The new majority on the Douglas County Board of Education offered a preview of their immediate plans for the district in a recent study session — and a desire to speed-track taking up their campaign promises.
Among their priorities — making masks and vaccinations optional and repealing and replacing the district’s equity policy. Other priorities include amending the district’s common communicable disease policy and retaining an attorney for the board who is separate from the district’s legal counsel.
The board agreed to spread items related to COVID-19 policies over a special meeting set for Dec. 7 and a regularly scheduled meeting on Dec. 14. Directors decided to hold off on reviewing the equity policy until the new year. The board will consider a resolution making masking a choice on Dec. 7, according to the agenda.
Board President Mike Peterson said another major reason for calling a special meeting on Dec. 7 is incoming board members’ wish to hold a vote on the district’s plans to acquire the CU South campus.
That will provide the public with a record of each official’s position, he said. They also want a final opportunity to hear public comment, although the superintendent already has clearance to acquire the property.
“We want to start the work,” Peterson said.
A lengthy to-do list
Tension ebbed and flowed during the Nov. 30 study session. Directors Susan Meek, Elizabeth Hanson and David Ray at times pushed back on the need for a special meeting, the idea of altering current policies and the speed at which new directors — Peterson, Becky Myers, Christy Williams and Kaylee Winegar — aim to take up the issues.
During a discussion about calling a special meeting on Dec. 7, directors and legal counsel reminded the board multiple times not to veer from the limited task of setting upcoming agendas by getting into discussion on the proposed items.
Ray cautioned about piling too many items on the December meeting agendas.
Preparing any resolutions for consideration by Dec. 7 would require Peterson as board president to draft them at the “midnight hour,” Ray said. Legal counsel would have between Tuesday night and Thursday evening to vet the document so it could be posted by Friday, the deadline to give the public notice of a Dec. 7 special meeting.
“I want our staff not to die,” Ray said.
Meek questioned the need for a special meeting, saying they are typically called for a single, pressing issue.
She would be comfortable convening to address the acquisition of the CU South property because the project was running up against real estate transaction deadlines, Meek said. But she felt uneasy calling a special meeting so new directors could tack on agenda items geared toward fulfilling their campaign goals, she said.
“That raises a red flag for me,” she said.
Hanson said she understood wanting to make good on campaign promises but was vocal in her concern the board would put too much work on directors and district staff if it attempted to pack upcoming agendas.
“Our people are our most important resources,” she said.
Peterson said repeatedly during the meeting that he does not intend for the district to change policies too quickly or without due diligence. If the board moves too hastily, he said, it could risk making a legal or logistical mess.
Masking and vaccinating
A resolution attached to the Dec. 7 special meeting agenda would make masking a choice in DCSD, and also prohibit univeral masking mandates at the school or district level. Local, state or federal laws requiring universal masking would supersede the resolution. The resolution would also prohibit universal COVID-19 vaccine mandates, unless required by local, state or federal law.
The resolution would require the district to make reasonable accomodations under the Americans With Disabilities Act, which could result in certain classrooms or activities mandating masks.
On Nov. 30, Peterson said the four new directors wanted to hear a plan from the superintendent that would take into account COVID-19 mitigation measures other than masking mandates. It should also require the district to work with the newly-formed Douglas County Health Department, Peterson said.
Myers, Peterson, Williams and Winegar also want to amend the district’s common communicable disease policy so that it would no longer bind DCSD to follow Tri-County Health Department guidance.
Williams said the Dec. 14 agenda was too full to include a discussion about masking policies. The board is scheduled to hear updates on improving compensation during that meeting.
Williams said she wants to move toward a mask-optional policy as soon as possible, urging a discussion by Dec. 7. Waiting until the new year would be dragging feet, she said.
Ray said he was surprised by the suggestion DCSD jump into drafting a new masking plan and policy. Referencing conversations with Peterson, Ray said he thought the board would start by directing the superintendent to launch a feasibility study about making masks optional before formally considering a new policy.
“If their analysis is that this is going to cost quite a bit of additional dollars and resources or people resources, do we continue to go forward with then looking at a policy for a mask-optional kind of policy,” he said.
Equity question set for January
Directors agreed to postpone taking up the equity policy until January because they anticipate preparing for that discussion will be a heavy lift for the board and staff.
The idea struck a chord with Meek and Hanson, who warned that repealing the policy could stir a reaction from its supporters in the community.
Meek pressed the new directors hard on the idea of repealing the equity policy, and criticized any plan that repealed the policy without immediately replacing it. She had advocated for more public input when it was being passed, she said, but also stressed the policy did go through considerable review by district committees.
“Christy, you sat on the (district accountability committee). It was before the DAC multiple times, and I never heard you once mention a concern,” Meek said to Williams.
Meek said criticism of the policy’s language from a group of charter schools who want exempted boiled down to a single word.
“I’m just trying to give you a reality check,” Meek said. “Like, really? The message that this is sending to our community is that we don’t care about all of the other input that happened and we’ll get to it later.”
Winegar said she had heard anecdotal examples of equity work that concerned her, which she said was made possible by the equity policy. Winegar said she believes “there needs to be a change.”
“That word (equity) has become tarnished and misinterpreted,” she said.
Peterson said the policy might be well-intended, but in its implementation, led to work he disapproved of. He named hiring The Gemini Group as an example. The consulting firm had provided diversity, equity and inclusive trainings to staff that sparked brushback.
Saying the new directors want to throw out the policy and start over was a mischaracterization, he said. He wants to keep what he called good aspects of the policy while putting more limitations on how it can be implemented, he said.
“Don’t mistake this as an attack on the work and an attack on equity,” Peterson said.
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