Current Leaders Applaud Controversial Changes; Seek Status Quo Direction
Over the last couple of years, controversy has riddled the Woodland Park School District ever since a new group of board members was elected in November 2021.
As soon as they were elected, the group of candidates who labeled themselves as a much needed “conservative voice,” quickly implemented a number of changes that aligned with their campaign promises. They heavily branded themselves as representing “parental choice” on many issues, including the development of a new curriculum and advancing the push for a charter school.
And despite receiving backlash from many people in the community and from teachers and staff members, the current board members stand strongly behind their policy changes and vow to push forward if re-elected on November 7. Last week, the incumbent school board candidates — David Illingworth II, Mick Bates, and Cassie Kimbrell — attended a forum at the Columbine Elementary School Gymnasium moderated by the Superintendent of District 49 in Falcon Peter Hilts.
During the district forum, the moderator explained to the crowd of about 30 people that the candidates would each get three minutes to introduce themselves and a three-minute conclusion at the end. The forum consisted of 10 questions asked by community members that were picked by the moderator.
The questions covered a variety of topics, including increased legal fees, mental health services and subjects like critical race theory. The overall theme of the evening was that the incumbent board candidates plan on staying the course with notable changes that have been implemented over the last two years.
The current board members applauded the recent decisions made and reiterated the fact that the district has gained enrollment since the new board was elected in 2021.
They emphasized the need for school choice and brought up that the increase of enrollment was mainly due to the addition of the district’s first charter school, the Merit Academy.
During their opening statements, the candidates discussed a need for parents to have a strong voice when it comes to the education of students in the community. The current board members also stressed the importance of focusing on academics and the “Three R’s.”
During the forum, the candidates all agreed that students should not have free access to mental health services without parental consent. They also stated that “pedagogies” like critical race theory, anti-racism and social emotional learning inhibit the learning ability of students.
“When it comes to things like CRT, anti-racism and social justice, I think those concepts pair very badly with human fellowship and our American Society because they promote the idea that we should be judged on the color of our skin and not of the content of our character,” School Board Vice President and candidate David Illingworth said.
One question posed, dealt with the security of the schools. The candidates spoke in support of the recent decision by the district to implement armed security guards at the schools.
“We have been looking into the security risks and where we can fix some of that,” Board Director and candidate Cassie Kimbrell said. “You are already seeing some of that come out. In the June budget we passed, there is $1 million to go towards our security. With the news media and the recent press, we don’t know who is going to come to our schools.”
When asked about retaining and attracting high quality teachers, the board members talked about the recent raises given across the board to all teachers.
“Since I have been on the Woodland Park School Board, I supported raises for two consecutive years since 2021,” Illingworth said. “We gave the biggest pay raise in the history of the school district during my first year on the school board which was about eight and a half percent. We gave a five percent raise this year.”
At the end of the forum, the moderator asked why the district has seen an increase in legal costs over the last two years and what factors in and out of their control has contributed to the increase. Overall, the candidates pointed their fingers at lawsuits and a large number of Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) requests.
“The very people that are fighting these frivolous lawsuits (three of them in particular have been filed by one person), are the same people that are complaining about what we are spending on attorney fees,” School Board Director and candidate Mick Bates said. “There are a number of facets to this. Our CORA requests since this new board has been elected have increased 100 fold. Many of these CORA requests require attorneys’ attention. We are spending $1,500 a month on attorney fees to answer these CORA requests that are coming in like they never have before.”
Illingworth agreed and said that out of the five lawsuits, three came from one local activist, one came from the Colorado Education Association (CEA), and the other one came from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). “The Colorado Education Association is a radical, Marxist, and communist organization,” Illingworth said. “So, it is kind of a badge of honor to get sued by the CEA and the ACLU.”
Kimbrell said that she agreed with her colleagues about the increase of CORA request and lawsuits, but she also brought up legal fees related to contract issues. “While the board was looking at chartering Merit Academy, there were a lot of legal fees that were going towards that,” Kimbrell explained. “When we had to make sure we were bringing in and hiring good people in the district office, we were also looking at their contracts and making sure everything was set in stone.”
Overall, the candidates reiterated many of the sentiments that were brought up in 2021 when the conservative group first won the election. All three promised to continue what the board has done over the last two years.