Looking ahead to the November election for three positions on the Woodland Park School District Board, three residents announced their candidacy last week. Each has a student or students in the district.
In the past few weeks, Woodland Park has become a flashpoint around the nation for the divisions in the community after the election of the current board, whose president is David Rusterholtz and vice president is David Illingworth.
Among the controversies is the adoption of the American Birthright standards for social studies. According to the website: “American Birthright, developed by Civics Alliance, teaches students to identify ideals, institutions, and individual examples of human liberty, individualism, religious freedom, and republican self-government.”
The standards are not approved by the Colorado Education Association.
Bryant opposed the board’s adoption of the American Birthright before seeking input from the community.
“The standard is putting the quality of education at jeopardy,” he said. “I know that the standard strips away some of the requirements of the AP courses.”
Woodland Park is the only school in the nation, to date, that has adopted the American Birthright standard, he said.
“That makes me uneasy, especially because of the speed with which it was adopted,” he said. “This was a decision made in the back room by the school board. Our students are the guinea pigs.”
Bryant says he considers the American Birthright decision “frightening,” due to the lack of evidence on the efficacy of the social-studies standard for students.
“I’m seeing wild, unmeasured changes that aren’t results-backed,” Bryant said. “They almost seemed to be designed to bring attention to the board rather than to our schools.”
Chair of the District Accountability Committee that hired Ken Witt as the interim superintendent last year, Bryant said the vote was evenly split. Yet he said he felt Witt was not the best choice, particularly as there were other candidates.
“I cautioned the board about moving too fast; I think Ken Witt’s term has been controversial at best,” he said.
Bryant questions the decision to open Merit Academy, considering the divisions on the issue in the community.
“If the decision to open Merit, a charter school, had been less charged from the beginning when the former board rejected the application, the district could have done a better service for families and students,” he said.
Bryant questions the board’s decision to move the academy to the middle school.
“We have what looks to be a rush job, turning into piecemeal construction projects,” he said. “It’s throwing away money for temporary fixes.”
Merit students need a permanent building, he added.
“I think we missed an opportunity to do things right. We could have made Merit a shining city on the hill as an example of how a community brings in charter schools as partners,” he said. “It’s time the board comes up with good explanations for their decisions, Or they need to step aside for leaders who are more in touch with the community.”
A 20-year resident of Woodland Park, Knott hopes to change the direction of the school board.
“They are acting as if they were coronated rather than elected,” he said. “We’re seeing a mass exodus of teachers, of students and of money. We can’t afford that.”
To date, he said, more than 40 students are leaving the district to enroll in Manitou Springs High School.
“Every one of those students is money lost,” he said.
As a candidate, Knott zeroes in on the board’s relationship, or lack thereof, with the teachers.
“It is fractured; the proof is in the numbers we are losing, at least 40%.”
Despite the success of Merit Academy, Knott believes there will be a net loss of students next year. The students’ parents disagree with the American Birthright standards, Knott said.
“They disagree with the way teachers have been treated; there is a distinct lack of professionalism, a distinct lack of communication between board members and teachers.”
The board’s fiscal decisions are reckless, such as re-arranging the middle school, he said.
Earlier in the year, the board voted to move all sixth-grade classes to the elementary school, following an earlier decision to also establish Merit Academy at the middle school.
The move meant separating schools by funding the installation of security doors.
“They did all this without an economic impact study, without student and staff impact study,” he said “Without the study, the board did not know the true financial cost of the re-arrangement. That is not fiscal conservatism. It’s the opposite. There’s no plan.”
Knott opposes the board’s decision to decline federal grant money for counseling.
“Mental-health services that were grant-funded have been cut,” he said. “In today’s world, with school violence every day on the news, it seems to me that we ought to be affording our kids any possible resource that limits the chances of that happening.”
The board seems to have a particular agenda, Knott said. “I think it’s radical, not traditionally conservative,” he said. “And I think it is harming our children,”
Knott decided to do something about his concerns. “I’m running because I want my daughter to receive an education in a traditional public school that teaches her to critically think about the world she has to navigate,” he said.
A specialist in human resources and conflict management, Keegan Barkley is concerned about what she sees as a toxic environment since the election two years ago.
“In the coffee shops or restaurants, you can see people looking over their shoulders; there’s a lot of hushed conversation,” she said. “That’s not the community I fell in love with.”
The divisions in the community make it difficult to attract the type of teachers the district needs, she said.
“I see the board chasing away this wonderful talent. What happens when we can’t hire teachers because of the bad press about the board?”
Acknowledging the controversy over Merit Academy, Barkley says the school meets a need.
“I don’t have a problem with Merit,” she said. “My issue comes with the way it was put in place, just a lot of backroom deals. There weren’t feasibility studies to see how this would affect the district.”
In addition to changing the social studies curriculum, the board hired Lis Richard, MA, educational consultant with Helping Schools Thrive, to write the curriculum.
“According to the contract that I have received, it is my understanding that we paid $4,700 for services to create the experimental AB curriculum,” Barkley said, adding that she obtained the document via a CORA request.
Helping Schools Thrive, LLC, works exclusively with private, Christian and charter schools, Barkley added.
However, the curriculum does include information about other religions.
“But it’s one line as opposed to the three or four sections on Christianity” Barkley said. “We just need to make sure, in public school, that we’re keeping it balanced, that students are learning how religion, in historical context, influenced decisions as opposed to getting into actual religion instruction.”
With controversy seeding national news, Barkley looks on the bright side. “That means that everyone is passionate,” she said. “I think if we can work on the communication line and focus in one direction this town would absolutely take off.”
With decisions by the board, along with community division, Barkley sees a risk to education in Woodland Park.
“I want to make sure I do everything I can to help our children be successful,” she said.
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