After months of public outcry against Douglas County school board members Judith Reynolds and Meghann Silverthorn, conservatives are marshaling a cheerleading effort for the embattled school “reformers.”
The show of support is buoyed by alumni of Leadership Program of the Rockies, an organization that trains conservatives on public policy and how to win – and keep – elected office. The program’s alumni are a Who’s Who of Republican elected officials and political activists in Colorado, some who are trying to help Silverthorn, a fellow alumnus, firm up her hold in office after critics tried to force her and Reynolds out.
DougCo’s seven-member board has been plagued by controversy since a conservative majority was elected in 2009. But tensions escalated this year after Ponderosa High School sophomore Grace Davis organized a student protest over high teacher turnover last March — and accused Silverthorn and Reynolds of bullying her to try to stop it. Both members were caught on an embarrassing audiotape in which they tried to intimidate Davis into cancelling her rally.
The flap over two board members strong-arming a fresh-faced, 15-year-old choir singer and church youth-grouper caused such a stir that in April the board discussed seeking an independent investigation to get to the bottom of it. The district hired the law firm of Sherman & Howard to conduct a probe for which taxpayers spent as much as $720 an hour. Some $164,000 later, attorney Gordon “Skip” Netzorg issued a report last month that cleared Silverthorn & Reynolds on grounds that there’s no district policy specifically prohibiting adult-to-student bullying. Seriously.
Netzorg’s hiring was controversial, given his ties to Alex Cranberg, an oilman who bankrolls conservative education reforms, serves on Leadership Program of the Rockies’ board of directors and was the biggest contributor to Silverthorn’s and Reynolds’ 2013 re-election bids. Netzorg has represented Cranberg in several legal cases and just recently finished up seven years of service on the board of directors of Cranberg’s ACE Scholarship program.
At a particularly raucous meeting June 21, critics of the board’s conservative, anti-union, pro-voucher majority packed the room and shouted at Silverthorn and Reynolds to resign. The board ended the meeting early in reaction to the protest.
This month, the embattled duo and their backers were intent on quieting the tenor. The school district announced changes in district policy whereby anyone who disrupts a school board meeting will be removed or even cited by law enforcement.
Critics are deriding the new policy as a gag rule.
On the Facebook page “Speak for DCSD,” the policy caught flak from several members for what they said is an attempt to silence the public. “This is a joke,” said one member.
In the meantime, the conservative infrastructure has gone to work on a public relations effort to try to bolster the school board’s narrow majority. The Douglas County GOP and the Douglas County Tea Party took to social media this week asking members to show up to Tuesday’s meeting to counter the protests from those who still want Silverthorn and Reynolds out.
It worked. Eight of the 21 community members who signed up to speak Tuesday evening supported the two controversial members and their two conservative allies on the board. They blasted the district’s teachers as troublemakers who are seeking to incite chaos in the district.
At least three of the speakers Tuesday have, like Silverthorn, completed the Leadership Program of the Rockies.
The first, Laurie Bratten, is a well-known Republican political operative from Highlands Ranch who’s involved with Republican liberty groups in Colorado. She has been a legislative aide to Sen. Ted Harvey of Highlands Ranch and Sen. Kent Lambert of Colorado Springs, and also worked for the Republican Study Committee of Colorado, an ad hoc body of conservative lawmakers at the state Capitol.
Bratten lauded the teacher reforms marshaled by DougCo’s conservative school board – specifically the district’s newly enacted merit pay system. She criticized teachers whom she said resisted change and who are creating “chaos that doesn’t benefit our children.” Bratten also had criticisms for the three minority board members – Wendy Vogel, David Ray and Anne-Marie Lemieux, whom she accused of participating in a witch hunt against Silverthorn and Reynolds. If anyone “should be asked to resign,” she said, it should be those three.
Next at the microphone Tuesday was Kim Monson, a conservative radio talk-show host who blasted protesters for their use of “union talking points” against school choice, pay for performance and market-based pay in favor of collective bargaining. The board majority ended its collective bargaining relationship with the teachers’ union in 2012.
“I’m very concerned that what has happened is a sideshow trying to create chaos instead of focusing on kids,” said Monson, and also suggested that Grace Davis – the student activist – is a puppet of union leaders and teachers.
Charcie Russell, representing pro-school choice group Great Choice Douglas County, took the podium to criticize Vogel, Ray and Lemieux. Russell helped organize the 2009 effort to elect the conservative majority, including Silverthorn and Reynolds, to the school board. She also was on the task force that come up with DougCo’s Choice Scholarship voucher program, which was ruled unconstitutional by the Colorado Supreme Court and is currently awaiting U.S. Supreme Court review.
Russell serves alongside Cranberg on Leadership Program of the Rockies’ board of directors.
Tuesday night’s meeting was supposed to be the first opportunity for the public to weigh in on the costly investigation of Silverthorn and Reynolds. Board members had hoped that Netzorg, the report’s author, would attend to discuss it, but he didn’t show. According to school district attorney Rob Ross, Netzorg would not discuss the report except behind closed doors.
“Mr. Netzorg’s position is that he was engaged to provide a report, which stands for itself,” Ross told the board. If there were to be any questions about the report, Netzorg would address them only in executive session, which Ross said was unacceptable to the board.