Woodland Park RE-2 School Board Meetings Command Local Spotlight

Superintendent Dr. Mathew Neal and School Board President David Rusterholtz

Fierce Debate Continues on Merit Academy Designation

Trevor Phipps

The Woodland Park RE-2 School District Board of Education has started getting down to business and is now responding to an unprecedented amount of spotlight attention.

For 2022, the district added seats to their conference room and began  live streaming the meetings to accommodate more spectators, as their sessions have recently generated much interest.

Last week’s meeting featured several educational presentations, including one from a lawyer to talk about chartering the Merit Academy. Other presentations dealt with the district’s assets protection plan and additional financial business. The main feature of the evening though was once again the public comments portions of the meeting, as 15 people signed up to address the board.

District officials said that they will be streaming all of the meetings online so that people from out of town can join in starting this week. Typically, the board only meets on the second Wednesday of every month.

But, the board has decided to add several work sessions to January. A work session was held before last Wednesday’s meeting and there will be a work session this week and  on Jan. 26 as well.

School Board Directors at the January 12 meeting. Director Chris Austin was absent due to personal reasons.

During last week’s meeting, the usual board room was not quite set up yet with their new video streaming system, so they changed the venue to the high school auditorium to accommodate more residents. And again, a major portion of the meeting had to do with approving the Merit Academy as a charter school within the district.

At the outset, Board Director David Illingworth II took the floor to address a possible conflict of interest. He explained that he felt he needed to address the issue since there was an agenda item concerning the Merit Academy.

School Board Vice President David Illingworth II

Illingworth explained that his wife was on the steering committee for the Merit Academy and that he researched the legality surrounding a possible conflict of interest before he decided to run for the school board. But he pointed out that both his and his wife’s position with the separate boards were unpaid, volunteer roles.

“I did research the law on this before I entered the campaign, because it didn’t seem ideal to get into an election when I had a conflict of interest on an issue that is a major public concern,” Illingworth said. “My understanding of the law after consulting with the school board’s attorney is that a conflict exists when a school board director such as myself either has a financial or pecuniary interest in an entity. That is the only type of conflict of interest that is set out in the law. So ,after I reviewed that and consulted with our attorney, my conclusion is that since either I or my wife don’t have any financial interest in Merit Academy, then I do not have a conflict of interest when it comes to the Merit Academy item, we have on the agenda today.”

Superintendent Dr. Mathew Neal and Board Vice President David Illingworth II

He also said that since there is no conflict of interest by law, he cannot legally recuse himself from any decision, and that he must participate and vote. Board attorney Brad Miller  confirmed that Illingworth would not be legally able to recuse himself from any voting, since there is no “financial or pecuniary” interest present.

Two Sides Face Off During Public Comment on Merit Academy

(Left to right) Board Director Gary Brovetto, Board Director Suzanne Patterson, and Board President David Rusterholtz.

During the public comment session, it seemed as if the meeting attendees were split into two sides over the Merit Academy issue. Half the crowd made it known by cheers and applauding, when it came to Merit Academy’s approval as a  chartered school in the district. But the other half of the audience opposed the idea of adding a new school.

During both times where public comment was allowed, several audience members spoke up on both sides of the charter school debate. There were parents of students who attend the Merit Academy, and one teacher at the school, that made statements supporting the new school.

Many of the parents said that they liked having a different option than the five schools in the district. Others said that the district’s online Summit Learning Platform was the main reason why they chose to enroll their children in the Merit Academy.

The other side of the crowd, though, cautioned the board about speeding through the application process without addressing the reasons why it was declined by the previous RE-2 board. They cited current issues with the district that should be addressed, prior to the board working towards chartering a new school.

“You spent an hour and a half talking about Merit Academy,” Middle School Teacher Laura O’Connell said. “There are 300 district employees that currently work for this district. And, it breaks my heart when I see this agenda come out and that’s what we are going to talk about again. If Merit is a viable school, they offer school choice, they can educate kids and do a good job of it then, awesome, come on in. But I don’t know if you heard me.  There are things that are not ok in our own district and I would love to see you address them.”

School Board President David Rusterholtz

After O’Connell spoke, Board President David Rusterhotlz said that he would be willing to meet with O’Connell and other staff members within the district to discuss any specific issues