Like so many school districts across the country right now, rural Woodland Park, Colorado is being torn apart by politics. School board meetings are contentious, students are afraid and teachers are threatening to leave. Our community is fracturing.
It hasn’t always been this way. While Woodland Park is a politically conservative place, the schools have always felt isolated from politics. The political affiliation of parents, teachers and school board members didn’t matter because everyone worked together and took pride in the local schools. I was one such proud parent.
When I was asked to join the School Accountability Committee at my daughter’s school many years ago, I jumped at the chance. As a data nerd, I came away feeling deeply impressed by the school’s fiscal responsibility. When I sat in on a presentation by the superintendent at the time about the district budget, the fiscal conservative side of me was similarly dazzled. This was a school district that had its act together, I recall thinking.
Then in the fall of 2021, a group of four candidates who’d promoted themselves as ‘the conservative choice’ were elected to the school board. They quickly moved to transform the district, starting with the adoption of a sharply adversarial tone. In an email, one board member described teachers and their union as ‘the enemy.’ The founder of our local Christian bible college, an uncredited evangelical school that set up shop here several years ago, bragged about taking over the school board and announced that he’d sent a spy into the district to identify “homosexual books.”
And that was just the start. The new board approved a controversial charter school, one that the previous board had rejected, in part because enrollment in our rural district is declining. The rushed process not only violated open meeting laws but saddled the district with enormous consulting and legal fees. The board also terminated the previous superintendent’s contract, once again at great expense to the district, then chose controversial former school board member Ken Witt to serve as interim. Witt briefly served on the school board in Jefferson County but was recalled by voters after he accused the AP US history course of being insufficiently patriotic.
During a raucous meeting, the board voted to hire Witt over widespread opposition from students, parents, teachers and community members. The last member of the original school board, and the lone voice of reason in meetings, resigned. Students led two walkouts to protest and began showing up at board meetings to voice their opposition. The board blamed a teacher for the students’ actions and put her on administrative leave.
We fear that much worse is still to come. Radical curriculum reform (the board recently adopted the conservative American Birthright civics program, even after the state rejected it as too extreme), merit pay for teachers, and an effort to transform Woodland Park into an all-charter district will likely be on the agenda. Already, dozens of teachers have indicated that they’ll be leaving at the end of the school year. I am not opposed to honest, well-planned efforts to improve our district. But this board’s politically motivated actions have created massive disruption in the schools and the community.
My front row view of the battles taking place in my daughter’s school district has turned me into something I never thought I’d become: an activist. I certainly never thought I’d see the day when I’d be called a “hard left union lap dog wanna be thug,” as one director of the school board recently referred to me. In fact, I’m neutral on unions. A former registered Republican who once purchased a book by Rush Limbaugh I like low taxes, balanced budgets, and limited government. The truth is that I’d much rather just go back to being a dad and an introverted engineer, not the guy who is now an expert on submitting open records requests, and is a prominent voice in a Facebook group of similarly minded parents and community members.
I love our public schools and look at the country they have helped mold with pride. When I saw that the teachers and students in our local schools needed parents like me to speak up when they couldn’t, I had no choice but to step up. I hope that my story will inspire folks in communities where similar battles are raging to do the same.
Matt Gawlowski is a longtime parent in the Woodland Park RE-2 school district in Colorado. When not working as a mechanical engineer, you’ll find him outside trail running, backpacking, or skiing, depending on the season. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @EspressoMatt or at http://supportwpschools.com