Douglas County family flees ‘Big Brother’ school reform

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.”

A recovering newspaper journalist, Susan reported for papers in California and Nevada before her 13 years as a political reporter, national reporter and metro columnist at The Denver Post. “Trashing the Truth,” a series she reported with Miles Moffeit, helped exonerate five men, prompted reforms on evidence preservation and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in investigative journalism. Her 2012 project, “The Gray Box,” exposed the effects of long-term solitary confinement. The ACLU honored her in 2017 for her years of civil rights coverage, and the Society of Professional Journalists honored her in April with its First Amendment Award. Susan and her two boys live with a puppy named Hymie whom they’re pretty sure is the messiah.

15 COMMENTS

  1. Jefferson County was able to come together to oust the “Reformers”, but it took the unified efforts of the teachers, the teachers’ union, the parents and the students to do it. And we are all the better for it, but it’s not easy. Eyes have to be opened. Good luck to this lady. She tried.

  2. This has been the conservative MO for years, now. Start screwing with an area by taking over the school boards, then move up from there. And notice how this ISN’T about getting the kids a good, solid education, it’s about driving the conservative agenda that next to no one really wants once they think about. This is the Koch brothers and their minions dong their best to steal the country out from under you, and getting a fairly decent return for their money.

    Douglas county can either do the RIGHT thing and lose these people, replacing them with someone who has the KID’S best interests at heart. Putting people in charge of things who have an ideological bone to pick doesn’t get you good education, it gets you internal squabbles when these people run rampant through your district. And that is EXACTLY what you’re seeing.

    The sad part is, since I’m just a miserable lefty, no one down there will listen to a thing I have to say. It’s just not polite for them to admit that lefties actually know what they’re talking about. But come on, this is your kids we’re talking about here. Do you REALLY want them kept ignorant of facts and reality? That’s not good parenting. You SHOULD be wanting them to have the best education possible, and that isn’t being provided no matter what you’re paying.

    From the article: “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. ”

    What does it say when you’re in an affluent county, and the schools are so bad that you have to spend more to actually get the kids an education? That doesn’t sound like actual caring about education on the part of the board, that sounds like they are pushing an agenda, and only the really wealthy can afford to get out of being screwed by it.

    Lose these people, Douglas County, they are toxic to your school district, your children’s futures, and you deserve better. If you don’t, your kids do.

  3. Douglas County is losing a wonderful advocate for our schools and kids. Thank you for all you have done to get the truth out, Debbie. You will be sorely missed.

  4. I feel sorry for the thousands of families left behind to deal with Douglas County’s dysfunctional schools. Good luck to the Gurley’s. Today’s lesson, kids: Elections Count. Just ask Jefferson County schools.

  5. Will Morrison, you are soooo, correct…The Koch boys have moved onto the Western Slope with their dirty money…we have a school board that just allowed Bibles in our school…I suppose that I haven’t been as vigilant as I should have been…But life…I am going to attend more of these board meetings, because it is really getting out of hand…

  6. First of all, and most importantly, thank you Renee Sullice for your comment!

    This column isn’t journalism, it’s innuendo based on the views of one parent.

    It’s political posturing by the Colorado Independent posing as concern about education. Nowhere in this thinly disguised attempt at progressive agitprop does Mrs. Greene suggest that the quality of the education students receive in Douglas County has degraded. Nowhere. She even describes the school district as “high-quality”.

    The entire article is based upon the dissatisfaction of one parent, Mrs. Gurley, who is certainly entitled to her opinion. I applaud her attempt at finding answers to the questions she has and it would appear she was afforded that opportunity when Superintendent Fagen set up “a meeting with Gurley, the school board president, the district’s attorney and the heads of elementary schools and human resources.”

    What went on at that meeting? This column doesn’t say. What questions did Mrs.Gurley ask? This column doesn’t say. How were those questions answered? This column doesn’t say. All the column does say is that Mrs. Gurley felt intimidated and The Colorado Independent pressed no further.

    The CI noted that “the board of education cut a public comment period in their meetings down to one minute,” but never explained why this was done. Is it possible it was done to give everyone who came to the meeting an opportunity to comment? The CI doesn’t say.

    “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.” The only thing missing from that paragraph is violins playing in the background. Would the CI be as sympathetic if teachers were complaining about prioritizing liberal dogma? Of course not!!!

    And the CI freely admits most teachers didn’t respond to the survey.

    “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.” Did the CI interview the “many”? If not, how can the CI claim this as fact?

    What is the teacher turnover rate in Douglas County? How does it compare to the teacher turnover rates in other school districts? None of those questions is answered.

    If Mrs. Greene wants some balance on this subject—which is highly unlikely—she should publish another column after interviewing Renee Sullice whose comment provides a much more balanced view of education based on 15 years of teaching experience.

    But balance, like journalism, is not a part of The Colorado Independent. Defending liberal dogma is.

    Here is part of the CI’s Mission Statement. Try not to laugh.
    “The only bias we have is for good journalism. We take the role of journalism as a public trust very seriously.”

  7. Mr/Mrs/Miss/Ms Denver,

    Thanks or asking, I’m the guy who wrote:

    First of all, and most importantly, thank you Renee Sullice for your comment!

    This column isn’t journalism, it’s innuendo based on the views of one parent.

    It’s political posturing posing as concern about education. Nowhere in this thinly disguised attempt at progressive agitprop does Mrs. Greene suggest that the quality of the education students receive in Douglas County has degraded. Nowhere. She even describes the school district as “high-quality”.

