February 27, 2019 News » Cover Story

Cripple Creek-Victor school district is headed for a showdown, with board members facing a possible recall election 

Battle Cry

click to enlarge Some question the ethics of being an employee and board member. - STACIE GONZALEZ
  • Stacie Gonzalez
  • Some question the ethics of being an employee and board member.

The first signs that serious trouble was brewing in Cripple Creek-Victor School District RE-1 came last spring, when the district's board levied 13 charges for termination for cause against its superintendent, Les Lindauer.

The board placed Lindauer on administrative leave after making various claims, including that Lindauer had been insubordinate to the board, cruel to some, and had threatened board members in an attempt to get a large payout. Then it fired him six months later, in November 2018, when a judicial arbiter ruled there was "good and just cause" to do so.

But the small district's troubles didn't end there. In the months leading up to Lindauer's expulsion, a group of district citizens took to social media to air their grievances against the board that fired him. Now they insist three of RE-1's five board members should be replaced, too.

Board President Tim Braun, Treasurer Dennis Jones and Secretary Tonya Martin are all the target of a recall effort started by Patty Waddle, Bill Arrick and Greg Brazill, members of a coalition that now calls itself Hear Us: For Better Schools.

The folks behind Hear Us aren't embittered fans of Lindauer. They actually formed in the fall of 2016 out of concern for the direction Lindauer was taking the district. Now that he's gone, the group has turned its attention to the board — they say some of its members are violating state statutes and district policies.

But really, this is just the latest sign of instability in RE-1, which has experienced a tremendous amount of change and conflict in recent years. Reports published by the Colorado Department of Education show: Teachers' average salaries in the district are $11,000 lower than in Colorado Springs School District 11; the 372-student district has had low state test scores for eight years that have necessitated performance and improvement plans; and chronic student absenteeism now hovers at 31 percent. There are various explanations for these problems: a lack of state funding, a shortage of affordable housing for prospective teachers, and student transiency associated with the gambling industry, just to name a few.

But the difference between all that and the current dust-up is that this problem isn't about circumstance; it's about leadership.

The people behind Hear Us question whether the board has a clear vision, let alone the right vision, to steer students toward success and unite a fractured community. Board members who spoke to the Independent, however, say they've done nothing wrong and they don't see a real challenge in Hear Us — just sour grapes.

Hear Us is composed of 54 community members who range in age from the late 20s to late 70s. The group includes licensed educators, school administrators, business owners, consultants, blue-collar and white-collar workers, politicians and stay-at-home parents. Members' incomes range from below the poverty threshold to six-figure incomes.

Hear Us organizer Patty Waddle, 65, of Florissant, a retired educator, says the district's problems can be addressed with the right leadership.

"We want to provide a learning environment that welcomes parents, community and professionals," she says. "And we want school district leaders who possess integrity, honesty, accountability and responsibility."

Bill Arrick, 62, of Cripple Creek, is another organizer. He's lived and worked in the district since 1994, teaching mathematics and serving on the school board in the past. He says there is a serious transparency issue with the current board. "There's an attitude of 'We're in charge, leave us alone,'" he says. "Parents and teachers should be able to approach board members without feeling intimidated and humiliated and stand up and express their concern for their child's education. We've got horror stories about that."

One of those "horror stories" belongs to Waddle. She says she submitted her intent to retire from RE-1 in October 2016. Waddle was the director of the district's Head Start program at the time, and says she had grown frustrated trying to make sure the district complied with Head Start regulations.

She says she moved to instigate tighter financial oversight, but instead of addressing her concern, Lindauer placed her on administrative leave. A Nov. 2, 2016, letter from Lindauer put Waddle on leave pending an investigation into "alleged inappropriate, unprofessional behavior and misconduct." It also banished Waddle from school grounds and forbade her from contacting staff, parents or officials.

Waddle says neither the administration nor the board questioned Lindauer's directives. Instead, for the next eight months the district paid her full salary and full benefits including insurance, and she continued to accrue discretionary days and vacation days. Waddle says she still doesn't understand why she was under investigation.

"I was never informed of anything concerning their 'investigation,'" she says. "I was never advised of any executive session that they may or may not have had concerning my case... I was never called... I can find no record on any board minutes concerning the school board's approval of the leave... I just waited at home by the phone as instructed."

