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Ellicott school board election filled with controversy

October 11, 2011

The sentiment was spelled out on a big piece of plywood.

“Screw the recall.”

Vanessa Dahn, who supports the recall of two Ellicott school board members, was surprised to see the message on her neighbor’s property. “The PTA is supposed to be nonbiased,” she says.

Dawn Wheeler, Ellicott School District 22’s PTA president, says her husband put the sign up without her knowledge. It was immediately taken down. Wheeler agrees that it would be inappropriate as PTA president to take a stand on the recall. It’s one of the few things the two sides of Ellicott’s recall and school bond election can agree about, aside from everyone saying they want the best education for their kids.

Voters in November will decide the fate of a $2.3 million bond measure and whether to oust two board members.

A recall attempt last year failed when the county clerk determined that misinformation had been circulated and said there would be no recall election.
This time around, there have been personal attacks and complaints that campaign signs have been run over.

To make matters worse, school board member Stefanie Dickinson last week was charged by El Paso County prosecutors of two counts of Internet luring of a child. Deputies had arrested her after finding lewd text messages to a 14-year-old boy, including one saying she wanted to have sex with him.

It’s been a rough couple of years in this rural school district east of Colorado Springs. Because of state cuts to education, the D-22 budget dropped about $100,000, down to $7.2 million. The administration has been blasted for failing to retain teachers and raise test scores. The board has been accused of secrecy.
Many in the community see a silver lining in the bond measure. The 900-student district has been offered a state construction grant of $15.8 million but must fork over $2.3 million to get the state cash.

The state grant would be used to construct a nearly 75,000-square-foot “green” building to house a new middle school, preschool and administration offices, replacing a 60-year-old building with deteriorating walls, flooding, crowded classrooms, failing sewer system and crumbling foundation.

The taxes for the bond would offset reduced property tax assessments, so overall rates would remain the same, officials said.

In addition, the district has a large bond reserve fund balance from monies collected on bonds issued in 2000. Those bonds can be retired in 2014 instead of 2020, officials said, which would reduce the tax rate early.

Some in the community have questioned the taxes that resulted in the $2.1 million in reserves. But they support passing this new bond.

Ellicott voters also  will choose school board members.

Six candidates are vying for two open seats: Justina Brownewell, MaryAnna Clemons, Ernest Hudson, Joshua Murray, Donte Stewart and incumbent Todd Schainost.

Voters will also decide whether to recall Dickinson and Gary Lake, and select successors in case a recall is successful.

Dickinson resigned after the texting flap, but state rules require the recall to go forward.
Successor candidates for Dickinson’s seat are Gary Dahn and Cody Chambers. Dwight Hobbs is running to replace Lake.

The Gazette asked candidates about their top priorities and what they would do to heal the animosity in the district.
Todd Schainost, Dante Steward and Cody Chambers did not return calls and emails asking for comment. Candidate Dwight Hobbs could not be reached using information provided by the district.
Here are comments of candidates running for the two open four-year seats who responded:

• Justina Brownewell: My priority is to find ways for the community and board to put aside arguments and do what is best for kids. We need teacher retention, compromise, transparency, open communication. Have meetings where parents and teachers feel comfortable in expressing themselves. The board needs to be honest, don’t hide behind closed doors, and get community input through suggestion boxes and forums, not just at board meetings. We could have board meetings that are just for community input. People say they never see the board members. We need to get out in the community to get input.
With all the budget cuts, I’d like to see more volunteering. For example, we should get our senior citizens involved through adopt a grandparent and tutoring. They are such an asset.

• MaryAnna Clemons: First priority is to get the business matters of the district straightened out. I’d have the books audited to see where money is going and if it is going where it should be going to help students.
We have to gain the public’s confidence as a board. The board must be respectful of everyone, treat others like we have been asked to be treated. Be transparent, open to questions, allow feedback and be available.

• Ernest Hudson: Number one priority is repealing the restriction of public comment participation at board meetings. Now you have to get the superintendent’s approval two days before the meeting and tell what you are going to discuss. Getting their suggestion can help improve everything that is wrong from CSAP scores to teacher retention. We are dead last on salaries among districts in El Paso County. I’m sick and tired of that. There is room in the budget to pay them. Only about 41 percent of the budget goes directly to education.
To calm the district down, I’d get everyone to understand that when we talk about transparency and openness and that doesn’t mean if teachers and staff  have an opinion they would be in danger of losing their job. Engaging the community is a way to improve the district. Do a survey, get suggestions on how to solve problems and put it out there. The board members are elected officials, they should do what the community wants, without vendettas, lies that split the community, hidden agendas.

• Joshua Murray: Honestly, right now, my number one priority is to be the best school board member I can be, for the kids. I think sometimes we get so wrapped up in all the political stuff that we forget why we’re here. I have two of my own children and two exchange students that I consider my own in District 22, and I’m doing this for their future. I plan to jump in with both feet and do what I’m elected to do.
As for the recalls, I say let this be the end of it. If this recall doesn’t get a “yes” vote, I say we drop it. The vote will show what the will of the people is.

• Incumbent Gary Lake, who is targeted for recall: My top priority is kids. You have to consider federal law and state mandates, but you must keep focused on making the best decisions for the education of kids. If you don’t you are on the wrong trail. And that includes more than teaching reading, writing and arithmetic. It’s growing young people into successful adults.
We need to put aside the bickering. You do that by focusing on kids. If you keep your heart focused there, you can put aside the bickering. School board members shouldn’t be politicians. They are community servants. Obviously you look for good ideas and input. The bottom line is you have to live and die by putting kids first.

• Recall successor candidate Gary Dahn: My number one priority is to help build a school district known for its academic excellence. To do this some problem areas must be fixed first; such as teacher retention, open communications, board-focused program building and implementation. Our teachers are the worst paid in El Paso County, they need to be paid comparably, as well as implementing an award system for excellence. I will put the money where it does the most good: teachers, textbooks, and programs. Prepare students for college and the workforce by offering better classes that keep up with the times, and providing books, supplies and teaching aids.
 The recall was implemented because of a very ineffective board. Most of the division in this district has been generated by the school board not wanting to be open to the community. The board needs to tell the truth, invite and encourage community involvement, and foster a welcoming environment through district activities and mentoring. The board has to listen to students, staff and community and respond to their questions, ideas and concerns.

Contact Carol McGraw: 636-0371 Twitter @mcgrawatgazette Facebook Carol McGraw

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