The new frontlines
National culture wars take center stage in 9-R election

The new frontlines

The 9-R admin building in downtown Durango. The School Board's normally sleepy election has taken on newfound interest as political ideologies clash, mirroring a national trend./ File art

Jonathan Romeo - 10/14/2021

In a world where politics have infiltrated seemingly every aspect of daily life, what would be another dull School Board election in Durango this fall has instead entered the fray of culture wars plaguing the nation.

Across the country, local schools have become ground zero for battles over how children should be taught sensitive issues such as race and gender, and whether districts should mandate COVID protocols like masks or vaccines.

In many communities, these tensions have erupted into shouting matches at school board meetings, harassment of board members and staff, and in extreme cases, violent clashes that lead to arrests. Just this past month, the National School Board Association asked for the FBI’s and DOJ’s help to address the increase in incidents of violence and intimidation against its members.

In a number of these incidents, the disrupters are part of a nationwide movement, mostly led by conservative groups, who view school boards as the new frontline in the culture war over social issues – regarded by some as the “Tea Party 2.0” movement. In recent weeks, conservative think-tanks have even released blueprints for ousting school board members they see as too progressive.

In Durango, tensions within the school district have not reached heights seen elsewhere, but that’s not to say the friction isn’t there. In August, for instance, a Durango School District 9-R meeting had to be shut down and police were called after an unruly crowd showed up and refused to wear masks and follow capacity restrictions. As a result, the meetings are now held online, yet angry people have called in to accuse the district of silencing free speech and threatened legal action.

Now, the upcoming Nov. 2 School Board election, which has seven candidates vying for three open seats, has put the spotlight on a slate of candidates accused of pushing this “ultra conservative” agenda. 

Three newcomer candidates – Donna Gulec, Richard “Dean” Hill and Kristine Paslay – who have seemingly banded together to run as a three-piece ticket under the group name, “Building Durango’s Future,” acknowledge they have conservative leanings. But, they are adamantly against the idea they are part of a larger national effort to take over school boards.

“Being portrayed as extremists is absolutely unfair,” Gulec said. “I’m just a normal person. I don’t go around screaming and yelling my ideas, which are not extreme in any way. I don’t know where they get that from.”

‘Swirling hot mess’

So how did school boards, previously a place for mundane budget talks and staffing issues, become the epicenter for political fervor and ideologies?

Generally speaking, tensions started flaring this spring and summer as schools started to plan reopening to in-person learning, sparking debates between those for and against COVID-19 protocols such as mask and vaccine mandates. Tensions further escalated once the concept of “Critical Race Theory” (CRT) splashed onto the scene, intensifying talks on how schools should teach race.

CRT is a concept from the 1970/’80s, mostly taught in universities, examining the impacts of systemic racism on American institutions and laws. Opponents, however, see CRT as a way to negatively impress upon students that America is racist at its core, and to view the world as oppressors vs. the oppressed. 9-R, it should be noted, does not teach CRT.

As the 2021-22 school year approached, things got nasty as citizens would disrupt school board meetings across the country with protests and threats against district officials. As tensions heightened, people were arrested. In some instances, school board members (and sometimes entire boards) were recalled, which historically never happened. And these incidents weren’t limited to red or blue districts; it was happening across the country, with many efforts funded by national conservative organizations such as “No Left Turn in Education.”

In trying to understand why school boards were the new cultural war zones, Adam Laats, professor of education at Binghamton University, N.Y., wrote in a September column for The Washington Post that whenever America has taken a progressive turn (such as electing President Joe Biden), conservatives have consistently blamed public schools for indoctrinating youth with “radical ideas.” School boards, quite simply, are easy scapegoats.

“Most meetings are open to the public, in local town halls or school-district offices; their members are local volunteers, who usually have no campaign war chests or partisan election support,” Laats wrote. “School boards are viewed as winnable battlegrounds that activists can turn into islands of the ‘real’ America, in a rising sea of cultural change.”

Though discord within 9-R hasn’t reached the toxic levels of other American school districts, incidents such as the aforementioned August meeting have sown seeds of concern. “It’s very reflective of what’s going on around the country, and it’s not just conservative groups, it’s progressive groups too,” Stephanie Moran, who served on the 9-R school board from 2012-18, said. “That’s why it’s so heated, these conflicting points of view. It’s a swirling hot mess right now.”

Candidates under fire

All three candidates with “Building Durango’s Future” have children or grandchildren who are attending or have graduated 9-R schools. But Hill, who is now a pastor at Pine Valley Church, is the only one with previous experience in education, having worked as a teacher, dean of students and superintendent. Gulec is the vice president of Destinations Coupons, and Paslay has been a hair dresser for nearly four decades. For most of the election, they have called 9-R out for lack of transparency and said addressing poor student performance is atop their priorities if elected.

All three denied being part of any organized, nationwide movement to take over the 9-R School Board. But they did say they fall on the conservative side of certain topics and believe schools are not the place to teach children about race, sexuality and gender, or religion.

“It’s the parent’s right to teach their children (those issues),” Gulec said. “It’s not the school’s ability to do that.”

The three candidates have also made public comments opposing any mask or vaccine mandates. (The current board voted unanimously in August to require masks indoors). “People want to say, ‘It’s my body, my choice,’ with abortion,” Hill said. “Well it’s my body, my choice on whether to have a vaccination or wear a mask.”

