Best Political Drama In the High Country!

Merit Academy Recognition Sparks Huge Debate at RE-2 School Board Meeting

Trevor Phipps

With a new Woodland Park RE-2 School Board assuming power, following the November election,  their meetings are commanding an unprecedented amount of interest.

In fact, they are now the talk of the town.

During a special board meeting last week, the board room reached a capacity level, and the crowd overflowed into the lobby with 100 -plus attendees.

The agenda featured presentations meant to educate the board, but discussions still got heated at times mainly during the public comment sessions and for the board director presentations.

The board announced at the outset that the meeting agenda would be changed due to a restructuring of how their sessions will be conducted. Now the superintendent and the board directors will have a chance to give opening remarks, prior to formal business items. Presentations will also occur at end of the meeting.

Public comment will also be held before the business items  and at the close of the meeting. According to Board President David Rusterholtz, the change was made so that members of the audience had a chance to comment on items discussed during the meeting. Previously, public comment was only available in the beginning of the meeting.

During public comment, the majority of the people spoke in support of the Merit Academy. Previous board president Gwynne Dawdy-Pekron gave a presentation about the academy, which opened at a rented spot in downtown Woodland Park despite their charter application being turned down by the RE-2 District Board last year.

She said that the school is currently operating, and that they have more than 180 students enrolled full time there, and dozens of others are participating in their part-time home school program. She also said that the school has a waiting list of 100 students wanting to attend.

One resident, Todd Wiseman, told the board that he had nine children and none of them attend school within the district. “I have lived within the district for 12 years and with a few exceptions we have not used the district at all,” Wiseman said. “I’m sure it is a great resource for many families, but I’m not sure that it fit our needs. I’m a firm believer in school choice. I have three children in Merit today and another child in the back who is one waiting list of 100. So far it has been a great opportunity for us and I hope that Merit can be brought into the district and given the same resources that others in the community have.”

The next speaker was Wiseman’s daughter, who is currently a student at the new Merit Academy. “I am Merit Academy student and this year is the first year that I did not do home school,” Mary Wiseman said. “I like Merit Academy a lot. Our middle school has moved once already and our elementary has moved twice. I think that we should get a real building because the building we are at right now has dividers as walls and it is really loud.”

Another member from the public told their story of why their children attend Merit instead of a school within the district. He was part of a number of audience members who attended the meeting to support the new school board authorizing the Merit Academy as a designated charter school.  This could open the door for Merit to receive some district funding.

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But not all the speakers at last week’s meeting were pro-Merit advocates.

Erin O’Connell, a local business owner, parent and the wife of a teacher in the district, took to the podium to address the board with some of her concerns.

“Yesterday, the Colorado Education Association released its annual state of education report,” O’Connell said. “Along with the report, the president said that a recent survey showed that 67 percent of their members are considering leaving the profession of teaching. How did we get here? A year and a half ago, our teachers were labeled as heroes as they took maybe the most difficult time in our entire lives and dedicated it to our children. They were engaged, they were creative, and they were exhausted but they kept going. How did it get to the point where our community is treating its teachers as enemies? Where community members are claiming to be better versed on curriculum decisions than the experts who implement curriculum.”

After public comment, Attorney Brad Miller gave a presentation to educate the board on the roles and responsibilities of the board and their relationship with the superintendent. Next, Executive Director of Business Services Brian Gustafson gave a presentation on the process of adding a charter school to the district.

Then, Executive Director of Student Success Tina Cassens outlined the district’s policies regarding teaching about controversial/sensitive Issues. In the end, the board decided to redraft the policy and change some of the language in it.

The final public comments mostly consisted of more audience members for and against chartering the Merit Academy. The meeting ended with no action taken on the Merit Academy question.  Plus, the controversial issue of  restructuring the board has not yet been discussed. This idea, which would give the board more authority in handling day-to-day operations and in dealing more with such issues as student curriculum, was proposed by several of the recently-elected board members.