GEORGETOWN — Shouting broke out among board members, teachers and parents at a May 17 meeting of the board of the Georgetown Community School, as nearly 10 teachers submitted resignation letters over claims that board members have bullied them and created a hostile work environment.
The confrontation became so heated that uniformed Idaho Springs police Sgt. Jim Vogt, a parent and the husband of the board president, stepped in and threatened to remove anyone who continued to be disorderly, including vice principal Rachel Wides.
Wides has essentially been in charge at the charter school since principal Rick Winter resigned in late November.
“This is a public meeting; you guys are starting to act in a disorderly manner — you want to go that route (and) get me involved that way? I don’t think so,” Vogt said.
After a short recess, calmer heads prevailed, and the three active board members — the school has had up to seven board members, including alternates, in the past — agreed to create a committee to address some of the issues. Only board member Craig Abrahamson voted against the motion to create the committee at the next regular board meeting May 30.
Many in the audience, which at times numbered more than 50 in the school’s cafeteria, considered the motion’s passage a victory. The resignations were rescinded, and the letters subsequently returned to the teachers.
Concerns about the board
More than half the teachers and staff at the school reportedly had threatened to quit unless the school board changed its policies and bylaws. One particular point of contention is a rule that board members must have a child enrolled at the school.
On the topic of the charter school’s all-parent board, Stacy Rivera, director of communications for the Colorado League of Charter Schools, of which Georgetown is a member, said an all-parent school board is not considered a “best practice.”
“Best practices usually say that a board should be a combination, so some parents, some community members and I believe some staff so you have some balance in that sense,” Rivera said. “So usually that’s the best practice that we recommend.”
The league does not mandate composition of charter school boards.
Under the school’s current bylaws, board members, who have no limits on the amount of time they can serve, have the power to appoint or remove other members — which some say gives the board too much power.
Unaware of teacher concerns
Other teacher complaints in addition to the hostile-workplace allegations include a lack of transparency by the board and failure to follow meeting protocol.
At the May 17 meeting, some board members said they had been unaware of the teachers’ concerns. But Wides said she was told to let staff members know they would be fired if they openly criticized the board.
“I’m just telling the truth and standing up for the teachers …,” Wides said in an interview before the meeting. “I was told to give them the information, actually, that they would not have a job if they chose to speak out against the board, the board’s structure or anything of the sort.”
Many parents who attended said they were unaware of the issues being presented by the teachers until the meeting.
The school, with an enrollment of 150, has students from infants through sixth grade; it was founded five years ago.
Charter schools operate independently of the districts they are in, with their own school boards.
The board allowed 30 minutes for public comments for the original 12 people who signed up to speak, essentially giving each person two minutes to voice their concerns. But the public-comment portion of the meeting quickly expanded.
Wides was one of the first to share her thoughts, which included allegations of unprofessional behavior and bullying by board members.
“I have personally witnessed and been privy to information that GCS board of directors has spoken against staff and teachers’ private lives, their personalities, not pertaining to school matters, even as low as encouraging disrespectful behavior from their children toward administration — all of these action have happened during board meetings,”
Wides said. “This is bullying, and this does create a hostile work environment.”
Sue Lathrop, a parent and founding charter school board member, said she believed the problems between the school’s staff and the board are escalating.
“I just want everybody to take a step back, breathe and think about what they can do that is best for the school, best for the students,” Lathrop said. “I think there is plenty of room for conversation. … I think we need to listen to each other because we all want what is best here.”
Parent Tracy Bennetts has had one child go through the school but isn’t sure if her other two will attend next year.
“Clearly it is time for change, and we need to work together between our teachers, who are so important to our kids, to you, to this community — and they’re what makes this school great,” Bennetts said. “I never imagined in my life that I would be contemplating not bringing my kids back here next year, and that’s currently where I’m at.”
Bennetts added that 10 teachers threatening to leave should serve as a signal that something clearly is wrong.
“It is time that we start listening to each other, and stop the fighting and actually bring this school back to the greatness that it was, because our kids deserve that,” Bennetts said.
Parent Kelly Housman said that because the school is still relatively new, it might be time to review the bylaws.
“It’s growing-pain time. This is a small school, it’s a brand-new school, it’s time to grow, it’s time to re-look at all the rules and regulations so that the board … has a place to stand their ground on — and our teachers feel safe and secure,” Housman said.
Former district teacher and charter school volunteer Coralue Anderson told the board she would like to see more options for community involvement in the school and would like to see membership on the board open to a community member who is not a parent.
While the majority of public comments sided with the teachers and staff, or urged teamwork and collaboration, a few were critical of the teachers.
One parent said the teachers went too far in turning in their resignations and asked what they would do next time something didn’t go their way.
Parent Brooke Howard criticized the teachers’ role in the dispute, saying their job is to teach. She added that while teachers were complaining about being threatened by the board, their letter to the board was itself threatening.
“I am listening to the teachers ‘being threatened,’ yet I read this last sentence, and they’re threatening,” Howard said. “ ‘If we don’t get our way, if you don’t let us do what we want, we’re leaving.’ Fine, leave. If that’s your attitude, leave.”
The board’s newest member, Stephanie Mellon, said that while she had no knowledge of bullying by board members, she felt like the school’s recent problems come from poor leadership and communication.
“I know there has been a lot of faulty communications coming in between the staff and the board, everybody,” Mellon said.
Wides then pushed the board members to see if they would consider committing to the creation of a committee to begin resolving the issues.
“We are not going to commit to anything,” said board president Stephanie Vogt. “We are going to review this at the next board meeting. Period.”
Wides then turned in her letter of resignation to crowd applause, followed by many others.
Karla Haas Moskowitz, Georgetown Community School’s new interim principal hired earlier this year, accused the board of working behind her back.
“I have lived in small towns and I have lived in big cities, and I have never used geography as an excuse to be unkind,” Moskowitz said. “Now I came into this community, and there have been people who have been unbelievably kind … and then there has been this other thing that has happened where all of a sudden because you didn’t like what I had to say, I just got cut off.”
After the meeting appeared to end, the board called those remaining in the school back into the lunchroom. Board president Vogt then said the board would consider the creation of a committee.
“I love all the teachers, but we also need good employees, and we need to communicate …,” Vogt said. “… It’s not a school that’s all about the teachers; it is not a school that is all about the board — it is a school that is all about the kids, and I think we’ve lost sight of that.”