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Our View: Politics play out on Colo. school board

Actions and votes coming from Colorado’s board of education are so politicized, some members seem to have lost their way. Instead of bettering education for all students, decisions are lined with personal, political agendas.

Board members’ political leanings were evident in the recent 4-3 vote, upholding Durango School District 9-R’s ruling to deny Ascent Classical Academy’s charter school application. We’ll take the win but the close split unsettled us.

Ascent is controversial for ties to Hillsdale College, a conservative Christian institution.

Durango’s 9-R denied the charter application in June, saying Ascent lacked a commitment to serve all students, a curriculum dedicated to the unique needs of the district’s population and did not have a local governing board. The district’s denial resolution said Ascent’s classical curriculum appeared to be “Eurocentric,” and focused on “caucasian” history and philosophy with minimal incorporation from other ethnicities.

All valid reasons for 9-R to say no. Ascent did not meet the rubric of criteria.

And there is that 2019 Colorado law, calling for more inclusive social studies standards that include multiple histories, cultures and social contributions of diverse peoples.

Political stripes shined through anyway. In The Durango Herald on Oct. 17, a reporter wrote, “State board members voted along party lines: Board members who are registered Democrats voted to deny Ascent’s appeal, and registered Republicans voted in favor of Ascent’s appeal.”

Back in the day, reporters covering school board meetings didn’t mention political backgrounds. It was about decisions, votes and occasional personality dust-ups. Now, political affiliations reveal a bias or side taken.

Some board members even insert themselves into the story.

Take state board Vice Chairman Steve Durham, who voted in support of Ascent. His advice to parents: Leave the school district because the school board does not care about educational choice.

Careless words! Durango celebrates school choice with open enrollment to all 14 schools, some of which are charters.

Durham also refuted any concern with Ascent’s leadership board based in Denver. He ignored that respected, independent streak of Coloradans: Don’t tell us locals what to do.

By any stretch, we’re not educational experts. We’re parents. And we can tell you, Ascent’s application was weak. Combing through, we were taken aback by no real explanations of how to serve all students – especially English-language learners and special needs students – along with a curriculum that did not reflect the district’s distinct population. It boldly asked for exceptions, too.

Board member Debora Scheffel also voted for Ascent. “I would just say that a classic education addresses Pagan, Greek and Roman culture as well as the Christianization of Rome,” Scheffel said. “And if that’s offensive, that makes no sense.”

She doesn’t get it. This curriculum is not ideal for Southwest public schools with diverse students. Talk about a disconnect.

Now, Ascent has set sights on Ignacio School District 11-JT, with a planned school near Durango-La Plata County Airport. When asked how Ascent would work with the Southern Utes and why Ignacio instead of Bayfield School District 10Jt-R, Ascent CEO Derec Shuler did not give direct answers. When pressed about Ascent’s dedication to Ignacio and benefits of a partnership, Shuler said Ascent would provide a choice.

That’s not compelling. An Ignacio charter near the airport looks like a thinly veiled attempt to be near 9-R without actually being in 9-R. Approaching Ignacio without a true commitment to students – particularly Native Americans – feels disingenuous.

Karla Sluis, public information officer for 9-R, summed it up. “We are in the business of educating children,” she said. “Our hands are full with that important job. We’re not pawns in a political game.”

Let’s keep it that way.