    The entire article is based upon the dissatisfaction of one parent, Mrs. Gurley, who is certainly entitled to her opinion. I applaud her attempt at finding answers to the questions she has and it would appear she was afforded that opportunity when Superintendent Fagen set up “a meeting with Gurley, the school board president, the district’s attorney and the heads of elementary schools and human resources.”

    What went on at that meeting? The column doesn’t say. What questions did Mrs. Gurley ask? The column doesn’t say. How were those questions answered? The column doesn’t say. What changes did Mrs. Gurley ask for? The column doesn’t say. All the column does say is that Mrs. Gurley felt intimidated and The Colorado Independent pressed no further.

    Mrs. Greene noted that “the board of education cut a public comment period in their meetings down to one minute,” but never explained why this was done. Is it possible it was done to give everyone who came to the meeting an opportunity to comment? Mrs. Greene doesn’t say.

    “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.” The only thing missing from that paragraph is violins playing in the background. Would the CI be as sympathetic if teachers were complaining about prioritizing liberal dogma. Of course not!!!

    And the CI freely admits most teachers didn’t respond to the survey.

    “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.” Did the CI interview the “many”? If not, how can the CI claim this as fact?

    What is the teacher turnover rate in Douglas County? How does it compare to the teacher turnover rates in other districts? None of those questions is answered.

    If Mrs. Greene wants some balance on this subject—which is highly unlikely—she should publish another column after interviewing Renee Sullice whose comment provides a much more balanced view of education based on 15 years of teaching experience.

    But balance, like journalism, is insignificant to The Colorado Independent. Defending liberal dogma is.

    Here is part of the CI’s Mission Statement. Try not to laugh.

    “The only bias we have is for good journalism. We take the role of journalism as a public trust very seriously.”

  8. This story has no factual evidence, no emails or response from the opposing side, no sources whatsoever. Just more vague accusations, like all the other stories intended to discredit Dr. Fagen. I don’t buy it.

  9. Who IS Don B Lopez? I don’t know, but I have a new man crush. I have to say I love the way he thinks and analyzes statements one at a time, solely based on truth and logic. He is absolutely right, this is NOT journalism. My only disagreement with Don is when talking about the Board meeting’s public comment time he said the article didn’t explain why the comment time was shortened. And while it didn’t explicitly say why that change was made, it inferred why when it said “Gurley waited until late at night for her 60 seconds to speak…” The reason the comment time was shortened is because there were so many liberal agitators speaking it was taking until “late at night” to finish the meetings. If the comment time hadn’t been shortened, Mrs. Gurley would have waited until early the next morning to speak. And the sad thing is that Susan Greene and her liberal editor is so devoid of logic that they don’t even realize that they shoot down their own complaint about reducing the comment time.
    A few other comments:
    Jeffco has been there: It didn’t take “the unified efforts…” it took lies. Plain old lies. the lies were repeated over and over again until people accepted them as truth. Those lies were actually put on the recall ballots and were shown to be untrue repeatedly, but there is no legal requirements that accusations on a local ballot be truthful. And those lies worked so well, the lefties are trying the same tactic in Dougco, in particular with the Grace Davis story.
    Will Morrison: How can you say “This has been the conservative MO for years”? Conservatives haven’t contriolled any notable school boards until the last few years, and as soon as they implement a change, lefties like you start complaining before the change is even implemented, much less given any time to work.
    Buford: You complain about the Koch boys and “their dirty money”, but you ignore the fact that there is plenty of dirty money on the left from Soros, and locals like Stryker, Gill, Bridges and Polis. Don’t be a hypocrite.
    Here’s a “big picture” observation from a former teacher with over a decade of experience before I left teaching. Teachers tend to be liberal because liberals tend to gravitate toward helping nurturing professions like education and social work. And liberals tend to be much more strongly governed by emotion than reason and logic. That’s why all these teachers hear a few of these stories and parrot the line that “it’s horrible” or that they’re being intimidated, or that they’re going to lose their jobs if they speak their mind, “morale is low”, “stress is high” and all the other accusations. And they never really question those things, and then let the emotions become their reality. So even if Don was able to ask these teachers, or Mrs. Gurley or Susan Greene all of his questions and press them until they admitted there was no proof behind the accusations, they would still say, “but it just FEELS like its horrible and nobody cares and they’re trying to intimidate us” and on and on. Very few if any would ever be able to admit that they were wrong.

  10. Don and Don-Man,

    Can you boil all of this down to, say, 5, no, 6, sentences? Heck, take 7.

    Note: Fagen has bailed. Silverhair and Reynolds Rap have been investigated, and…. Can you still defend their brand, their agenda?

    Still think you know what’s going on in schools in Denver’s Metro Area? How? (Again, let us know your credentials, so that we can consider your post).

  11. Don and Don-man,
    Give the readers here, your credentials. That way, we can measure the validity of your comments about the conditions in Denver Metro Area public school classrooms, and decide if what you deem lies, are what readers deem lies.

    Tell us how you are so knowledgeable about teachers’ feelings and reactions to intimidation in their work site.

    Note: Fagen is bailing, and Silver Spoon and Reynolds Rap are under investigation.

    Is this logical enough? Could you give us your reply in fewer than ten sentences?

    Awesome.

  12. good luck debby! hope you do well! can i buy your house for 1/2 the market value, in other words, the value you see it as?

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