Polarization prevents selection of new DougCo school board member

There were no surprises in Tuesday night’s Douglas County Board of Education meeting.

The board was expected to vote on a replacement for departed member Doug Benevento, who stepped down a month ago, stating he had accomplished all he had set out to do.

Related: Benevento resigns from DougCo school board

And vote they did. Twice. In between votes, the three conservative members and the three parent-teacher-backed members bickered over whether there was a possibility of compromise.

Absolutely not, according to the three conservative members.

Members of the DougCo school board, split 4-3 with a conservative majority until Benevento resigned, have been at war with each other most of this year. The battle reached a fever pitch during the spring, after board President Meghann Silverthorn and Vice-President Judith Reynolds were accused of bullying a Ponderosa High School student, who claimed they tried to intimidate her into canceling a protest at the school over teacher turnover.

An investigation conducted by an attorney tied to Silverthorn’s biggest campaign contributor, Alex Cranberg, ruled that the two women did not violate board or district policies because the district’s anti-bullying policies did not apply to board contact with students. The investigation cost the district $163,696.

Related: Investigation declares DougCo school board members exempt from anti-bullying policy

At the center of Tuesday night’s fight: candidate Steve Peck, an operations manager at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, Anschutz campus. He is a three-year resident of Colorado and a Navy veteran.

Peck was one of four candidates nominated Tuesday night for the final vote. Dr. Jim Geddes, a conservative board member, nominated Peck. The three non-conservative board members nominated three other candidates whom they said had extensive experience in the district: Deborah O’Dell; John Freeman, a retired administrator with the Jefferson County, KY public schools; and Bob Kaser, former president of the Douglas County Educational Foundation. . The board members said all three were willing to consider asking voters to support bonds or mill-levy overrides to deal with critical construction needs. Peck told the board two weeks ago that in general, he was opposed to such tax measures.

Alec Greven, a student liaison to the board, asked the board to support O’Dell, a vice president for business intelligence at Catholic Health Initiatives, who also has a background in higher education. O’Dell was one of the three candidates backed by the parent-teacher-backed board members.

Greven said O’Dell had the qualities students want: a focus on finance and business, involvement with the district schools, and she would be a consensus candidate everyone could support. “She has the most broad skill set” of any of the candidates, Greven said. But he can’t vote.

Ray supported Greven’s position, noting that the student has “an ear for neutrality. When I hear a student perceive an applicant as an advocate for students and sharing expertise of business and finance, we should listen to that.” O’Dell has strengths in both areas, Ray said, and she could unify the board.

Related: How conservatives could take back the DougCo school board

Peck’s nomination became controversial due to his ties to the Leadership Program of the Rockies (LPR), the training ground for conservative political candidates and campaign officials. The program educates its students on public policy issues such as individual rights, personal responsibility, free markets, limited government, low taxes, and a strong national defense. LPR alumni also can tune into a built-in “who’s who” network of Colorado’s conservative leaders.

Silverthorn is an alumnus of the program. Cranberg sits on its board of directors.

Silverthorn didn’t mention either during the meeting, but launched into a defense of the program, claiming the other board members didn’t know anything about it. She accused the other board members of using LPR as a wedge issue to divide the board.

But board directors Wendy Vogel, David Ray and Anne Marie Lemieux pointed out that the candidates they nominated had far more experience, both in the district and with business and finance matters, the latter criteria being Silverthorn said she wanted. They also noted that the other three candidates had provided detailed information on why they wanted to serve, but that Peck’s application was light on such details.

Reynolds defended Peck’s qualifications, pointing out his military service and his experience in health care, which is similar to education, she said.

The board voted 3-3 on all four candidates, with all three conservatives voting only in favor of Peck and against the other three. Lemieux, Ray and Vogel voted against Peck and in favor of each of their nominees. This happened twice. Vogel, Ray and Lemieux pleaded with the three conservative board members to offer up a second choice candidate, claiming they would also make a second choice. Geddes, Reynolds and Silverthorn refused to do so, stating Peck was their choice, period.

“I understand your favoritism for Mr. Peck,” said Ray, “but for sake of board, look beyond your first choice.” He reiterated that position 11 times, according to an obviously irritated Geddes.

With a third round of voting looming, and no indication that a compromise was near, Silverthorn put an end to the matter and stated the board would take the vote up again on November 1.

But there’s a caveat. If the board cannot agree on a candidate on November 1,, Silverthorn has the unilateral authority to pick whomever she wants — in this case, ostensibly, Peck.

The meeting did not end well. Lemieux asked again that the board review a proposed policy that would provide guidelines on contact between board members and students. Lemieux pointed out that she’s asked seven times for the board to consider such a policy, but said Silverthorn has refused to allow it to be placed on the board’s agenda. “Just because you’re president doesn’t mean you have the authority to block another board member from putting something on the agenda,” Lemieux charged. Silverthorn countered that her role as president gives her the authority to set the agenda, and complained that Lemieux’s policy request was personally directed at Silverthorn.

Ray then made a last-minute motion to appoint O’Dell to the board. Silverthorn and Reynolds reacted by walking out. Geddes had already left.

has been a political journalist since 1998. She covered the state capitol for the Silver & Gold Record from 1998 to 2009 and for The Colorado Statesman in 2010-11 and 2013-14. Since 2010 she also has covered the General Assembly for newspapers in northeastern Colorado. She was recognized with awards from the Colorado Press Association for feature writing and informational graphics for her work with the Statesman in 2012.