The Harrison District 2 Board of Education used to run something like The Brady Bunch. Sure, there were a few disagreements here and there, but nothing that couldn't be resolved.
"We were thick as thieves," recalls Victor Torres, the board's vice president.
Not anymore. Torres has broken ranks to battle publicly with the other four board members, whom he accuses of misconduct in various forms, including election law violations, attacks on First Amendment rights, and allowing a well-known developer to orchestrate board actions.
Oddly, Torres, a dad and disabled vet, says he once was party to a lot of this misconduct. He says he decided to come clean because he felt the district was going too far, hurting teachers and kids with widespread reforms such as changing the district's governance model and revamping the teacher salary system.
"[The reforms] will be at a cost to the children of the district ... no matter what anybody says," Torres says.
The rest of the board, led by president Deborah Hendrix, says Torres is attempting to undermine the board after a disagreement.
"We're totally frustrated by what's going on at this point," Hendrix says. "We have attempted to mend the fences."
At the heart of the disagreement is something called "coherent governance," which Harrison adopted this year. (For more on this, and the teacher salary system, see "School house rocked.") The plan, generically referred to as "policy governance," allows the superintendent to run the district on a day-to-day basis, while the board holds its superintendent accountable for achieving large-scale goals, like improving student achievement.
Policy governance is used in many school districts, and in other entities, including Colorado Springs Utilities. It certainly has its fans; Jan Tanner, Colorado Springs School District 11 board vice president, says she's always pushed for D-11 to adopt policy governance.
"It gives the board time to really institute their beliefs," she says.
Others aren't so sure. D-11 board member Charlie Bobbitt, for instance, says policy governance "puts you too far away [from the schools]."
Torres would tend to agree. He thinks Harrison's new plan hands over too much control to D-2 superintendent Mike Miles. Torres also is concerned that the board's new policies will muzzle any dissent.
Indeed, many policies seem aimed at maintaining proper decorum among board members, especially in public. For instance: "When speaking to the press or otherwise publicly sharing personal opinions, [board] members will respect decisions of the Board and will not undermine those decisions." Or, "Members will not publicly express individual negative judgments about Superintendent or staff performance. Any such judgments of Superintendent or staff performance will be expressed in executive session." Board members are additionally instructed to "criticize privately, praise publicly" and to "never embarrass each other or the District."
Though they cannot be removed from office, board members who break the policies can be censured and stripped of their titles.
"Me speaking to you is a violation of the governance model," Torres told me recently.
He says the policies regarding board behavior violate his First Amendment free-speech rights. He's contacted the American Civil Liberties Union and hired an attorney.
Hendrix, saying the board ran the new policies past D-2's attorney, believes the district is within its rights. She says the policies are guidelines to encourage civility, and adds that the board knows it "can't stop anyone from saying what they want to say."
The preliminary votes on coherent governance proved the D-2 board's turning point. Torres says when he voted no, other board members turned on him and he became "that person." Hendrix says Torres was upset the board didn't consider a different consultant other than the Aspen Group International, LLC when formulating the plan, and became increasingly aggressive because "his feelings got hurt."
Things escalated as Torres began going public with various allegations. Among them is his claim that developer and educational activist Steve Schuck has an undue influence on board actions. Torres says Schuck's power stems from sitting on the board of the Daniels Fund, a nonprofit that has given hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants to Harrison, and from Schuck's friendship with Miles.
Torres has documentation showing the board took Schuck to lunch, spending $157.26 plus tip last Dec. 15 at Cheyenne Mountain Resort, and also presented Schuck with a specially engraved compass as a present. The bill was paid by a political action committee set up to re-elect Hendrix and board members Linda Pugh and Richard Price. The PAC was registered to Torres. (While Torres feels the outing was inappropriate, the state election department says it's unlikely the lunch broke any laws.)
Schuck donated $525, the maximum allowed, to that PAC and says he encouraged friends to contribute. The PAC's donors include some high-profile Springs residents: $525 from Karen Miles (wife of Mike Miles), $250 from rumored City Council candidate Phil Lane, $150 from mayoral candidate Tim Leigh, and $750 (more than the maximum allowed) from Joe Woodford, the largest supporter of City Councilor Sean Paige's Libertarian efforts.
Miles and Hendrix say Schuck has no influence on D-2 decision-making, and Schuck also loudly denies the allegations.
"That is so categorically incorrect that it almost defies an adequate answer," Schuck says. "If you knew the personalities at the board of [the Daniels Fund], you'd know no one controls them, certainly not me. I'm not the most popular [person] on the board."
Torres has received an e-mail from Schuck in which the developer expressed disapproval with Torres' defection from the board's agenda. Upset, Torres released the e-mail to the public. In response, the board confronted Torres in executive session.
Torres says the board attacked him personally behind closed doors. Hendrix says she and the board were concerned that Torres seemed nonchalant about releasing all kinds of documents, even confidential, to the media.
"It just got very heated," Hendrix says. "All of us said things we probably shouldn't have said."
Torres requested an audio recording of that meeting numerous times, but says he never got one. He plans to sue.
Meanwhile, Torres has rallied teachers and parents behind his claims that the district's reforms won't be good for kids. His supporters have shown up at board meetings. There have even been some calls for a recall effort against other board members.
Parent Taraya Bland says she's concerned by some allegations Torres has made. She hasn't been satisfied with information D-2 has provided about its new programs, or claims that only bad teachers (as identified by objective data) are being forced out under the district's new pay-for-performance plan.
"Where's the raw data?" she asks. "Where's Mike [Miles] getting these numbers? Because he is almost too perfect."