The way conservative school board majorities in other Colorado school districts have wielded their newfound power after November election wins is fueling anxiety that similar actions could be on the horizon for Colorado Springs School District 11.
The ouster of superintendents, use of private sessions — or no official board meetings at all — to make crucial changes, increasing board authority over curriculum and changing the use of attorneys by districts and board, are all concerning possibilities for D11, where three new conservative members were elected to serve last year, and now hold a majority.
Leaders of Neighbors for Education, a group recently founded by D11 parents that advocates for equity and access to public education, are anticipating an attempt by the board to get rid of Superintendent Dr. Michael Thomas, who has focused on addressing long-standing achievement gaps among students in historically marginalized groups, and led the creation of the district’s groundbreaking Diversity and Equity Leadership Team, which was dissolved soon after the new board was seated.
The board’s closed executive session on Feb. 23 — during which members discussed “legal advice” on the superintendent’s contract with counsel, according to the meeting agenda — intensified community fears about a possible ouster of Thomas coming soon, said Michael Williams, a D11 parent and co-founder of Neighbors for Education.
“The community has been feeling that they’re going to try to do something with Dr. Thomas,” Williams said. “When this agenda came out, we passed it around and people read the tea leaves.”
For his part, Thomas said no member of the board has approached him about termination. When asked if he would consider resigning, given conservative board members’ hostility to equity efforts and complaints about the direction of the district, Thomas said he wants to focus on where there might be common ground.
“Since the new board came on, my interest has been striving to look for those points of convergence with my leadership and with the board as an entire body, as well as getting to know each individual board member, specifically the newer ones,” Thomas said. “That’s where I’ve been putting my focus and trying to align those convergence points.”
Thomas did push back against conservative lines of attack against his performance used during the public comment session of the Board’s Feb. 23 meeting. Several commenters cited data — some inaccurately — from D11 students’ scores on the Colorado Measures of Academic Success tests during an unstated timeline, as a measure of Thomas’ success as superintendent.
Thomas said the comments minimized academic performance to a single standardized test and failed to take into account other factors, like attendance and engagement. The critics also did not consider the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on learning outcomes, or the positive performance progress the district was seeing prior to the pandemic in 2019, Thomas said.
“That’s a challenge that I think exists out there as people are getting partial information and then making their positions about that,” he said. “When I look at growth since 2019, the students in grades 3 through 8 in our district, in ELA and Math, all greatly improved. When I look at some other data for students that are in our lower economic standings in our district, again, we’re seeing growth in both ELA and Math.”
Thomas also pushed back against accusations that he had a political agenda coming into his position in 2018. A commenter during the public session said his push to help students facing societal barriers like socioeconomic status, race, disability or LGBTQ status through the equity policy claimed Thomas came to D11 to “complete an indoctrination agenda” and said he is “more concerned with social statuses” than academic performance.
“If the agenda is about doing what I believe in my heart is the best for students to ensure that they get everything they need to bridge them to their success, however they define it, guilty as charged,” Thomas said. “That’s my agenda, and I’m unapologetic for that agenda.
“When I look at our strategic plan, the conversation of equity is baked right into the core of that plan,” Thomas added. “We are committed to creating ecosystems of equitable practices. And that strategic plan was not the Michael plan … it was the D11 community’s plan.”
D11 community members are also sounding the alarm over potential changes to the board and district’s legal representation, which is up for reconsideration this year. D11’s contract with the Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner law firm, which has served as legal counsel for about three decades, ends in June, said district chief communications officer Devra Ashby.
A popular maneuver among conservative-majority boards in other school districts has been to retain counsel from the Colorado Springs-based law firm Miller Farmer, led by Brad Miller, said Joe Schott, president of the Colorado Springs Education Association, which represents D11 teachers. It’s a “standard right-wing tactic” to bring on the firm, and Miller specifically, Schott said. Miller is known for specializing in representing religious ministries and charter schools, and publicly opposing institutional funding of public schools.
Miller Farmer has been hired as counsel for other districts with conservative-dominated boards, including District 51 in Mesa County, through questionable backdoor means, according the Daily Sentinel, which in December reported that an attorney with the firm was hired onto staff by the D51 board with just one public session to discuss and vote on the contract.
Schott said another conservative board strategy to push their goals — which are frequently at odds with districts — has been to hire separate legal representation for the board and the district, while in D11, the two entities share counsel.
“That creates all sorts of problems,” he said of the separate attorney structure. “Not only is it a waste of money — and just obviously, a political tactic — it creates the potential for opposition between the district” and the board.
Board Director Julie Ott said the board has not yet discussed the legal counsel contract ending, and that there will be a “feasibility analysis,” including a look at district finances, to see whether it would be fiscally effective to create an on-staff legal counsel position.
The idea of creating such a position has been floated since before Ott was vice president of the board during her last term, from 2017-21, and is driven by potential cost savings of having an attorney on staff, rather than outsourcing services every time legal counsel is needed, she said.
But that type of change “is so up in the air right now,” she said. “We haven’t even discussed it as a full board.”
Ashby said in an email that “the district is researching the option of hiring in-house counsel, continuing to outsource legal services or a combination of both.”