Bruell column: Seeking school board candidates who aren’t looking to turn classrooms into battlefields

Debbie Bruell
Debbie Bruell.

Most of us still remember our favorite teachers. Maybe they sparked our curiosity, believed in us when others didn’t, or gave us the confidence to pursue a passion. As the mom of two graduates from our local public schools, I’m forever grateful for the wonderful teachers who guided and supported my daughters. 

If we want kids growing up in Garfield County today to have those same kinds of experiences, it’s time to get engaged in the upcoming school board elections. The majority of seats will be determined this November. We need candidates focused on keeping school districts running smoothly, ensuring they are places where teachers want to teach and students can excel.

Finding good candidates is more important than ever. Across the nation, misguided school board members are dragging their communities into grueling conflicts that pit neighbor against neighbor, drain precious resources from children’s education, and create inhospitable environments for teachers to teach. 

These school board members use a common playbook: they make drastic, ideologically-based decisions with little or no input from teachers or community members; then squash any discussion or debate about their policies, which they know are unpopular.

Colorado’s Woodland Park School District, where such candidates won the majority in 2021, serves as a cautionary tale. First, they approved a previously denied charter school without even listing this topic on the board agenda, as required by law. A judge determined this to be “a conscious decision to hide a controversial issue.”

Amid growing discontent around their actions, the board has reprimanded staff who dare to speak up. Sara Lee, a 17-year veteran teacher at Woodland Park High School, was involuntarily transferred out of her position after objecting to board decisions. She said teachers feel “targeted, threatened, and unsafe.”

In an email  released through an open records request, one board member encouraged the use of another tactic for stifling resistance, “…if you advance on many fronts at the same time, then the enemy cannot fortify, defend, [or] effectively counter-attack at any one front. Divide, scatter, conquer. Trump was great at this in his first 100 days.”

Hostile strategies like these have enabled the Woodland Park board to ram through sweeping changes, including eliminating social work and counselor positions and controlling what teachers can teach.

Joe Dorhn, a Woodland Park parent who described himself as a staunch Republican, told NBC News, “I think they look at us as this petri dish where they can really push all their agenda[s] and theories. They clearly are willing to sacrifice the public school and to put students presently in the public school through years of disarray to drive home their ideological beliefs. It’s a travesty.”

How can teachers focus on teaching when school board members are governing as if they are in battle, and when fear and intimidation pervade the schools? At least four top Woodland Park district administrators have quit because of the board’s policy changes and nearly 40% of the high school’s professional staff plan to leave the district.

Teacher pay in Colorado ranks far below the national average. The high cost of living in our region makes retaining and recruiting dedicated teachers even more challenging. The last thing we need is board members creating havoc in our districts. 

We’re already seeing worrisome moves on the Garfield Re-2 board. Without listing it as an agenda item, the board spent over an hour at their June 14 meeting discussing the controversial topic of rejecting the state’s social studies standards. The Colorado Board of Education completes an extensive public process for each set of standards they adopt. Rejecting state standards is a highly unusual move. 

The Re-2 board discussed hiring the consultant who advised the Woodland Park district on switching to the American Birthright Standards, which proponents describe as the sort of work Trump’s 1776 Commission might have created had it continued. Like Woodland Park, the Re-2 board is also considering opting out of state-funded mental health services for students.

Here in Garfield County we pride ourselves on being good neighbors and looking out for one another. I hope some of you will take that commitment to caring about our community one step further and consider running for your local school board. 

You don’t need an advanced degree or educational expertise to serve as a good school board member. You simply need to be a good listener, team player, and problem solver; and you need to prioritize our students and teachers over any political ideology. 

Regardless of political party, we need board members who value transparency, collaborative decision-making, and constructive dialogue. 

The deadline for candidate petitions is September 1. Do you know someone who might run with a little encouragement from others? Let’s find some good candidates to keep our school boards running smoothly and make sure our schools are great places for students to learn and teachers to teach.

Debbie Bruell of Carbondale chairs the Garfield County Democrats and is a past member of the Roaring Fork Schools Board of Education.

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