Dougco's Toxic Trio Shirks Responsibility, Shafts Citizens

I know I’m a little snarky from time to time, but I generally feel like I’m a pretty even-keeled kid. It takes a fair amount to get me mad. But if there’s one thing that is absolutely, positively guaranteed to send me off the rails, it’s when grown-ups entrusted with the levers of power choose to operate those levers to benefit themselves and harm students, parents, and taxpayers.

That is exactly what I saw happen last night when I tuned in for my favorite biweekly Tuesday entertainment: the Douglas County School District Board of Education meeting. As some of you may know, Doug Benevento, a member of the four-person conservative majority on the board, resigned his seat on August 17. He submitted a brief but official “letter” of resignation to Dougco BOE President Meghann Silverthorn, who subsequently informed the other board members of the news. In case all of that wasn’t clear or public enough, Benevento also ran an op-ed explaining his decision in the Denver Post, the largest newspaper in the state.

In addition to that, major news outlets across Colorado covered the resignation, including:



Chalkbeat Colorado

CBS Denver

The Denver Post

That’s only a partial list, but you get the picture. It was no secret to anyone paying attention—and really even to those who had no idea of who Doug Benevento is—that Benevento had stepped down from the board on August 17. You can imagine my surprise, then, when board minority members Anne-Marie Lemieux, David  Ray, and Wendy Vogel—the three of whom collectively form the “Toxic Trio” in Douglas County—blocked a straightforward resolution designed to start the process of filling the seat. Their reasoning? That policy and/or law (they seemed genuinely confused about the difference throughout the meeting) hadn’t been followed because they didn’t each receive a copy of the one-sentence resignation letter. Because, you know, it wasn’t clear enough that he had resigned on August 17.

Blocking such a critically important decision with a tiny technicality like this is roughly the equivalent of hanging a grand piano with a piece of fishing line and a safety pin. It’s grossly irresponsible, negligent, and nakedly political. Members of the Toxic Trio repeatedly expressed concern that allowing a reform-minded board member to fill Benevento’s seat would provide an “incumbent advantage” to that person in 2017, when whoever sits in the seat will be up for election. David Ray even proposed a policy change that would have (illegally) required anyone taking the vacant seat to refrain from running again in 2017 in order to avoid this perceived “advantage.”

In other words, they’d rather not allow anything to happen that might muddy their electoral strategy to flip the board next year, responsibilities and consequences be damned. And make no mistake, this is an obvious and deliberate dereliction of duty on the part of the Toxic Trio that will have significant consequences.

By Colorado statute, the board has 60 days to fill the seat after the vacancy occurs, after which the president of the board can appoint someone to the seat. One would think that the clock would have started on August 17, when Benevento submitted his resignation and ran the Denver Post op-ed, but there’s an important nuance buried in the statute that the Toxic Trio exploited last night: The board has to “duly accept” the resignation before the vacancy occurs. The very first part of the resolution linked above was to accept Benevento’s resignation. So by blocking the resolution entirely, the three board minority members refused to accept the resignation. And by refusing to accept the resignation, they delayed the start of the 60-day statutory vacancy clock.

What does this mean? To answer that question, you have to understand how school board elections work in Douglas County.

For those who don’t know, Douglas County is split into seven representative school board districts. Each school board member comes from a different one of these districts, and folks running for any given seat must live in the correct subdistrict. However, school board elections are held at large, which means that everyone in the county can vote for who fills each seat. It’s a bit of a strange system, but an extremely common one in Colorado.

Benevento was the representative from District E, which covers a big swath of north-central Douglas County, including a very heavily populated section of Highlands Ranch. Check it out:

I don’t have an exact population estimate for District E, but the districts are drawn by population, and the latest U.S. Census Bureau population estimate for the county is about 322,000. One-seventh of that would be north of 40,000 people. Wherever the pinpoint number falls, it’s accurate to say that the Toxic Trio’s political maneuver just deprived tens of thousands of Douglas County parents and taxpayers of their representation—and, as a result, their voice—on the Douglas County school board. It also virtually guarantees that no significant work will get done by the board in the coming months. Deadlocked 3-3 boards aren’t known for their productivity.

Put more bluntly, the Toxic Trio placed their voices and interests above those of students and parents—and above those of the citizens who elected them. Really, truly, genuinely disgusting stuff.

So what happens now? Well, there are a couple of possibilities:

  • The Toxic Trio could continue refusing to acknowledge the fact that Benevento has, in fact, resigned, thereby delaying the start of the vacancy-filling process for as long as possible. By statute, the board would be forced to act after Benevento “misses” three consecutive regular meetings of the board. This possibility seems like the most likely given the Trio’s constant questions about this option and how it would work in practice.
  • The Toxic Trio could be grown-ups and, as my dad likes to say, “do their damn jobs,” by acknowledging the obvious vacancy and working as quickly as possible toward giving a voice back to folks in District E. I wouldn’t hold your breath on this one.

We’ll have to wait and see how it all plays out. Maybe the Toxic Trio will suddenly decide to live up to their responsibilities and do the right thing. Hey, stop laughing. It could happen. Right? Right?

No matter how it all works out, Ed will be watching.