Parents groups and community members are indignant over a report that has cleared two Douglas County Board of Education members of harassment and bullying allegations.
Some are even questioning the independence of the investigation: The investigator the district contracted with also happens to be an attorney for both board members’ biggest campaign contributor. That contributor, Alex Cranberg, is a top backer of controversial conservative school reform efforts that in recent years have caused turmoil within the district.
A third-party investigation released Monday evening said that DougCo district policies governing bullying and harassment only apply to students, not adults. The report absolved board Chair Meghann Silverthorn and Vice-Chair Judith Reynolds of accusations of bullying and harassing a Ponderosa High School sophomore.
The incident at the heart of the investigation was a closed-door meeting between the two board members and then-sophomore Grace Davis on March 4.
Davis recorded the 90-minute meeting, claiming that the two board members tried to intimidate her into dropping plans for a March 9 rally protesting high teacher turnover at the high school. Her audio recording revealed that Silverthorn inaccurately told Davis that if the protest went forward, Davis and her parents could be liable for any resulting damages. Davis claimed that the tone of the two directors was intended to intimidate her.
The report said that the district’s policies don’t pertain to adult conduct. Further, regarding Silverthorn’s claim that Davis would be liable for damages, the report said that people have a “First Amendment right to be wrong.” Regarding the tone used by Silverthorn and Reynolds, the report said there was no policy dictating the tenor of school board members’ conversations.
Davis and her parents have called on Silverthorn and Reynolds to resign. Their call has been echoed by hundreds of parents and community members, either at board meetings or via social media campaigns.
The investigation, conducted by the law firm Sherman & Howard, took six weeks. The bill for the probe was $177,779, plus an additional $3,917.25 for expenses, for a total of $181,696.25. A “courtesy discount” of $18,000 offered by the firm now takes the cost — which falls on taxpayers — down to $163,696.25.
Before the report’s ink was dry, several community groups were already crying foul. Douglas County Parents, an organization that decries the reforms put in place by the board’s conservative majority, questions the independence of Gordon “Skip” Netzorg, the Sherman & Howard attorney who led the probe.
As it turns out, until last December, Netzorg was a member of the board of directors – including board secretary – for the Alliance for Choice (ACE) Scholarship program. The next month, that program received a $1,700 contribution from Silverthorn, who was clearing out part of her campaign bank account.
Netzorg is no longer on the ACE board, on which he served for seven years, according to the group.
ACE’s founders and current directors include Alex Cranberg of Aspect Energy, Ed McVaney, a co-founder of software giant JD Edwards, and Ralph Nagel of Top Rock Liquidity, among other business ventures.
Cranberg, Nagel and McVaney were the biggest campaign contributors to Silverthorn’s 2009 and 2013 elections. Cranberg topped the list with $30,000 in contributions in the two elections; Nagel pumped in $10,000 in 2013; and McVaney gave $5,000, also in 2013.
Reynolds – another of the key conservative votes on DougCo’s school board – got much of the same largesse from the deep-pocketed trio. Cranberg put in $75,000, at $25,000 each, to Reynolds and fellow board members Dr. Jim Geddes and Doug Benevento, all in 2013. It was the largest single contribution any of those campaigns received. Nagel gave Reynolds $10,000 in 2013.
The connections don’t stop here. Netzorg works as an attorney for Cranberg’s business interests. He’s listed in numerous lawsuits as representing Aspect Energy and an affiliated company, Aspect Management – both owned by Cranberg.
“They could have chosen someone a little more removed from the board of directors so that the results would be a little more validated,” said Jason Virdin, speaking on behalf of Douglas County Parents.
Virdin and other critics of the board’s majority said the community will have a hard time accepting the results of the investigation because of the appearance of bias.
Netzorg couldn’t be reached as of this posting.
The district says its in-house attorney, Rob Ross, reached out to several law firms about conducting the investigation, and ultimately chose Netzorg at Sherman & Howard.
Netzorg’s report linked Virdin’s group or parents to Davis in a section discussing a petition Davis started that drew more than 1,800 signatures. The petition, according to the investigators, included text that “quoted directly from the web page of a local advocacy group called Douglas County Parents.”
According to the report, witnesses said Douglas County Parents is known for “voicing opinions contrary to existing District leadership…”
The investigators said they were unable to view a copy of the original petition, which is available online.
Davis told investigators she wanted the protest to be student-led, and “made that abundantly clear” to the Ponderosa High School administrators, the report said. She did not intend to associate her protest with any adults, including those seeking the resignation of then-superintendent Liz Fagen, the report said, nor did Davis want any adults taking credit for the event.
Nonetheless, “use of material from the DCP web page, perhaps inadvertently, reasonably connected the protest to the DCP in the minds of observers familiar with the DCP viewpoint,” the report said. Thirteen of the 17 witnesses interviewed were either school board members or district employees – the other four were Davis, her parents, and a former teacher.
In April, the report asserted, Douglas County Parents started a hashtag, #IStandwithGrace, created t-shirts and started an email campaign to demand the resignation of Silverthorn and Reynolds, which drew more than 300 responses.
All of that is flat-out wrong, the group says. In a statement Monday night, parents pointed out that the investigators never talked to anyone from the group to verify any of those claims.
“Had the investigators reached out to DCP they would have discovered that we had no ties to Miss Davis’ protest, we did not start the #IStandWithGrace hashtag, and we did not have t-shirts designed and printed with the hashtag,” Douglas County Parents said in the statement. “Furthermore, we did not create the form letter calling for the resignation of directors Silverthorn and Reynolds. The form letter was created by another community group, Voices for Public Education.”
The statement said the group now questions what else in the report is erroneous, and also “question(s) the validity of the report in its entirety.”
While the investigation didn’t find any specific policy violations, according to the statement, the Douglas County Parents continues to press for the resignation of director Silverthorn and Reynolds – a demand that is “based on ethics, not policy…Their treatment of a minor by an adult in a position of authority was inexcusable.”
Voices for Public Education issued a statement Tuesday also blasting the investigation.
“We were disappointed that the bullying of a minor student by two adults in a position of authority is allowed in the Douglas County School District,” the statement said.
The Douglas County board of education will meet at 6 p.m. Tuesday evening to review the report, but public comment will not be allowed. A rally in support of Davis will begin at 5 p.m. at the district offices in Castle Rock.
Photos via Douglas County School District