Times are tough for students in Harrison School District 2. Their schools are cramped and crumbling, and their teachers -- as in other districts -- are underpaid. But the biggest problem facing the city's third largest school district, some critics say, is that it's being run like a private club.
Documents that have been recently obtained by the Independent reveal a disturbing pattern of a dysfunctional government agency at work.
Among the findings:
In a blatant violation of state election laws, Harrison School District 2 has agreed to pay a Denver-based advertising company $77,700 in taxpayer funds to convince voters to approve a mil levy override ballot measure in November.
The treasurer of the Board of Education claims top administrators attempted to stifle her efforts to examine allegations of financial mismanagement at one of the district's high schools. An outside audit has since been ordered at Sierra High School.
The Superintendent of Schools and the five-member board of education meet privately nearly every month in restaurants, where they dine on taxpaid breakfasts, lunches and dinners and discuss district-related business. At least one board member believes the exclusive gatherings -- which are posted 24-hours in advance only in the central administrative office and never attended by members of the public -- violate the spirit of Colorado's Sunshine Law.
Superintendent Clifford O. Brookhart broke a so-called "gentleman's agreement" to live in the culturally diverse district he oversees. Instead, Brookhart and his family last year moved into a $360,000 home in the upscale Broadmoor area.
In addition, the superintendent pulled his own children out of District 2 schools last year. His two children now attend school in District 11.
On a split 3-2 vote, an increasingly combative school board last month approved a new, four-year contract to Superintendent Brookhart, agreeing to pay him $102,272 a year plus insurance and fringe benefits that include $400 a month for a personal car.
In addition to his new contract, Brookhart was not required to provide specific plans to improve the school district, despite the strong protests of two board members.
Majority not elected
Two of Harrison's school board members have increasingly been at odds with the other three members and with the superintendent, and have publicly accused them of shirking their oversight duties and potentially violating the public's trust.
"They run the organization as if it were a private company," said Jan Bruner, the treasurer of the school district's Board of Education and one of two members who have become increasingly critical of the way district business is conducted.
Bruner is one of three board members who "won" elected office in 1998. She, along with Board President Henry W. Blackwell, Sr. and Steve Hester were named by default because they were the only people who signed up to run for the three open seats, which in essence cancelled the election. That the majority of the board was not popularly elected has left some questioning the level of accountability to the students and the patrons of the district.
The allegations of financial mismanagement and a breakdown of leadership come during a difficult time for the Harrison School District.
In the shadow of the much larger District 11 and District 20 in Colorado Springs, the 125-year-old Harrison School District, which encompasses much of southeast Colorado Springs, generally receives little public scrutiny.
But, with a $53 million annual budget, 19 schools, 10,300 students and 1,444 full- and part-time employees, the city's third largest school district embodies the most racially diverse makeup of the dozen school districts in Colorado Springs and El Paso County.
Proportionally, the number of minority, at-risk and poor students is higher than any other district, and in part due to a high turnover from nearby Fort Carson Army Base, Harrison also has to deal with a highly transient population among its student population. Enrollment has dipped slightly in recent years, which has had a negative impact on financing from state and federal sources.
In a recent interview, Brookhart said he wasn't sure when the last time a bond issue passed in D-2, but said it's been at least 20 years.
Students needs barely met
The impact of aging schools and crowded classrooms was driven home with force during last week's school board meeting, when the principal and staff members from Gorman Middle School outlined the appalling condition of their school.
Gorman is right in the middle of the construction zone of Interstate 25 at Circle Drive. In effect, the teachers and staff are trying to operate in the middle of one of the most dangerous, noisy, congested, construction zones in the city.
The school was built in 1916 and, in 1957 a second story was added, and then in 1975, a "new" wing was built. That was 25 years ago. Soon, six highway lanes will be speeding past Gorman. Inside, science labs have no running water. Teachers haul 5-gallon buckets of fresh water down the hall, then haul the waste back for disposal after class. Students can barely jostle their way down crowded hallways. There aren't enough bathrooms. The computer and reading labs are directly under a noisy gymnasium.
"[The students'] basic physical needs are barely met," said sixth-grade teacher Amy Stempien. School officials want to move the school to a quiet, uncongested property in Cheyenne Meadows, but they can't. There's no money and the school board has declined to seek a bond election to pay for it.
Breaking the law
By contrast, the district has found money to pay $77,700 to an advertising company to dispel a "negative image" that some voters have of the district. The school board unanimously approved the contract on April 25 at Brookhart's recommendation.
