Feb 9, 2022 - News

Schools play political battleground as conservatives push change

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The political culture war is roiling Colorado schools.

Threat level: At least three districts across the state β€” including two with new conservative board majorities β€” are looking to abruptly oust superintendents and leaders.

  • Their motivations include support by these officials for school mask mandates amid the COVID-19 pandemic and efforts to implement diversity and equity policies.

What's happening: The most prominent example is Douglas County β€” one of the state's largest districts, where the newly elected conservative board majority's first actions included repealing mask requirements, undoing an educational equity policy and firing the superintendent after a secret meeting.

  • In Mesa County, the largest district's board met this week to privately review the contracts of the superintendent, assistant superintendent and director of equity and inclusion, suggesting their salaries were extravagant or unnecessary.
  • A Montezuma-Cortez school superintendent was placed on paid administrative leave in January. She previously clashed with the board majority on school closures and masking.

The big picture: The actions come as a consequence of the polarized climate surrounding education and an outgrowth of the upheaval we described during the local 2021 elections and in a poll from earlier this week showing continued unrest among voters.

  • The moves also are part of a broader conservative strategy nationwide, opponents suggest.

Quick take: Erica Meltzer, Colorado bureau chief at our education reporting partner Chalkbeat, told us that superintendent is inherently a political job, and it's not unusual for members of a new school board with a different philosophy to want their "own" superintendent.

  • What is unusual is the process that played out here.

What they're saying: In a recent interview with national Fox News, conservative Douglas County school board members defended the firing of superintendent Corey Wise, saying he was not supporting them.

  • "Frankly, what's the point of being elected into [the] majority back in November if you're not getting that support?" board president Mike Peterson said.
  • Peterson argued he's trying to get the politics out of schools, but he and his colleagues criticized teachers for the sick-out and their union.

The other side: The board's opponents filed a lawsuit alleging the majority violated open government laws and began talking about recall elections. Hundreds of students also staged a walkout.

The intrigue: Denver, a Democratic-hub, is not immune to the upheaval, where supporters who believe education needs to be reformed have clashed with the teachers union.

  • Superintendent Susana Cordova, a longtime local educator like Douglas County's Wise, resigned amid a strained relationship with the union-dominated school board.
  • She had been hired by a prior board that wanted to take the district in a new direction.

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