Braun, the current board president, says he's sure Waddle knows why she was under investigation. "If she didn't, she could have appealed it to the school board," he says, "and she didn't."

click to enlarge Hear Us members Bill Arrick and Patty Waddle. - STACIE GONZALEZ
  • Stacie Gonzalez
  • Hear Us members Bill Arrick and Patty Waddle.

Waddle retired in June 2017 without fanfare. "I was probably the most loyal school district employee they ever had, and ya know, they ended my career that way," she says. "Forty-two years. I didn't even get a thank you note."

Braun dismisses Waddle as a disgruntled former employee. Waddle says she appreciates the eight-month paid vacation the district gave her, but that she wants answers about why she was placed on leave. She's also concerned about the way the district continued using her electronic signature and a Head Start credit card that listed her name in her absence. The district says the issues she cites are mere formalities — Waddle wasn't made to pay any of the charges, and her name was removed from accounts after she retired.

Troubled by the situation, Waddle decided to take action: She ran for the school board in Teller County's November 2017 coordinated election. "I need to get on the board," she told herself. "... I need to step up and be part of the solution."

Waddle lost her bid for the District E seat to Dennis Jones by 30 votes, in an election where only 27.9 percent of registered voters cast their ballots.

It seemed like the end of the line for Waddle.

Then a court document from Lindauer's arbitration hearing surfaced months later. In it, Lindauer claims Jones committed election fraud by lying about his residency and that the board knew about it. (In fact, according to the document, Braun claims Lindauer called him, and threatened to accuse the board members of election fraud to the attorney general unless they paid him two years' salary.)

Suddenly, Waddle was fired up again.

Prior to the election in question, district policy divided Cripple Creek-Victor RE-1 into five director districts: A, B, C, D and E. One criterion for being a qualified school board candidate was that you had to reside in the director district you ran in. On Aug. 22, 2017, Jones certified to Designated Election Official Elaine Hayden that he lived in District E. But Waddle claims this wasn't the case.

Waddle has an unofficial Cripple Creek Victor School District RE-1 Director Districts "B" and "E" map she says she paid the Teller County Assessor $15 to make for her. The map was created based on RE-1's district boundary policies in effect prior to Nov. 7, 2017, and it pinpoints Jones' address as being in District B. If that's true, Jones should have run against incumbent Tim Braun.

Braun brushes aside the recall effort. "It doesn't bother me in the least. Not in the least. I doubt they can get the signatures they need, I really do. Maybe they can. It's not that I'm going to be losing pay or anything."

(School board members are unpaid.)

According to Braun, Jones was certified as a District E resident in a prior election and no one questioned his residence then. He says if voters had an issue with the 2017 election, state law provides for an appeal.

"They waited until they thought they could cause a problem," he says, "and then all of a sudden they're saying 'Ah, he doesn't live there.' Well, they haven't provided any evidence that he doesn't. There is no evidence whatsoever that he doesn't live in that district. We have evidence that he does."

Actually, Lindauer was the first to raise the issue, in his due process hearing. He testified that Jones, Hayden and Braun were all aware that Jones did not live in District E, but the arbiter found that Lindauer's claims were unsupported by the evidence.

So who's right?

RE-1's current superintendent, Tory Richey, 46, of Colorado Springs, tells the Independent a judge looked at the district's boundary maps and determined Jones' address to be "right on the line" and no one, not even the county, could tell whether Jones lived in or outside of District E.

In response to an open-records request, Hayden, the district's business manager, told the Indy there are no "Official" school district boundary/director district maps. "There is only a general map that does not correspond to the written description that was in policy," she says. "Written policy is available on the district website under policies BBBG-E-5. This was the only official document."

click to enlarge Board President Tim Braun. - STACIE GONZALEZ
  • Stacie Gonzalez
  • Board President Tim Braun.

Why the district never hired a company to make a map, especially when a school board candidate's qualification rests on where he or she lives, remains a mystery.

Sheryl Decker, county administrator for Teller County, says the school district has not requested an official director seat boundary map from her staff, although she has the geographic information system (GIS) resources to create the map, including pinpointing Jones' address.

"If they need maps, I'm more than willing to help them, all they have to do is ask," says Decker. But until the district asks her to make a map, she says it's the school's job to tell someone if they are or are not in a district.

In the meantime, Braun says Waddle has sent Hayden 277 emails in the past year and made 77 public information requests. Braun says this borders on harassment and costs the district thousands of dollars.