The purpose of the happy face campaign is to convince voters to approve a mil levy override in November. Brookhart said the money from such a property tax increase would be used to lower class size, for equipment and services, to shore up the district's low reserves, and to increase teacher and staff salaries.
The only problem: the campaign is a direct violation of the state election law that prohibits government agencies from spending public money to influence a ballot initiative.
Last week, Brookhart denied the marketing plan is directly tied to the November mil levy override election, and claimed that the campaign is merely intended to determine how the community views the schools.
However, the campaign is explicitly spelled out in the district's contract with Lance Jackson & Associates, the Denver-based marketing and advertising company that was awarded the deal.
"[The purpose] is to develop a marketing and advertising strategy that will create the need and want to increase the mil levy for Harrison School District 2," the contract reads.
"In creating this election promotion, the campaign will include parts of the district's strategic plan for each of it's [sic] students, communicate the value of the Harrison School District system to the community, give specific emotional reasons the district needs the mil levy increase and what the increase in the mil levy will do for the community."
Pete Maysmith, program coordinator for Colorado Common Cause, was astounded when he heard of the amount of the contract -- and that the district has orchestrated a clear violation of Colorado's election law as outlined in section 1-45-117 of Colorado's Revised Statutes.
"The intent of the law is pretty clear," Maysmith said. "You can't use public funds to urge people to vote yes or no on a ballot issue."
Maysmith said that even if the ballot wording for the mil levy override has not yet been formally submitted to be placed on the ballot, the district cannot spend public money to pay for an agreed upon campaign that will continue until the November election.
"There's no way they should be doing this -- it's incorporated into the fair campaign practices," he said. "This is not a new law and ignorance is no excuse on this one."
Maysmith was particularly taken aback by the amount of money the district agreed to spend on the illegal campaign. Normally, when government agencies violate the law, it is in the form of a mailing that nominally exceeds the $50 limit in public funds that can legally be spent by school districts and other government agencies concerning ballot issues, he said.
"Entering into a contract after issuing a [request for a proposal], where more than $77,000 is being spent -- that's taking it to a new level," Maysmith said.
The illegal expenditure is a misdemeanor, but for the school district, an involved and outraged public may be more influential in forcing the board to operate under Colorado law, he said. Brookhart said the district's lawyer, Bob Cohn, verbally approved the contract but did not submit any supporting legal opinion in writing.
Fat times at Sierra High
In addition to the illegal campaigning, the district recently ordered an audit of Sierra High School's finances after it was determined that the principal had misused the school's student activity fund.
"I'm frustrated because I'm wondering, if our community knew what was going on, how they would react," said board member Bruner.
Bruner, who as a former employee at Sierra High School used to oversee the accounting of the fund she now suspects is being misused, said she was initially stymied by central administrators when she attempted to obtain records of the high school activities fund accounts.
The information was finally turned over for her review at the advice of the district's lawyer, she said. An independent audit of Sierra High's finances has since been ordered at a cost of $4,500.
Documents obtained by the Independent corroborate Bruner's concerns. For example:
On Feb. 8, 1999, Sierra High School Principal Dean Palmer transferred a Certificate of Deposit in the amount of $11,312 from Norwest Bank to the UMB Bank. However, the CD was only credited at UMB Bank in the amount of $1,312. It has not been determined whether the mistake was the fault of the high school or the bank -- and why the $10,000 in still unaccounted funds went unrealized for more than a year.
An April 12, 2000, memorandum detailed six checks that had been drawn from the Sierra High School student activities fund that had been inappropriately issued by Principal Palmer. The district's former finance director John Musso and current finance director Kevin Smelker found that the checks, totaling $3,069, had been inappropriately used for postage and to reimburse Palmer and Sierra assistant principal Jaime Scott for a conference they attended in Las Vegas and other unspecified uses. Of those expenses, $1,105 had not been accounted for and, in a memo, Musso and Smelker indicated that "if no receipts are produced, then Dr. Palmer should personally reimburse the activity fund."
Last week, Superintendent Brookhart said he expects it will be another two weeks before the audit is completed. Meanwhile, he said, Sierra High School Principal Palmer continues his regular duties, including overseeing the same financial accounts that have been called into question.
Bruner believes the district is attempting to stall the results of the audit. "They are dragging their feet on this because it's one of the good old boys deals," she said.
In addition, Bruner is critical of the Sierra High principal for ordering a $31,000 message board erected outside the high school. After he ordered the huge message board, the district learned that the high school is prohibited from putting it up because of city restrictions. Though no purchase contract had been signed, the sign company will refund only $23,500 of the money that had already been paid, forcing Harrison School District to eat the remaining $7,500.
