Chancy J. Gatlin-Anderson
Special to Colorado Community Media
The Elizabeth School District, a generally conservative district in western Elbert County, is experiencing extreme turmoil that is radiating through the entire Elizabeth community. Members of the school board are feuding over the perceived threat that critical race theory (CRT) and social emotional learning (SEL) might appear in district classrooms.
In their professed aim to keep the district free of CRT and SEL, the actions of school board members Heather Booth and Rhonda Olsen have led to explosive board meetings, a formal breach-of-confidentiality investigation, and resignation of district leadership.
Principal’s resignation and public comment
On Jan. 6, Running Creek Elementary School principal Robin Hunt resigned her position effective June 30 after recurring perceived harassment brought on by Booth and Olsen.
At the Jan. 9 school board meeting, Hunt addressed the board in public comment. She said that many lies and rumors had been shared about her and her leadership, and hoped her comment would help the community understand the “depth of deceit” created by two board members. Hunt is a self-identified conservative and Christian who has worked as an educator for 34 years.
“Today, at least one board member has displayed a retaliatory mindset, having a hit list of those staff members this board member can’t control. They have manipulated others to do their dirty work in the community and have used condescending and derogatory language to defame and slander several leaders, not just me,” Hunt commented. “Why would any other conservative want to work in this district knowing how they may be ostracized and made to be a villain? These board members have chosen to lead with fear and manipulation. This promotes control on their part. This battle that some of the board members have waged on the Elizabeth School District, Running Creek and myself is not a political battle but rather one of personal agendas, the need for control, and power.”
Feb. 13 Elizabeth School Board meeting
At the Feb. 13 Elizabeth School Board meeting, several district leaders, teachers and community members engaged in public comment in response to Hunt’s Jan. 9 statement. Some commenters argued that the Board Members Rhonda Olsen and Heather Booth were “chasing ghosts” in their fight to keep critical race theory and social emotional learning from coming to the Elizabeth School District. Others supported Olsen and Booth, saying CRT and SEL would be detrimental to the district’s students and should be a focus of the board.
Elizabeth High School Principal Bret McClendon first brought the issue to attention, arguing that Olsen and Booth’s actions are instances of political grandstanding and that they are putting the district at risk. He said their “nitpicking” is causing the district to lose good leadership and teachers that are integral to the health of the schools and student success.
“I need to address what I see happening in our district,” McClendon said. “Director Olsen and Director Booth, please stop chasing ghosts. We are not teaching critical race theory at Elizabeth High School. Nor are we indoctrinating kids about non-traditional lifestyles. We are teaching kids skills to be successful when they leave us. But the work we are doing is being hampered by claims of CRT and LGBTQ agendas in our schools. This has to stop. I invite you to come and visit EHS. I want you to speak with me and observe what is happening in our classrooms. Neither of you have done so. Because of the nitpicking, good people have left, and more will. Your actions are putting our district and our kids at risk. Please stop acting like our district has changed for the worse since you have been on the board. You know better. That is not true. We, as the educators responsible for the students of Elizabeth, don’t need political grandstanding, we need help to make real change for the kids we currently serve and the ones we will. Please be a part of the solution and not part of a non-existent problem. My door is open.”
McClendon’s comments were met with a large, standing, cheering crowd of observers.
Olsen addressed McClendon’s comments, stating that, “You have never heard me say that we have critical race theory in our high school or any of our schools. You have never heard me say that you are pushing an LGBQT agenda, so in that case, that is ghost hunting. My concerns have always been, not necessarily what is on the inside, but keeping what is on the outside, out of our schools. That has been my goal all along. And I will not waver on that stance. So I’m sorry if you have misinterpreted my statements.”
During the public comment period, several teachers, district leaders and community members shared their thoughts on the issue facing the district. Some commenters agreed with McClendon’s statement, while others supported Booth and Olsen. Others expressed their general lack of faith in the school board members and their ability to effectively communicate and lead the Elizabeth School District.
Running Creek Preschool teacher Michelle Owen sided with McClendon. “In my 10 years of service, I have never felt such an uncertainty and turmoil within our district,” she said. “I understand that some people are here because they think their conservative values are under attack. I am here to say that’s not the case. It has been made clear that in this pursuit for conservative values, has quickly changed to an attack on our schools and teachers. Our administrators are being targeted and pushed out. Our administrative staff is being targeted and pushed out. Our teachers are being targeted and pushed out. It has created a toxic division between our community and our district which has created a climate of uncertainty for our teachers. We don’t feel trusted to teach our classes and we’re starting to feel like we’re not wanted. I’m afraid for myself. I’m afraid for my colleagues. And I’m afraid for our schools. Stand with our teachers and save our schools.”
