The four new school board members who seized control of Colorado Springs School District 11 last November can't seem to understand why some people don't like them.
During the campaign leading up to the November election, mass mailings in support of the four -- Sandy Shakes, Craig Cox, Willie Breazell and Eric Christen -- assailed their opponents as being "union-boss endorsed" and "anti-parental rights." The victorious candidates, who have pledged their support for vouchers, have vilified teachers unions and threatened to fire district employees since taking office.
Yet the new public servants have expressed surprise and indignation at being the targets of criticism themselves. Cox and Christen have both complained bitterly during board meetings of being "maligned" and "impugned" in the media.
Honestly, the new board members insist, they just want to improve education in the district. And while they might be upsetting some people in the process, it's because they're serious about change, Breazell says.
"The difficulty is getting the people in the school district to understand that we're about business, we're about efficiency, we're about accountability," Breazell said. "And that is something that heretofore had not been."
With the exception of Breazell, who had been an outspoken voucher advocate for years, the four new D-11 board members were relatively unknown prior to November's election. Breazell works as an engineer; Shakes is a former District 11 teacher; Cox is a private investigator; and Christen is a business lobbyist who moved to Colorado Springs in 2002.
The four received record-breaking campaign contributions from a group of longtime leaders in Colorado's pro-voucher movement -- Colorado Springs real-estate developer Steve Schuck and Denver businessmen Alex Cranberg, Ed McVaney and John Saeman.
Of the four new board members, only Breazell agreed to be interviewed for this series. Breazell said his main reason for serving on the board, and for backing vouchers, is to improve minority education.
"My thought is to take a look at the entire spectrum of what's going on in District 11 -- particularly in the southern portion of District 11, where most of our black and brown, poor whites, Native Americans live --and see what can be done." Breazell said. "The whole idea behind vouchers is to give poor kids -- regardless of who they are, black brown, whatever -- poor kids an opportunity to get out of underachieving, under-performing public schools."
While opponents say vouchers will weaken public schools further by siphoning off sorely needed money, Breazell says he believes the challenge from private schools will force public schools to improve. "I see this as creating competition," he said. "Ultimately, the kids win."
And while board members have talked about firing staff, Breazell downplayed the threat to district employees, saying those who are doing a good job have nothing to fear.
"The teachers that are exceptional, that are doing a good job out there, they have no better friend than the four of us -- probably all seven of us," Breazell said. "But those that are not doing a good job, perhaps they need to find some other place to go."
Vows to end public education
But Breazell's reassurances notwithstanding, some suspect the board of harboring a radical agenda.
By several indications, the D-11 board's new majority is aligned with a national conservative movement whose goal is to eventually privatize public education altogether. Public-education advocates say the privatization movement's followers have two main motivations: enabling for-profit corporations to get their hands on the countless billions of dollars the government spends on education; and to weaken teachers unions, viewed by conservatives as a wing of the Democratic Party.
"They want government out of education," said Deborah Fallin, a spokeswoman for the 37,000-member Colorado Education Association, the state's largest teachers union.
If this all sounds like a paranoid conspiracy theory, consider the following: Prior to running for office, Christen signed an online proclamation calling for an outright end to public education.
"I proclaim publicly that I favor ending government involvement in education," reads the statement, promoted by the California-based group Alliance for the Separation of School & State.
Christen's campaign materials said nothing about ending public education. But if that's what he wants to do, "then why the hell is he on the school board?" wondered Mark Townsend, a District 11 resident and president of the Colorado Parent Teacher Association.
Megan Day, a D-11 resident and member of the newly formed citizens group Alliance for Quality Public Schools, has her own theory.
"He's not there to support students," Day said of Christen. "He's there to undermine the district."
Neither Breazell, Cox nor Shakes appears to have signed the proclamation. But when asked if he agreed with it, Breazell wouldn't give a straight answer.
"I don't know," Breazell said. "I'd have to do some research on that, to see where I really stand."
Moreover, the four board members' chief campaign contributor, Schuck, once spent his own money trying to prevent increased funding for public education in Colorado. Four years ago, Schuck gave $20,000 to a committee working to defeat Amendment 23, a statewide ballot measure to increase K-12 education funding. Voters, however, approved the measure by a wide margin.
Breazell said Schuck's opposition to Amendment 23 wasn't a concern to him.
"I'm not sure Amendment 23 is helping us," Breazell told the Independent. "I'm not sure we're doing the right thing with the money."
People are talking
Historical voting patterns, meanwhile, raise doubts as to whether the new board majority has a mandate for its agenda among D-11 residents.
In 1998, 52 percent of the district's voters opposed a statewide referendum to implement vouchers, which went down to defeat. Two years later, 56 percent of the district's voters supported Amendment 23.
To their credit, the four new board members have at least stirred public interest in D-11 affairs, says fellow board member Karen Teja. Board meetings have seen record attendance since last November's election.
"We've had more people talking to us with passion about educating children than I've seen in a long time," she said. "That's the good news."
The bad news, Teja said, is that "they're talking on a fear basis."
-- Terje Langeland
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