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Douglas County school voucher program appears to be on the way out

November 29, 2017 Updated: November 29, 2017 at 5:32 pm
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Douglas County School District (Photo By John Leyba/The Denver Post)

The clock is ticking on the Douglas County School District's controversial voucher program.

The election earlier this month of four anti-voucher candidates reshaped the district's Board of Education from 4-3 in favor of vouchers to 7-0 against, means that the voucher program is all but certain to be trash-canned - the only question is how fast that will happen.

The board's Tuesday night meeting was reserved early on for the pomp and circumstance of swearing-ins and electing leadership. Colorado Politics has learned that the board might deal with the voucher program in a special meeting within the next two weeks, perhaps prior to the board's next regularly scheduled meeting on Dec. 12.

The voucher program, known as Choice Scholarship, was approved by the Douglas County board in March 2011, just over 16 months after voters put in a conservative majority. That majority included four members elected in 2009 who were backed by wealthy Republicans who support taxpayer-funded vouchers. Under the Choice Scholarship program, Douglas County students could use the vouchers to attend private schools, even schools that aren't in Douglas County.

The program never got off the ground. The nonprofit parents group Taxpayers for Public Education almost immediately sued to block its implementation. The lawsuit's plaintiffs also included a handful of individual parents, including Kevin Leung, who is among the board's newly-elected members. Leung told Colorado Politics Tuesday he will recuse himself on any board deliberations regarding the program, including a vote.

The lawsuit made its way to the Colorado Supreme Court, which in 2015 ruled the program unconstitutional based on the state's Blaine Amendment. That state constitutional amendment forbids the use of public dollars for sectarian, i.e. religious, education. The district, with more than $1.8 million in donations from the Daniels Fund and the Walton Family Foundation, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Last June, after ruling in a Missouri case that also hinged on that state's Blaine Amendment, the Court sent the Douglas County lawsuit back to the Colorado Supreme Court. Cindy Barnard of Taxpayers for Public Education said the next expected action is in mid-December, when another round of legal briefs is due from the school district.

But by then, the whole matter may be moot.

DougCo board member Wendy Vogel said the board might hold a special meeting within the next two weeks to resolve the voucher program issue. New member Anthony Graziano said he believes the board will deal with the program by its next meeting on Dec. 12.

"It's something we ran on," he said, but added that it's not yet clear what the board needs to do to put the issue to bed.

But for Tuesday, talk of vouchers was the elephant in the room, while the board reconfigured itself with new leadership, celebrating the election and beginning the process of moving on with pressing district needs, including the search for a superintendent, a potential mill levy issue to deal with millions of dollars in capital needs and how to persuade teachers, who are underpaid compared to some neighboring and competing districts, to stay in DougCo schools.

The swearing-in of the four new members drew a standing-room-only crowd to the district's Castle Rock boardroom. That crowd spilled over into the hallway and out onto the street outside the building. At one point a few became unruly and about a dozen were briefly ejected by Castle Rock police. One woman loudly spoke a profanity to a police officer as she was escorted out.

Inside, a few groans were heard when Superintendent Erin Kane complimented the departing board members, including controversial term-limited President Megann Silverthorn, about the "love and care you gave this district."

But once the former members were gone, the celebration was on, including a standing ovation for the new board and cheering from those outside the room, who watched the ceremony online.

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