Woodland Park School Board Candidate Challengers Come Out Swinging at Chamber Forum

Three Contenders Blast Incumbent Policies; Suggest a “District In Crisis”
Rick Langenberg

The three challengers for seats on the Woodland Park RE-2 School District Board of Education came out verbally swinging during a candidates’ forum, hosted by the Woodland Park Chamber of Commerce last week, featuring a packed house at the Ute Pass Cultural Center.

All three challengers — Keegan Barkley, Michael Knott and Seth Bryant — made it clear they strongly oppose the current direction pursued by the incumbent school board. In fact, they described a dire strait education situation with the district facing a crisis scenario, capped by declining standards, an erosion in employee morale and a mass exodus of students, teachers and staff and unaddressed mental health problems.  They are running against three incumbents – David Illingworth II, Mick Bates and Cassie Kimbrell.  The winners of this November race could determine which direction the board heads, as the outcome will decide the majority members of the elected panel.

The chamber forum was only attended by the board challengers, as the incumbent office-seekers partook in a competing forum event at the school (see related story).  Regardless, the Ute Pass Cultural Center was packed for the chamber forum, which still provided empty chairs in hopes that the incumbent candidates would still participate.

The three challengers voiced many concerns about the policies enacted by the current board, who are part of a coalition that describes itself as the conservative voice of the community, and the voice of local parents.

“I have big fears of what will happen in Woodland Park (if the incumbents get re-elected),” said Barkley in opening statements. She accused the current board of pursing policies that don’t have a buy-in from community members and are part of an overall political agenda.

“Take the politics out of the district,” blasted Michael Knott, who throughout the evening questioned the actions of the district’s head attorney in filing lawsuits and raised continual questions about the role of Ken Witt as superintendent. “It would be nice to have a superintendent who works here full-time,” stressed Knott, in replying to a media inquiry about needed administrative changes down the road.

The board challengers didn’t mince words about their opposition to many policies enacted by Witt, since he held the district’s superintendent reins.

“These decisions are not reflective of people in the community.  I am very concerned about what is going on,” said Bryant.“They (the current board and superintendent) are not listening to stakeholders.”

In his closing comments, he went further, noting that the entire future of Woodland Park is at stake with this election. “We are at a crossroads,” said Bryant. “Our community is at a turning point.”

These comments characterize the staunch anti-incumbent stand taken by the board challengers.  They outlined a slew of issues in which they disagreed with the current board. But probably their biggest concerns hinged on the American  Birthright Curriculum, advocated by the district, and the decision to eliminate mental health grants, a decision that cost the district 15 jobs.

Of the three challenger candidates, Barkley raised the biggest red flag over this American Birthright curriculum, citing a laundry list of problems with this educational approach that some regard as just an outright, bias attack on traditional social studies and history teachings in this country.  She hinted it would impact students considering athletic scholarships and even those attending many colleges.  In addition, all three noted that this could impact the future of Woodland Park as a public school system.

Bryant event referred to this plan as a political experiment with Woodland Park students serving as the victims.

They also took aim at the issue of mental health, lambasting the district decision to not pursue grants, which cost 15 jobs and eliminated these public services for students. Moreover, the candidates stated that this decision puts an unfair burden on teachers. “These needs are not going away,” said Barkley. “It is unfair to our teachers.”

Both Bryant and Knott agreed and mentioned mental health services as a “huge component” of the district’s services. They cited the high teen suicide rate in the area as another reason to bring these state health programs back.

The district, though, opted to take a different direction regarding these programs, citing more of an emphasis on academics. They also contend that parents need to be more involved in these decisions.

Not on Disagreement on All Major Issues

The challengers, however, didn’t disagree with the incumbents on every issue.

In fact, the challengers agree with the incumbents regarding the merits of the Merit Academy charter institution. “I am happy they are here,” said Barkley. The other challengers in the board race expressed similar views, saying Merit served an important purpose and stopped the halt of so many students who would have attended other charter schools down the Pass.

But that said, the challengers questioned the process that was conducted by the board and district in finalizing this decision to have Merit utilize RE-2 District facilities and become part of the district. “A lot of the tension was because of a lack of communication,” said Barkley.

The desire to have better communications and more open transparency were key goals cited by the challengers throughout the evening. They urged district leaders to explore why so many teachers are leaving, along with teachers and staff members. They sought to have better relations between the board and teachers, and also believe more buy-in regarding policies and procedures, should occur from the school district principals. They believe too much authority has been given to the superintendent.

Knott stated that the lack of any split decisions on issues by the board ignited a huge red flag. The candidates stated that it is not a crime to disagree on school policy issues.

The forum was mostly dominated by questions, prepared by chamber representatives, encompassing a wide range of topics.

One of the more interesting questions, and one asked at the forum among the incumbents, dealt with the issue of school security and the hiring of armed personnel.  While not objecting to have an armed security force, the board challengers clearly favored revamping the previous school resource officer setup with the Woodland Park Police Department.  All three believe this arrangement should be revisited.

The candidates also indicated that more fiscal accountability is needed regarding the implementation of the additional sales tax initiative, approved by Woodland Park voters in 2016. Barkley even suggested that an audit of how these funds have been used should take place.

They all agreed that better relations need to ensue between the RE-2 Board of Education and the city of Woodland Park. These relations, especially, when it comes to the sales tax issue, which is regulated by the city, have become strained in recent months. This may have played a role too in the establishment of two competing school board forums last week.

The Chamber event audience, though, was quite enthusiastic during the forum and had to be restrained at times. They didn’t appear bothered by the fact that only three of the six candidates for office made a showing.

Debbie Miller, president of the Chamber of Commerce, cited these candidate forums as an integral part of their mission. She said every step was taken to offer an exchange of ideas and not develop trick questions. The chamber president got quite emotional in explaining the need for these events.