Outgoing Douglas County school board members said their goodbyes at the district’s last regular board meeting before new leadership assumes office, although divides in the community laid bare by the election were still evident during public comment.
Board directors Kevin Leung and Krista Holtzman lost their bids for re-election and will leave office this month along with the other departing directors, Christina Ciancio-Schor and Anthony Graziano.
Newly-elected board directors Becky Myers, Mike Peterson, Christy Williams and Kaylee Winegar, all members of the Kids First slate that challenged some policies of the current district leadership, will be sworn in Nov. 29. The election was closely watched across the region.
Several speakers at the Nov. 9 meeting thanked the outgoing directors for their time in office and said they should be proud of their work in the district during tumultuous times.
Holtzmann thanked people who have supported her and thanked her fellow slate member Leung, saying his “brilliant intellect” is only matched by his integrity.
She commended board President David Ray, calling him the board’s “steady leader,” who she said aptly organized his six colleagues through intense times.
Holtzmann shared a quote by Martin Luther King Jr., saying she believes “the arc in the moral universe is long and that it bends toward justice,” but added she appreciates an update to the phrase from former President Barack Obama: “It doesn’t bend on its own.”
Leung thanked past superintendents, including Erin Kane and Thomas Tucker, for their service, saying a superintendency is not an easy role. He called teachers and district staff “the hero during the pandemic,” and said he had hoped to do right by students during his tenure.
The district’s equity policy had been a point of contention for some voters, but the policy was “truly one of the biggest, I think, accomplishments that I have,” Leung said, urging incoming board members to keep the policy in place as written.
“At the bottom of my heart, I have tried, and thank you very much for giving me this opportunity to serve you. Sometimes it’s better to lose and do the right thing,” Leung said.
The Nov. 9 meeting was a transition for Ray, too. He is term-limited as board president and will serve as a regular board member going forward. Ahead of the board transition, Ray said he will miss the synergy among sitting directors, who he said could disagree but described as amazing to work with.
“I certainly will not miss the daunting responsibilities that are bestowed on this role,” he said, “nor the target that I oftentimes have had emblazoned on my chest.”
Backlash toward decorum rules
The sitting board has been at the center of a firestorm for weeks as parents upset with masking mandates and other COVID-19 policies vowed to vote directors out and called for those not up for election to resign.
Many people upset with the current board have also lamented decorum policies as directors tried — often unsuccessfully — to prohibit conduct like cheering, applauding, standing or laughing at public meetings.
More than once, a public commenter has used theatrics or hyperbole to express disapproval of the rules. On Nov. 9, Matthew Smith began his remarks by looking to Ray and quipping, “Permission to speak, master?” Smith has repeatedly rebuked the board’s stance that displays including jazz hands or spirit fingers by a majority in the room can create an unsafe or intimidating environment for people with other perspectives.
At a previous board meeting, another regular attendee, Shawn Benson, knelt on the floor before the dais and made a similar remark about needing Ray’s permission to begin speaking. Benson returned on Nov. 9 to criticize the board again, saying decorum rules infringe on First Amendment rights and are an effort to silence critics.
“You had the audacity to threaten to remove me from the room for cheering for my wife and waving my American flag,” Benson said.
At the previous meeting, Benson’s wife spoke remotely while he sat in the audience. As she finished, he cheered for her and waved a small American flag. Ray had repeatedly asked the audience to refrain from reacting to public comment, and Director Elizabeth Hanson urged Ray to begin removing people who did not follow policy.
Ray told Benson he would be removed if he did not quiet and waited to proceed with the meeting until the room calmed.
On Nov. 9, Benson wore head-to-toe American flag apparel and said it was an outrage that the board would not let him hold an American flag during meetings. As people waited in line for the meeting, Benson carried an American flag attached to a staff.
At past meetings, security personnel have not allowed people to bring in items such as posters attached to boards as handles, citing safety concerns.
Benson told directors they did not know the difference between an unsafe environment and uncomfortable speech, then said they might prefer governments that censor.
“I hear it’s a buyer’s market right now in Afghanistan,” he said.
Disciplinary action taken
Both Smith and Benson criticized the board for allowing Sarah Wu to attend Nov. 9 and knit with knitting needles.
At the Oct. 26 meeting, Wu sat through much of the evening knitting, but toward the end yelled at another attendee before walking toward him rapidly. Friends of Wu’s intervened and she left the meeting shortly after. She later apologized for the incident and said she did not intend to confront the man physically.
“There was someone that came up here and spoke and they talked about how they felt unsafe in the room and then an hour later charged a man with a knitting needle in their hand, and they’re in the room right now with a knitting needle in their hand,” Smith said.
A public record request for any complaints submitted to the district against Wu or communications to her from the district’s head of security has not yet yielded results as of press time.
Another matter did garner the security director’s attention. Records obtained by Colorado Community Media through a public record request show the school district’s director of security, Jonny Grusing, wrote to Steve Collier, banning him from attending board of education meetings or district forums in-person.
On Sept. 28, Collier had finished making public comment and on his way back to his seat leaned toward an audience member and quickly motioned toward them.
Grusing’s Oct. 4 letter said “surveillance video and livestream video depicts you aggressively lunging towards another person seated in the middle of a row.”
Collier responded that day and asked how he could appeal the ban, saying it was “taken completely out of context.” He worried the disciplinary action was retaliation for his public comment, in which he had alleged some district staff had violated election laws.
“I’m very taken back by this decision made by the Douglas County School District,” Collier wrote, stating he had also seen screenshots from video of the incident. “I can assure you there was no ‘threatening or intimidating behavior’ against anyone at the meeting.”