Hill in recent days has also received flak for a video posted in which he’s seen giving a sermon where he says the Bible is the best guide to raise children and calls the idea of a separation of church and state “a lie.” Hill said in an interview with The Durango Telegraph this week the comments were taken out of context. Regardless, Hill said the criticism is hypocritical.

“They don’t want my worldview to come into my decision-making process, yet they feel comfortable for their worldview to be the filter for their decision-making process,” Hill said.

Hill’s time as Bayfield School District superintendent has also come under scrutiny. Hill started the job in July 2009, but left abruptly in February 2011, in the middle of the school year. While he didn’t want to go into the details, Hill did say his departure was the result of differences with the school board. “It was my errors, and I take responsibility for those,” he said.

On top of ideological differences, there have also been questions over the three candidates’ campaign finances. In financial reports to the state on Oct. 5, Gulec, Hill and Paslay reported they raised about $2,000 each from individual, private donors. Yet, the candidates did not disclose virtually any spending, despite the fact they have yard signs, flyers and a campaign website.

Gulec, for her part, said it was a clerical error. Paslay said it was her understanding the filing reports were in compliance. The three candidates have hired Marge Klein, Rep. Lauren Boebert’s treasurer, as their filing agent. Klein on Monday said she was unaware of the problem.

9-R, we have a problem

During this campaign cycle, Gulec, Hill and Paslay have cited 9-R’s supposed falling test scores and student performance as one of the main reasons why they wanted to run for the School Board.

Breaking down some of the numbers the candidates point to, however, reveals some inaccuracies. The candidates say 9-R has a one in four dropout rate. But Julie Popp, 9-R spokeswoman, said Durango High School’s graduation rate is 92%. But the district’s overall numbers are influenced by Big Picture High School, which serves students who have  challenges with traditional education models and has a graduate rate of 50%, as well as Colorado Connections Academy statewide online school’s 55% graduation rate.

But struggles do exist: an estimated 60% of K-8 students were below grade level for reading, and 55% of students in grades 9-12. On math, 67% of K-8 students were below grade level and 39% of 9-12 students. Though 9-R is working to improve student achievement, Popp said the scores are similar to state and national averages. Numbers were based on CMAS test scores from the end of the 2020-21 school year.

While having to hold classes online likely affected performance, Gulec and Hill said another reason the district’s numbers are low is because the school focuses on talking to kids about gender and race, subjects better suited for conversations with parents at home, and as a result, instruction time is diverted from the core educational staples like reading and math.

“How much time is being spent on fringe curriculum may be interfering with time that could be spent on true academic achievements in core areas,” Hill said. “We only have a small amount of time to be able to provide competency for those kids to move forward and be successful.”

Paslay said because of COVID-19 protocols, parents aren’t allowed in the classroom, and it’s harder for them to know what their children are being taught. (Parents could previously sign up to be volunteers to support activities in the classroom). “They need basic education,” she said. “But they’re not teaching math, reading and English.”

Not being allowed or limited on school campuses are just other ways parents feel like 9-R is not being transparent, Paslay said. With board meetings online only, many parents feel like they are not being heard. And in some cases, the audio is so bad, they literally can’t be heard. 

“Shutting parents out isn’t going to resolve it, it’s just going to make the divide even wider,” Paslay said. “The best way to deal with people when they’re upset is hear them out. Who cares if they’re yelling at you? You’re a public servant.”

Maintain the peace

School boards, it’s worth noting, don’t set curriculum. But they do have sway over who is hired and can affect policy, which can affect curriculum. 9-R’s Board consists of five members. Erika Brown and Andrea Parmenter (running against Paslay and Gulec, respectively) are both incumbents. Catherine Mewmaw, a former teacher, is also running in Brown and Paslay’s district.

Brown said it used to be the district would have trouble finding candidates to run. During the last School Board election in 2019, just 37% of voters turned in a ballot. But now, given the current political fracas, more people are running and the tenor has changed.

“Two years ago, no one ran in one of our districts,” Brown said. “But now it’s changed with the politicization of COVID and masks. And it’s happening all over the place.”

Rick Petersen (challenging Hill) reiterated CRT is not a component of 9-R’s curriculum, but he believes history should be taught accurately and honestly, even if some parts of America’s history is dark and uncomfortable. And he has taken issue with the conservative candidates not being forthright with their stances on issues in previous public comments and on their website, which may have an impact on the casual voter.

“That group of three is not being transparent in what they believe and what they stand for,” Petersen said. “I want voters to have the information they need to vote, but at this point, they just don’t.”

“Building Durango’s Future” candidates, of course, disagree. Other than the hot topic issues, Gulec said it’s important to offer vocational training for kids who don’t want to go to college. She also said the district could do away with social programs to better fund teachers.

And, there is some common ground. All candidates have voiced support for new superintendent Karen Cheser, who was hired this year, and acknowledge 9-R’s student performance must be addressed, as well as larger issues like teacher salaries. How we get there, it seems, is where the ideological differences come into play. Durango, so far, has avoided the toxic fever pitch, and many hope it stays that way.

“One of the great things about Durango is our schools,” Erica Max, who had two kids graduate from 9-R schools and is now involved in the district, said. “And the School Board function is mostly budgeting and policy governance – it’s boring as hell, which is why no one usually wants to run. But suddenly there’s this activism that’s rising up. The norms no longer exist.”