without more parents and teachers coming forward and speaking out,” she says. “If the voters here want this for their county, they can keep it. I just don’t want to be a part of it.”
Gurley’s frustration turns into tears at the thought of selling the house whose walls she has hand-stenciled – the home where she and her husband had hoped to raise their son. They broke the news to 8-year-old Carson last Friday that they’ll be moving to a new home and new school district.
“At first, he took it pretty well. But then he realized what he’d be losing. ‘What about Carter?’ he asked. “What about Harris? What about Caedmon? What about Brogan? What about Sydney? What about Mallory?” she said, listing the kids she and her husband had hoped would grow into tweens and then teens and then young adults alongside Carson.
Some of those kids’ parents have, like the Gurleys, been unhappy with the district. Some are just starting to see problems as their children rise up in grades. Some have spoken out publicly. But most haven’t, either because of fear or apathy or pressures within their churches or social circles or political parties.
“This would be over in a heartbeat if the teachers and parents stood up as a whole and said this is not good for our kids,” she says. “I hope they find their collective voice because no change will be made until they all stand up together as a group.”
Gurley aims to have moved out of the community she loves by summer’s end, having enrolled Carson in another school and district that want parents involved and paying attention.
“My husband fully expects me to stop fighting it when we leave,” she says. “The fight will continue among some folks, I have no doubt. But it won’t be my fight anymore.”