"This is wrong, and if we can do this with this pittance of money then what the hell is going on in our district?" Bruner asked.
Stephanie Lewis praises Bruner's efforts to determine whether misuse of funds occurred. "Ms. Bruner's strength is in the finances of the district -- her accounting skills are exceptional," Lewis said. "She's tried to take her position seriously as the treasurer and has the best financial understanding of the district."
But Bruner said the other board members balked when she insisted on an internal audit of Sierra High School's funds.
Boys against the girls
Bruner and Lewis, who has served on the board for five years, say the other three members of the school board are shirking their oversight position and rubber stamping the wishes of the superintendent.
The three men, including board president Henry W. Blackwell, Sr., have consistently shot down the women's various concerns. "It's obvious it's the boys against the girls," said Bruner.
The battle of the sexes reached a head last month, when Brookhart's contract came up for renewal.
Bruner and Lewis noted that they had only received Brookhart's new four-year contract the night before, and had not been allowed time to properly review the document. And, they complained that his list of goals for the district did not include any specific action plans of improvement.
At one point Bruner suggested that the board president's refusal to allow dissenting opinions be aired constituted an unhealthy dictatorship. Professional courtesy, she said, should be extended to everyone.
Lewis also expressed frustration and complained that the process of enacting specific leadership goals has not been respected.
"I'm a strong believer in that we lead by example," she said.
The three men, however, accused Lewis and Bruner of "stalling" and "playing games."
"It's time to get down to business; we've got a big plate of beans in front of us in this next coming year," said Bill Zalman, who was elected last November.
Blackwell, who was appointed to the board by default in 1997 after two previous unsuccessful bids at public office, thundered his support for Brookhart, calling him an "outstanding leader."
Blackwell, who was selected last November as the new board president, said he would not allow board members to argue about the superintendent or his goals, and that he believes secret meetings should be called to discuss any differences of opinion.
"I do not apologize for taking leadership and wanting to do what is right for this district," Blackwell said. "I'm not going to use the public meetings as a time to fuss and argue about personnel -- as long as I am president I will do what I am supposed to do as president by policy. I will not apologize."
Rookies in charge
Steve Hester, who has an eighth-grade education and publicly aligns himself with the conspiracy theory-laden John Birch Society, was handed a school board seat by default in 1998, when only three people signed up to run for three open seats.
Hester also recently opted out of the race to replace Republican state Rep. Andy McElhany in House District 17. Hester had initially planned to continue serving on the school board if elected to the legislature. In a March interview, the district's then-finance director John Musso indicated the district endorsed Hester's candidacy for the statehouse, a violation of state election law.
Hester, a staunch Brookhart supporter who often dines solo with the superintendent courtesy of district taxpayers, said he believes it's the board's job to focus on the big picture and not on minutia. Hester said the superintendent should handle all operational concerns and report back to board members, rather than them troubleshooting on their own.
"We have several board members who disagree with the superintendent on many things," Hester said. "They fight with him and disagree with everything he does and I think ... they are trying to drive him out of here."
Lewis agrees that the board of education needs to give the superintendent the space to do his job. However, the public counts on the board to be their eyes and ears to ensure their investment in their children's education is being looked after. And right now, she said, only the females on the board are asking the tough questions.
"I don't think all of the board members understand what we are entrusted with, and the time it takes to become educated, including reading, talking to people, getting all the facts, making decisions that affect the students," she said.
"I don't believe the dedication to do the real work for the district is really there. Some board members aren't prepared for meetings or are [not] able to run the meeting correctly."
Blackwell's ascension to president is not lost on his predecessor, Al Brophy, who served for eight-and-a-half years on the board. Brophy was the board president until he was defeated in a reelection bid last November. He believes that the majority of nonelected school board representatives holding public office has resulted in an accountability problem.
By appointing Blackwell president of the board, Brophy said, the board bypassed seniority and the will of the people who actually voted for members who had legitimately been elected to the board. Specifically, Brophy suggested Lewis, who was popularly elected and has served for five years, is the appropriate choice for president of the board. The president runs the meetings and generally sets the tone of the debate.
"Any time you do not respect seniority and experience you are overlooking the major emphasis on our society -- which is stability." Brophy said. "The biggest problem with the school board is they will not recognize experience and seniority as a value right now."
Superintendent Brookhart said the current board's conflicts -- including those over him -- can be troubling. He said he would like more cohesiveness on the board, however, "the Board of Education doesn't always have to be unanimous."
The missing documents
Lewis said she was troubled that the majority of the board was so willing to push through Brookhart's new contract, particularly when his goals and objectives have not been clearly established. Rushing the contract through without giving the public the opportunity for input, she said, was irresponsible.
