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This is Our Voice
written by student journalist, Jamie Nickel
Additional information gathered by student journalists, Brandie Meadows and Riley Hyvonen
We are the forgotten. We are the important. We are the students.
It’s amazing how in a campaign race that will decide our futures more than anyone else’s, no one has thought to ask us what we think, what we feel.
So, whether or not you ask us, we will tell you. This is our voice.
In the last week, the incumbents and their opposers running for election to the Douglas County School Board have faced off twice. The first debate, held at Mountain Vista High School, became extremely heated. On Monday night, Highlands Ranch High School’s AP government classes held another forum, this time only for Mr. Kevin Larsen, the current president of the school board, and his opposer Mrs. Anne-Marie Lemieux. They were each asked a series of questions and at the beginning were given unlimited time to answer. As the night progressed, the questions developed into speed rounds where each candidate had only a minute to answer.
Throughout the night, Lemieux offered direct answers to every question she was given. If she attacked the current system or Larsen’s ideas, she immediately backed it up with her own substitute. Larsen, on the other hand, refused to actually answer a single question, deciding instead to detail for us how his history of volunteering at schools without ever having to teach in front of a class qualifies him to be president of the school board. Not once did he offer a proposal for future reform; rather, Larsen promoted his pay-for-performance system quoting unattractive statistics about teacher turnover rates during his reign. In the pay-for-performance system, teachers are evaluated as highly effective, effective, partially effective or ineffective. The statistics Larsen quoted supposedly from the Colorado Open Records Act, or CORA, shows in the 2013-2014 school year, 41 highly effective teachers, 215 effective teachers, 74 partially effective teachers and only 9 ineffective teachers left Douglas County. This translates to nearly 16% of our top teachers fleeing the county, without even considering the partially effective teachers. When they are factored in, the grand total is a 43% turnover rate. Only 9 out of 20 districts in Colorado have higher turnover rates than Douglas County. For a county ranked as the fourth wealthiest in the nation, this number is staggering. We should want to keep our teachers, not scare them away, right?
Furthermore, why is it that teachers are legitimately scared to speak out against the current regime in the fear that by doing so they will lose their jobs? The employee handbook states: “Any behavior that unnecessarily increases any workplace disagreement or workplace tension is unacceptable…” (“Employee Handbook” 37). As stated by Lemieux, this translates to not bad mouthing the current system, no matter how broken it is. However, it also states in the introduction of the handbook that “The contents of this handbook and any verbal statements by management do not constitute an express or implied contract of employment.” Although it may be expected that teachers don’t create hostile environments for their co-workers as a general rule, the handbook in no way states that by simply verbalizing grievances teachers ought to face punishment of some sort. Larsen’s pay-for-performance is not only driving away a large portion of our great teachers, it's scaring the ones who remain into silent submission. Teachers refuse to discuss their beliefs on the current system, terrified word of it will reach their administrators resulting in a “ding” on their evaluation. The irony of this is astounding. Under the district’s newly implemented GVC, teachers are supposed to encourage their students to critically think and continuously question to find different solutions to any given problem. I realize writing this will create conflict, but I would encourage the board to practice what they preach: critically think through this current issue. Parents, teachers, and most importantly students are frustrated with how things are being run. What is your solution?
Quite possibly most disturbing of all is Larsen’s self-admitted loyalty to the Republican Party who has so generously funded him. In the Colorado Association of School Board’s 2015 Election Candidate Guide, it explicitly states that board members must avoid conflicts of interest and must never use their position for personal or partisan gain. It also states that members ought to “ refuse to surrender... judgment to individuals or special interest groups.” No matter how much one claims he/she forms his/her own opinions, if he/she is being funded by a certain group he/she will most definitely subconsciously, if not consciously, be biased towards the wants of that group. In what is supposed to be a nonpartisan race, this creates a major problem. Even if Larsen isn’t running directly as a Republican, this does not change the fact that he is accepting money and thus a political bias. Education should not be political. Education should not be biased. Clearly, Larsen does not feel the same way.
As a student, it is appalling to think that our board of education believes this is the best way to teach students. How can I succeed and learn unbiased materials when my teachers are afraid to say what they really want to say? There is no question that the current system messes with the livelihoods of our extraordinarily gifted teachers; however, it goes beyond that. This system creates a direct threat to my future as a student, to my ability to learn and succeed in an environment free from fear, bias, and corruption.
So, this election day, just remember one thing: it isn’t about what the board wants and it is most certainly not about political parties or who is funding this race. It’s about our students’ quality of education. That quality of education begins with the care and treatment of our teachers’ and parents’ inputs. This means the board needs to be actively communicating with our teachers and parents and even us, the students, instead of scaring everyone in their path into submission. We are not the forgotten. We are the important. We are the students.