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Concerns rise over the politicization of school boards after majority of Elizabeth school board resigns

Elizabeth school board resigns
Posted at 8:53 PM, Mar 14, 2023
and last updated 2023-04-10 11:30:31-04

DENVER — A majority of the Elizabeth School District Board of Education resigned from their positions Monday after weeks of tension.

The resignations of President Cary Karcher, Vice President Kim Frumveller and Secretary Craig Blackham were accepted in a roughly six minute long meeting Monday evening. Only two members, Heather Booth and Rhonda Olsen, remain.

The resignations come after the principal of Running Creek Elementary announced her own resignation in January, accusing two board members of personal agendas and the need for power and control.

During a January school board meeting, Principal Robin Hunt said she was treated shamefully and disrespectfully.

In recent months, public comment during the board meetings has devolved into one parent after another expressing fears about critical race theory and LGBTQ+ topics being taught in schools.

“We do not want boys being told that they can be girls or girls that they can be boys. We do not want to support mental illness that says children can identify as cat or dog,” said one parent during a February school board meeting.

There is no evidence any of these topics are being included in the curriculum. In fact, many of the parents and school board members clarified that the topics are not being explicitly taught in schools, but they fear the subjects could creep in one day.

At a board meeting the following month, Elizabeth High School Principal Bret McClendon denied those assertions.

“We are not teaching critical race theory, nor are we indoctrinating kids about non-traditional lifestyles,” McClendon said.

Still, the topic has dominated conversations at board meetings and between members, leading to Monday’s resignations.

“Board member personal agendas created an environment where the board spent more time discussing personnel issues and the presence or prevention of radical left-wing ideologies such as CRT, SEL and Restorative Justice that do not exist in our district,” Karcher said in his letter of resignation.

She went on to say that the board’s role is not to micromanage but to move the district forward, saying the board has lost its way.

Karcher, who served more than five years as school board president, went on to say that the board meetings have become chaotic with behaviors that are unbecoming of the community, saying they are too focused on public comment and not focused enough on the business of the district.

“I cannot see spending full time debating issues that are not issues, spending time going back and forth on disagreements,” he said.

Instead, Karcher said the focus should be on teacher salaries and retention.

In his resignation letter, Blackham said there has been a complete breakdown by the school board of policy, values, ethics and confidentiality agreements. He also accused the board of violating state law, but did not go into detail.

He went on to say that he cannot be part of a group that disrespects order so casually.

Frumveller echoed her colleagues' sentiments in her resignation letter, saying her days have become full of issues and lies that never seem to stop.

Elizabeth is far from the first Colorado school district in recent years to see national political discourse creep into its meetings.

Douglas County experienced its own tensions over masking policies and remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. There was also the high-profile firing of then-Superintendent Corey Wise that led to litigation.

At Denver Public Schools, Board of Education President Xóchitl Gaytán spoke out against two fellow board members last year, saying she was verbally attacked.

Education experts tell Denver7 there are worries about the politicization of school board and the loss of focus on children.

“There's no doubt that the local school board politics is being politicized more than ever before,” said Bret Miles, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives.

He saw the divisiveness really start to ramp up during the pandemic, and projects school board elections will be even more highly contested this fall.

Instead of focusing on issues that impact the everyday lives of students and staff — such as teacher retention and salaries, student safety, achievement and success — Miles says book bans and politics have taken over. He worries that some may choose to not run for these seats as a result of how divisive the positions have become.

“School board elections will have serious consequences if people who value those stay on the sideline while a few people come to stay focused on a few narrow topics,” Miles said.

Meanwhile, Kathy Schultz, dean of the School of Education at the University of Colorado at Boulder, says while this type of divisiveness is not happening at all school districts, it does pose a problem.

“What we saw over the last couple of years is a lot of censorship, a lot of people from outside of schools who don't necessarily have much understanding of curriculum, taking control away from teachers making decisions,” Schultz said.

From her experience, while many parents are supportive of their own child’s teacher or school, they do have a lot of overarching criticisms or concerns. Schultz believes ceding too much power to those who do not understand curriculum or do not have expertise in education can be dangerous.

She also worries about the amount of national attention and national political money being poured into local school board elections.

“The losers are children And I don't know that the winners are the politicians. I think that's, I think the politicians would like to be the winners, but I don't know that it's a winning political move,” Schultz said.

In the end, both Schultz and Miles hope that school boards will be able to sway away from the politics and focus on the needs of students.

After the Elizabeth resignations, the two remaining board members may decide to declare an extraordinary circumstance to continue with district business. It is now accepting applications for the three open positions.

The board will fill the roles of president and vice president during a meeting Thursday.

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