"That whole process has not been respected," Lewis said. "Dr. Brookhart's contract was extended for four years -- we've never done that before -- and I felt it was rubber stamped."
One of the terms of the contract specifies that, because Brookhart receives $400 a month for a car for his personal and professional use, he is not eligible to collect additional job-related mileage costs. Yet records show that the superintendent has collected mileage reimbursements anyway.
Efforts to determine other district expenditures made by Brookhart have been stymied, and the district refused to respond to portions of a recent Open Records Request filed by the Independent within three business days, as required by law.
As of press time, the district's Denver-based attorney, Bob Cohn, has not provided a written explanation -- required by law -- of why the district denied portions of the request, which was submitted on May 9.
The missing documents include a full accounting of Superintendent Brookhart's expenses and reimbursements made by the district last year.
In addition, the district was unable to provide positive or negative letters or e-mails from parents, students and members of the community pertaining to the school district or any of its individual school operations during the 1999-2000 school year. Brookhart said that all such correspondence is destroyed upon receipt.
Taking a walk
Lewis and Bruner are also disappointed that, even as Harrison has hired a marketing and advertising company to convince people the district is great, its schools apparently aren't good enough for superintendent Brookhart's own kids.
Last year, Lewis said, Brookhart removed his two children from Harrison Schools, and his family moved out of the district to a home in the Broadmoor. He said living in the district is not a condition of his employment, but declined to address other questions related to his decisions on where to live and educate his children.
"I'm not going to go there, it's too personal," he said.
Board member Hester supports Brookhart's decision to remove his son from a school where the student was reportedly being harassed. However, Hester was unsure what steps had been taken to improve potential disciplinary problems at the school, which he did not identify.
Lewis said Brookhart's other child was put in another school district because the district does not offer an advanced baccalaureate academic program. While Lewis said she understands the decision, she questions why the superintendent of schools isn't doing more to provide the necessary student programs in the schools he oversees.
Lewis said she is disappointed by the message he is sending to the Harrison community.
"[His living in the district] was basically not in the contract, but it was a gentleman's agreement that [Brookhart] should live in the district and he understood what our desires were in 1995," Lewis said. "You have to walk the talk and lead by example."
Feeding at the public trough
More than a year ago, the superintendent and the school board began meeting approximately once a month for breakfast and lunch work sessions. Initially, the six-member group met to dine at taxpayer expense at the Doubletree Atrium restaurant off Circle Drive, and now they generally meet at the Radisson. Brookhart said the meetings were initially scheduled at the request of former board president Brophy.
Sue Atkinson, the assistant to the superintendent, said the agendas for those work sessions are destroyed after they occur, and no records are kept as to their purpose or what occurred. However, she said the meeting times and places are posted in the district's central office at least 24 hours in advance, as required by Colorado's Open Records Law that requires elected officials to conduct business in public.
Bruner said the board has also held at least one exclusive tax-paid party, a 1998 Christmas dinner at the Briarhurst Manor restaurant, which was attended by board members and their spouses.
Though these sessions are open to the public, Bruner cannot remember a member of the public ever attending one of the board's restaurant meetings. She agreed that most members of the public would probably be hesitant to attend a meeting where elected officials are meeting in an intimate restaurant setting, and has wondered herself about the legitimacy of the gatherings.
"The Sunshine Law isn't worth squat because who in the community really knows where this posting [of the meeting time and place] is?" she said. "I just wonder how our taxpayers would feel if they knew that's how we spend money."
In addition to the destroyed correspondence and no written record of the board working agendas, the school district does not keep audio tapes of their formal board meetings for longer than one month. After the written minutes, which reflect the general overview of what happened, are approved, those tapes are destroyed, Atkinson said.
By contrast, most government agencies keep their audiotaped records of meetings where formal votes are taken for much longer. In addition, Brookhart said the district's lawyer of record does not always attend formal board meetings to offer legal expertise on items that are being considered.
Lewis and Bruner have found themselves in the minority in their criticism of other Harrison 2 leaders who they say are winking and nodding and jeopardizing the public's trust.
But sometimes, noted Colorado Common Cause's Maysmith, "the biggest enforcement hammer out there is the court of public opinion."
"I can't imagine the citizens of the school district would stand by and allow the members of their school board to violate state law," he said of the district's $77,700 advertising campaign to convince voters to OK a mil levy override. "There should be an outcry and they should change their behavior immediately.
"This sure seems like a great argument for more citizens to get involved -- both to run and to vote."