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D-11 food fight

Christen calls Shakes a buffoon in board meltdown

District 11 board member Karen Teja, pictured at a - recent meeting, gives the elected board she serves an F - in civility. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • District 11 board member Karen Teja, pictured at a recent meeting, gives the elected board she serves an F in civility.

It all started with a routine discussion over who will pay for breakfast and ended 25 minutes later in chaos and with insults flying.

Call it another District 11 school board meeting.

Last week's meeting collapsed during a discussion of reimbursement of food and legal expenses for board members. As tempers flared, board president Sandy Shakes hammered her gavel and called for a five-minute recess. Her elected colleague, Eric Christen, then called her a "buffoon."

The exchange represents a common theme that has emerged among the bitterly divided seven-member board that directs Colorado Springs' largest school district: They often can't get along. The remarks also underscore swelling tension about the district's future.

This month a new district superintendent will be selected, and in November as many as three board seats will be up for grabs. On everyone's mind is the ideological makeup of the new board.

Sparks began to fly at the April 27 meeting when Christen complained that he had not received a reimbursement from D-11 for $85 worth of pizzas, including a $10 tip, that he purchased for a group of citizens before a board meeting on Jan. 12.

Christen's pizza party became known as "pizza-gate," because the pies had been used to lure vocal opponents of Planned Parenthood in D-11 schools to the meeting, said board member Karen Teja.

Christen pointed out that Teja, by contrast, had received refunds from D-11 for meals. Teja conceded that she had received refunds for two purchases: coffee and, on a separate occasion, deli sandwiches. Those purchases, she said, had been made during events where she was working as an official liaison for the board.

Board president Sandy Shakes said Christen's pizza party had been for "people who may not have the best interest, as other people may see it, for the district."

Unless Shakes agrees with certain points of view, Christen charged, meal expenses may not be approved.

Christen then launched into what he called a related topic: legal expenses. Specifically, he griped that Teja had been reimbursed by D-11 for legal expenses she incurred last year in a voucher-related matter. Superintendent Norm Ridder approved the reimbursement.

Christen, on the other hand, was only partially reimbursed for the legal costs he paid for defending himself against a reprimand for bad behavior that was levied by his colleagues last Dec. 8.

Board members, including Teja, argue that Christen shouldn't be reimbursed in full because his legal fees paid for a lawsuit that Christen threatened to bring against the board to obtain a restraining order.

The meeting then flew out of control when a woman in the audience asked to address the board and then launched into previously published allegations that Teja had a conflict of interest when it came to vouchers.

From her seat on the dais, Teja shouted, "Shut it down."

Shakes then clashed verbally with Christen, saying she would not allow the woman to proceed with her verbal attack on Teja. She then banged her gavel, calling for the recess.

Christen shook his head at Shakes and said, "What a buffoon."

"I am embarrassed," said Teja in an interview after the meeting. "I give us an F on civility and focusing on student achievement."

Other longtime board observers were similarly disappointed. "To get drawn into a quagmire of personal insults . . . I would be embarrassed too," said Bruce Doyle, who served on the board of directors from 1995 to 2003.

"I've never seen the vitriol I see right now with the board," he said. "I think they've lost sight of their mission."

--Dan Wilcock

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