"She needs her medication or something," says Braun. "If it was a parent that had a legitimate concern or something versus a person that just wants to cause trouble and cause you all the problems that they can, I'm sorry."

Braun has lived in the Cripple Creek area for 26 years and is a local business owner. He says serving on the school board is about giving back to the community and "the people that can, have to do it because there's a lot of people that can't." Braun adds that it's a challenge to find qualified people to serve on the board and on one occasion a seat sat empty for almost a year.

With two years left on his current four-year term, Braun says he is impressed with his district and that he has seen a big difference during the time he has served on the board. "Everything is unlike I've seen in six years. I'm not worried about anything. I really am not. Everything is doing excellent. And you're always going to have a certain percentage of people that it doesn't matter what you do for 'em, they're going to be dissatisfied. That's life."

"They can give it their best shot. I don't care," says Braun of the recall effort. "It's not gonna happen. It's not gonna go anywhere."

click to enlarge RE-1 Superintendent Tory Richey. - STACIE GONZALEZ
  • Stacie Gonzalez
  • RE-1 Superintendent Tory Richey.

It wouldn't surprise retired United States Marine Corps combat veteran Andrew Smith, 38, if it didn't happen either. He says Braun is "bulletproof" because "that's pretty well a good ol' boy club" there.

Smith owns a home in Cripple Creek and is the father of a boy with muscular dystrophy. He says he removed his son from the district's Cresson Elementary because RE-1 was lacking; he claims he could never get a nurse through the school to work with his child, and the school's leaders ignored his concerns about angry parents being allowed to scream in front of students. Smith says even as a Marine and a combat veteran trained to neutralize problems, the scenarios he witnessed between the school and the angry parents were "pretty frightening."

Smith also thinks it's wrong for board members to also hold paid positions with the school. And he thinks it's a slap in the face to credentialed teachers when Board Treasurer Dennis Jones, who has a Career & Technical Education authorization with a Law Enforcement Services endorsement, can teach courses he doesn't hold a professional teaching license for. He says the same overreach applies to Board Secretary Tonya Martin who is the district's Transportation Director. "If you think about it, it doesn't matter how poorly she performs," says Smith, "she'll never lose her job."

Penny Nau, on behalf of the Colorado Department of Education's Office of Professional Services and Educator Licensing, explains why Jones can teach classes he may not have expertise in. "Colorado is known as a 'local control' state," says Nau. "Basically, this means that all decisions about hiring/recruiting, teacher qualifications, compensation, benefits, etc., are handled at the school district level and not by the Colorado Department of Education."

She also adds that "If someone has been issued a CTE credential from CDE, that is considered a valid authorization that allows the holder to teach in a public school. He/she has met the occupational/educational experience requirements and passed a fingerprint background check."

Waddle finds the state's policy exasperating: "The people we are having to complain to are the people we have a complaint against!"

As for whether it's an ethical conflict to serve on a school board and be a paid district employee, Susan Meek, Communications Director for the Colorado Association of School Boards says, "The way it works here in Colorado is state law does not prohibit district employees from serving on the board; however, a local school board may adopt the conflict of interest policy that does prohibit district employment while someone is serving on the board. And that's basically what you'll see with most districts is that they have a conflicts of interest policy. Smaller school districts oftentimes may have people who are board members that may have part-time positions like the bus driver or seasonal positions like coaches. So, it's not uncommon for especially smaller districts to have board members that actually are a part-time employee for the district."

Hear Us needs the signatures of 400 registered voters who live in the school district — for each person targeted for recall — by March 11 in order to force a vote.

"I'm gunning for them because they're doing wrong things," says Waddle. "They're hurting our district, they're hurting our families, they're hurting our community, and it's got to stop. And if that means that I have to scream and holler and throw tantrums — I was a preschool teacher for years, I'm good at that — then I have to."

Waddle concedes that gathering the signatures will be a challenge. She claims that's because residents fear retaliation by members of the board and the administration if they find out who signed. (Braun also thinks they'll have a challenge, but for a different reason: People don't want to recall the board.)

Even if the recall is successful, Waddle says she won't run again. "I don't want this to be about me," she says.

Instead, she says, she just wants the public to be educated about the district. "If they know what's going on," she says, "others will step forward to vote and serve."

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