HIGHLANDS RANCH – The hottest seat at Thursday night’s school board candidate debate at Mountain Ridge Middle School belonged to Justin Williams, an incumbent facing a crowd obviously displeased with the district’s voucher initiative.
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“I know how you guys feel about it,” Williams conceded at one point, after many of the 60 audience members loudly applauded the frequent anti-voucher comments made by other candidates.

Douglas County’s voucher pilot may be stalled on appeal but it is alive and well as a key issue separating the seven candidates vying for three seats on the affluent county’s school board Nov. 1.

Two of the three races feature one pro-voucher candidate and one anti-voucher candidate. The third race features one pro-voucher incumbent and two anti-voucher challengers.

“I am mad. I am very angry,” candidate Gail Frances said of her decision to run for office. “It was the voucher situation that really instilled the fire in me.”

Candidate Susan Meek called the voucher pilot “a huge distraction,” noting the district’s proposed tax increases for operating and building dollars – ballot measures 3A and 3B – weren’t included in the questions submitted by community members.

“We have 3A and 3B out there and we don’t even have a question on that, which I think is pretty sad,” Meek said. “If 3A does not pass, the board is going to be faced with trying to cut $26 million next year.”

The moderator added a question about the ballot measures after her remarks.

Even if the three seats go to anti-voucher candidates, the board would likely retain a pro-voucher majority. All board votes on the voucher pilot in the past year have been 7-0.

Candidate Susan Meek
Candidate Susan Meek

And a sweep by anti-voucher candidates would be no easy feat, despite the tenor of Thursday’s debate.

While school board races are non-partisan, the three pro-voucher candidates are backed by the county Republican Party. It’s a formidable force in a county where – as of Tuesday – registered Republicans outnumbered Democrats 2-to-1. A third of voters classified themselves as other parties or unaffiliated.

Williams bore the brunt of the displeasure Thursday because the two other pro-voucher candidates were absent. Kevin Larsen had a previously scheduled trip and incumbent Craig Richardson was called away for a personal emergency.

Another key issue, the district’s proposed tax measures, divides the candidates along different lines.

Williams was on the losing side of a rare 5-2 board split to seek a $20 million operating increase or mill-levy override and a $200 million bond issue. Richardson voted for the tax increases and Larsen supports them.

“My vote was not, ‘No, we don’t need the money.’ We need the money,” Williams said. “My vote was that the community was in worse shape than the school district.”

Among the anti-voucher candidates, Meek, Frances and Susan McMahon support the tax increases – with some concerns.

Candidate Susan McMahon
Candidate Susan McMahon

For example, the $20 million operating increases is partly intended to fund a pay-for-performance program to teachers. But some said the plan lacks details.

Meek described the plan is “long on rhetoric, short on details” while Frances said, “Nobody is convinced that pay-for-performance is going to work.”

“Why are we not educating the community about the importance of the investment?” asked McMahon, questioning the district’s campaign for the ballot measures. “We need the resources.”

Candidate Kevin Reilly said the district “desperately needs funds” but he found it difficult to support the pay-for-performance plan and “they haven’t taken vouchers off the table.” Douglas County is appealing a Denver judge’s ruling that the pilot is unconstitutional.

“I see a poison pill that has been wrapped in chocolate,” Reilly said of the $20 million tax increase. “I don’t believe I can vote for it now.”

Douglas County school board candidates and key positions

District A, Northwest

    Susan Meek, 42, of Highlands Ranch, is an education strategist at Breakaway Ltd. and former district communications director.
  • On vouchers – Oppose
  • On tax increases 3A & 3B – Support
  • Quotable – “The community has been split right down the middle and we’ve had lots and lots of public comment on vouchers. It’s really been a very big distraction and we need to get back to what our focus should be – on educating the students.”
  • Campaign website
  • Read Meek’s responses to a candidate survey by Alexandra Harden, which includes 25 questions on choice, merit pay for teachers, parent notification of educator arrests and more.
    Kevin Reilly, 53, of Highlands Ranch, is a neuropsychologist in private practice who also consults at a local hospital.
  • On vouchers – Oppose
  • On tax increases 3A & 3B – Oppose
  • Quotable – “I am running for school board out of, originally, concern for the voucher program and also because of my concerns about how this district appears to be being dismantled.”
  • Campaign website
    Craig Richardson, 50, of Highlands Ranch, was appointed to fill a mid-term vacancy and is seeking a full four-year term. He is general counsel for the El Paso Pipeline Group.
  • On vouchers – Support
  • On tax increases 3A & 3B – Support
  • Quotable – Richardson did not attend Thursday’s forum because of a personal emergency.
  • Campaign website not available
  • Read Richardson’s responses to a candidate survey by Alexandra Harden, which includes 25 questions on choice, merit pay for teachers, parent notification of educator arrests and more.

District C, North and Central

    Gail Frances, 65, of Highlands Ranch, has taken a hiatus from the financial services industry to run for the board.
  • On vouchers – Oppose
  • On tax increases 3A & 3B – Support
  • Quotable – “The reality is we are on the road to public school destruction.”
  • Campaign website
    Kevin Larsen, 48, of Highlands Ranch, is an actuary and assistant vice president at Hannover Life Reassurance Co. of America.
  • On vouchers – Support
  • On tax increases 3A & 3B – Support
  • Quotable – Larsen did not attend Thursday’s debate because of previously scheduled travel.
  • Campaign website not available; Facebook page
  • Read Larsen’s responses to a candidate survey by Alexandra Harden, which includes 25 questions on choice, merit pay for teachers, parent notification of educator arrests and more.

District F, Northeast

    Susan McMahon, 44, of Parker, is a former small business owner and entrepreneur.
  • On vouchers – Oppose
  • On tax increases 3A & 3B – Support
  • Quotable – “I’d like to make very clear that running for a leadership position on the Douglas County school board and being a plaintiff (in the voucher lawsuit) are not a conflict of interest. They are the same. Citizens like myself who care about their communities and their schools get engaged, take a stand and work to make a difference.”
  • Campaign website
  • Read McMahon’s responses to a candidate survey by Alexandra Harden, which includes 25 questions on choice, merit pay for teachers, parent notification of educator arrests and more.
    Justin Williams, 38, of Parker, is an investment adviser. First elected to the board in 2007, he is seeking a second term.
  • On vouchers – Support
  • On tax increases 3A & 3B – Oppose
  • Quotable – “My vision of a school board and serving on a school board is not to be necessarily pro-public education, pro-neighborhood schools, pro-charter schools or pro-private schools. I am pro-education.”
  • Campaign website
  • Read Williams’ responses to a candidate survey by Alexandra Harden, which includes 25 questions on choice, merit pay for teachers, parent notification of educator arrests and more.