D-49 parent wants voters to decide on new school configuration

By Debbie Kelley Published: June 20, 2013 | 8:45 pm 0

Voters in Falcon School District 49 may get to decide in November whether to require three of its five board of education members to reside within the boundaries of specific Innovation Zones in the district.

Parent Kevin Butcher asked the board on Thursday to consider referring the measure to the Nov. 5 ballot.

But he did not get enough support.

Initially scheduled as an action item and then downgraded for discussion only, the proposal failed to earn the backing of at least three of the board members.

Butcher told the board that he will initiate a petition drive to collect signatures from 5 percent of the nearly 48,500 registered voters in D-49 to place the question before voters.

"We have enough community support and interest to do this," he said.

Under Butcher's proposal, D-49's board structure would change from five at-large seats to three seats filled by community members who live in the area they want to represent and two at-large members.

Butcher argued that the switch would provide "better governance."

"The fundamental nature of representative government is based in geographic areas," he said. "To have a school board member represent the zone, whose kids were in the zone, you have a closer, more accessible feel."

Board member Marie Lavere-Wright favors taking the issue to voters, primarily, she said, because in recent years, there has not been equal distribution of board members across the district's expansive geographic reach of some 110 square miles.

"I think we need to make sure we have voices from all parts of our district," she said.

She also believes the setup would lower the costs for candidates running for election, since they would have a smaller area to canvass.

Historically, candidates have had to spend about $3,000, mostly on signs and other marketing materials, Lavere-Wright said.

"Someone with modest means might not have the money to run," she said. "I think we'd end up with people feeling it's more doable this way."

Board President Tammy Harold also likes the idea.

"This is another initiative coming from the community instead of the top down," she said, "which is what we've been talking about for the past two and a half years."

Facing severe budget cuts, D-49 reorganized its hierarchical structure and adopted the Innovation Zone model in January 2011. Under it, schools are divided geographically into three zones, the Falcon Zone, the Power Zone and the Sand Creek Zone. A fourth zone, the iConnect Zone, encompasses a virtual school and charter schools. Each zone has the autonomy to make decisions based on the needs of its students.

Butcher said the ballot initiative is not an action against the current board, whose members brought the Innovation Zone concept to the district.

"It's a good plan - it's designed to give more control and decision-making at a smaller level," he said. "This is the next logical step."

Board member Chuck Irons questioned the legality of the ballot proposal, saying he didn't think it would be allowed under state statutes governing school boards.

Butcher said the wording of the measure could be made to fit legal constraints.

Based on studying other school districts that have taken the same approach, Irons said, "I find it does not improve the candidate quality or quantity."

For example, he said, in the past several election cycles, Lewis-Palmer School District 38 has only had one or two candidates per zone.

"I think the concept works better in a metropolitan area where you've got a couple hundred thousand people," he said.

Other drawbacks Irons noted were possibly having to cancel elections because of a lack of contested races, the need for more population reassessments and members having to forfeit their seats if they move out of the zone they represent.

Butcher believes a change in board governance would build more trust between the community and elected members.

"By electing somebody from their smaller community, that you'll see in the stores, at school plays, there will be more accessibility and familiarity," he said. "It's the heart of representative government."

If the measure were to make it to the ballot and be approved by voters, current board members would not be impacted, Under Colorado election law, the new structure would not take effect until the 2015 election.

In other action, the D-49 board approved an $82 million budget for 2013-2014, which includes an approximate 2 percent salary and benefits increase for most of the 1,500 staff and faculty members.

D-49 is one of the fiscally healthiest school districts among Colorado's 20 largest districts, ranking fifth in the 2009-2010 academic year and second in the two previous school years, according to Brett Ridgway, chief business officer.

The board also agreed to accept proposed budgets for its five district charter schools: the Banning Lewis Ranch Academy, GOAL Academy, Pikes Peak School for Expeditionary Learning, Rocky Mountain Classical Academy and The Imagine Classical Academy.

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