Aseries of controversial proposals have rocked Colorado Springs' largest school district over the last month, including the possibility of converting public schools into private charter schools and going to a year-round schedule.
But some school board members say these ideas are just a smokescreen for the real fight as they brace for an upcoming November election in which they expect all hell to break loose.
At stake is whether School District 11 voters decide to install a pro-privatization slate of candidates who favor vouchers and charter schools and wish to wrest control from the teachers' union. Voters will also likely choose whether to allow the district to raise property taxes to pay for school funding authorized last November.
"This is going to be the most historic election for D-11," said board member Karen Teja, who, having served two terms, cannot run for re-election. She expects the contest to amount to a "bloodbath."
A pretty bleak picture
Board member Willie Breazell, who was elected in November of 2003 along with fellow privatization advocates Eric Christen and Craig Cox, has recently suggested converting two underperforming elementary schools, Hunt and Adams, into charter schools.
"Charter schools are always an option," Breazell said in a telephone interview, adding that "parents need to get involved" and understand all of the options they have.
Teja called the privatization suggestion a "chaos tactic," designed to influence the election by pointing a finger at a failing part of the school district and creating controversy over charter schools.
Christen could not be reached for comment and Cox did not return phone calls.
"I'm getting tired of this misrepresentation that District 11 is against choice," said term-limited board member Mary Wierman. The district, she noted, already contains six charter schools and will add a seventh this fall.
The real problem, Wierman and others say, is the district's funding shortfall -- a $131 million capital improvements backlog with a $9 million capital shortfall annually.
Last November, voters agreed by 54 percent to let the district borrow almost $132 million to take care of the problem. But a majority voted against a separate ballot item that would have allowed the district to raise property taxes to pay off the bond.
School finances are a "pretty bleak picture," said Glenn Gustafson, the district's chief financial officer. "We're caught in that bind because we didn't pass that bond issue."
Ugly and mean
But wrangling over the elementary schools, or whether to initiate year-round schooling to ease overcrowding in Martinez and Scott elementary schools, may divert attention from what bond supporters say is the solution.
Passing the property tax increase in November "is the only way to ease overcrowding," said Mary Ellen McNally, chairwoman of Friends of District 11, the organization that supports the tax increase.
As for the board election itself, "it's going to be one of the ugliest, meanest, campaigns" involving huge amounts of money, predicted board president Sandy Shakes. Also elected in November 2003, Shakes was initially closely associated with Christen, Cox and Breazell, and was noted for accepting money from longtime school-choice movement financier Steve Schuck.
She's since distanced herself from Schuck's "reform" movement. Fighting against big money to prevent a board takeover will be difficult, she said, but added, "I don't think it's an uphill battle; you just see what their agenda is."
-- Dan Wilcock
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