In contrast, Deanna Miller, the legal guardian of a freshman at Elizabeth High School and a retired Jefferson County Schools teacher expressed her concern for the schools and what she sees as the need to eliminate the perceived threat of CRT and SEL in the Elizabeth School District.
“I implore you to put up strong, conservative walls about our children in Elbert County,” she said. “I’m concerned that you and some community members are not grasping the real dangers before us. CRT and social emotional learning are probably not being taught right now. But it is coming, and we need to be proactive.”
Miller’s concerns were mirrored by several successive comments. For nearly an hour, commenters spoke to the school board members and to the audience, making their statements and sharing their support for one argument or another. Toward the end of the public comment period, two women spoke with the aim of unifying people and argued for creating common ground.
“I believe that all the school board members need to be reminded the only thing you’re here for is the kids,” said one commenter whose name was too muffled to understand when she was announced. “It troubles me that five members of this board who were elected by people in this audience can’t get along well enough to not come to a point where you’re trying to recall one another. I think that you need to grow up a little bit.”
“As a parent, I would love each of us to sit down and actually have a conversation because we are all guessing what the other side is thinking,” said Katie Carrico, an Elizabeth School District parent. “You are all wonderful people. We are not perfect people and we’re always going to be assuming the worst about the other person unless we have a conversation face-to-face.”
On Dec. 14, 2022, Elizabeth School Board Vice President Kim Frumveller contacted the District Attorney’s Office in regard to issues surrounding fellow board members Olsen and Booth. According to Frumveller, Olsen and Booth have “disclosed executive session meetings to the public.” Frumveller was directed to work with the Elizabeth Police Department and determine if there is a case to be made.
On Dec. 21, Frumveller and board President Cary Karcher met with the Elizabeth Police Department and presented information and documentation to bolster a breach-of-confidentiality case against Olsen and Booth.
On Jan. 19, Frumveller and Karcher returned to the Elizabeth Police Department to follow up on the case. It was then decided that it was in the best interest of the school district to file a formal report against Olsen and Booth.
“This is for reasonable suspicion that a law was broken,” said Frumveller at the Feb. 13 board meeting. “As of today, there is an investigation going against the two of you.”
Recall of Booth
At the Feb. 13 meeting, Shawn McWhorter officially announced a move to recall school board member Heather Booth. According to McWhorter, the recall was filed earlier that day.
McWhorter said Booth has violated policies BBA-R (Vision and Board Conduct) and BCA-E-1 (Code of Ethics).
“The public slandering of staff is unprofessional and unbecoming of an elected leader,” McWhorter said. “She displays hostility to the school board, certain teachers, certain staff, certain students and certain community members. Elected officials have policies and procedures to follow. Her personal attacks, public slandering and bullying of staff members is in direct violation of these policies.”
McWhorter continued to outline how Booth has allegedly violated the board policies, arguing that her radical behavior is a persistent issue for the Elizabeth School District and the students.
“There is a big difference between being conservative and radical,” McWhorter said. “Director Booth’s actions prove that she is radical. Director Booth’s stance on the false narratives directly impact her ability to serve all students regardless of the political beliefs, ability, race, religion, or sexual orientation. Director Booth’s stance will single out students in our schools, negatively affecting their safety and well-being. I stand here tonight supporting for Director Blackham, Director Karcher, and Director Frumveller and the Elizabeth district leadership, teachers, and all the students. I ask everyone present and watching online to join in the recall of Director Heather Booth and put a stop to the radical behavior of school board member. Kids should always come first. Elizabeth School District students deserve better.”
After the public comment section of the Feb. 13 meeting, Booth made a statement regarding the recall. She said she did not have a prepared statement because she was unaware that the recall would be announced.
“I’m proud of the record of standing up for our kids. I stand up for our teachers and always have. I’m really proud of the conservative stand that I have taken and to safeguard our kids and parents,” said Booth. “Even if it’s not here (referencing CRT and SEL), as some say, we need to put safeguards in place to make sure it doesn’t come here. And that’s what we’re desperately trying to do.”
Kim Frumveller, the board’s vice president, spoke to the audience and to McWhorter, supporting his official recall and noting that she has had similar concerns.
On Feb. 14, the Elbert County News reached out to Booth and Olsen for further comment. Neither replied.