Conservatives won school-board majorities and reversed equity initiatives

A Colorado Springs superintendent loses his job after school board elections usher in conservatives

Adam Palmer talks with students in his economics class in Colorado Springs on April 6, 2022.
Adam Palmer talks with students in his economics class in Colorado Springs on April 6, 2022. (Chet Strange for The Washington Post)

COLORADO SPRINGS — A racial equity program that began with widespread support and was propelled by George Floyd’s murder all but died on a chilly Wednesday evening in a near-empty school board meeting room.

During a budget debate, a pair of liberal board members were no match for the newly elected majority. The conservatives had taken office after a campaign focused on race and allegations that critical race theory had invaded the local schools, the most diverse in El Paso County.

Their victory last November had already resulted in the superintendent’s departure. Now the equity program he championed was on its way out, too.

“Our hope is the board would see the value of the work of supporting every child,” said school board member Julie Ott in what she knew was a losing case.

If Floyd’s murder forced many schools to consider that systemic racism was holding back students of color, the 2021 elections delivered a backlash. Across the country last year, school board elections became the epicenter of a culture war over race. Conservative victories led many boards to fire superintendents and curtail racial justice initiatives.

After conservatives took over in Queen Anne’s County, Md., in December 2020, the school board dissolved a contract with an equity firm hired to close achievement gaps. It also removed the words “implicit bias” and “systemic,” as in “systemic racism,” from the school system’s equity policy.

In New York’s Smithtown Central School District, three conservative candidates won seats on the board in May 2021 and restricted the use of 34 instructional videos because they mentioned human sexuality and the Black Lives Matter movement.

And in Kansas’s Derby Public Schools, after conservatives won a majority last November, the board forced a high school principal to apologize for showing his staff a four-minute video about White privilege and barred high schools from teaching the novel “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.”

In Colorado, several school boards were taken over by conservatives promising a new direction. That included Colorado Springs, where Michael Thomas, the District 11 superintendent, was so dismayed by members who campaigned for office against his priorities that he negotiated an exit package, making him one of dozens of superintendents who were ousted or quit in the wake of last year’s balloting.

The result was the end of the equity program before it really began. Plans to beef up recruitment of a diverse teaching staff, to address the implicit biases of teachers and to overhaul discipline practices are all now dead or in limbo.

“My frustration is that schools in our country have become highly politicized, more than they ever have been,” said Thomas, who was hired as superintendent here in 2018. “Our schools are where social warfare is waged in America.”

District 11 sits at the foot of Pikes Peak on the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains, inside a Republican county that is home to some 400 churches and headquarters for Focus on the Family, a conservative social issues advocacy group. The county is politically conservative, voting twice for Donald Trump. In the center is District 11, where about half the students are White and a third are Hispanic.

When the longtime schools superintendent announced he was retiring in 2018, the board looked for a leader prepared to address the lower achievement rates and “opportunity gaps” facing students of color and lower-income students, said Nora Brown, who was on the school board at the time.

“We knew we had a lot of diversity within our different schools, and different areas needed different things in order to succeed,” Brown said.

Thomas was a senior official with the Minneapolis Public Schools when he heard about the job opening. He had worked on issues of diversity and equity in previous jobs; he was hunting for a position where he could drive an equity agenda. In the interview process, he concluded that District 11 was interested in the same things.

During his interview, he told members of the community that equity work is “near and dear” to his life and career and that he was focused on “how we can be more culturally responsive to our communities,” he recalled.

Thomas arrived in July 2018 and soon began work on a strategic plan, adopted in June 2019, that promised “equitable practices to meet the unique needs of all.”

That summer, Thomas and two school board members traveled to Harvard University for a seminar where they worked on developing an equity policy, with the goal of targeting resources — staff or programming — to students who need the most help. In May 2020, the school board voted unanimously to adopt it, and Thomas appointed a director of equity and inclusion to lead a new department, with funding from a private grant.

Floyd’s death propels equity work

About the same time, back in Thomas’s hometown of Minneapolis, a police officer pressed his knee into the neck of George Floyd for nine minutes and 29 seconds, killing him and spurring nationwide protests and a reckoning over systemic racism, including in schools.

Thomas was shaken. He penned an open letter to the community relaying his strong emotional reaction to the killing, observing the pent-up rage “stemming from systemic oppression” and decrying repeated injustices toward African Americans and other people of color. He disclosed publicly for the first time that he was wrongly pulled over by police when he was 18 years old — and how scared he was.

“We have considerable work before us to eradicate the inequitable outcomes within our district,” he wrote.

The letter “got mixed reviews,” Thomas said. He received a lot of support, including a call from the former police chief in the community where he was pulled over as a teenager. But others accused him of “politicizing issues in my role as superintendent,” he said. Soon he began hearing questions about whether he was “anti-police.”

“I’m not just seen as a superintendent,” he said. “I’m seen as a Black superintendent.”

That fall, the district contracted with a consulting firm to produce an “equity audit” — a review of district data and policies. These audits have become popular with administrators looking to unpack racial disparities in areas such as test scores, grades, discipline rates, placement in advanced classes and graduation rates.

The results came in June 2021: The audit found gaps in student achievement between schools in the district and within schools. The campuses with a majority of Hispanic and Black students, and with more students in poverty, performed below predominantly White and wealthier schools. Students of color performed below White students attending the same schools.

The report attributed the gaps to a concentration of high-needs students, failure to spend more money where it was most needed, and inequitable access to the best teachers. It also cited implicit bias on the part of teachers and a lack of diversity in the workforce. A survey of teachers showed that those working in high-poverty schools were less likely to expect that their students would go to college.

Fixing these things would require a look at the systems that powered the district. While controversial books and lessons often garner headlines, it’s this work under the hood that makes up much of the racial equity drive in schools.

For Alexis Knox-Miller, the newly appointed equity director, this was personal. She had worked in the district since 2014, as a second-grade teacher, instructional coach and assistant principal. She had felt the sting of microaggressions.

Once, for instance, she was observing a teacher who had her dogs in the classroom. The teacher lifted one up, held it next to Knox-Miller’s hair — which she wore naturally — and said, “You guys have the same hair!” Miller quickly left the room. Even worse, she had heard about a Black custodian being called the n-word by someone who worked in the school.

So she was excited but nervous when she became the district’s first equity director. The audit she would supervise was meant to help the district understand and remedy the problems she had been seeing.

The backlash begins

By the time the results were released, in summer 2021, the mood in America had shifted. Conservative complaints about critical race theory were proliferating across the country, including in Colorado Springs.

“People started protesting that there was even an audit,” Knox-Miller said. “I started getting crazy phone calls every time I sent out anything about equity.”

Lauren Nelson, who has two children in the district, wrote a 15-page letter to the district leadership in June 2021 questioning the equity work, top to bottom, and complaining that Thomas had aired his personal views after Floyd’s murder. She doubted systemic racism exists today.

“It appears District 11 is diverting its focus from education in the basics such as reading, science and math but instead is educating future generations in ideological or political viewpoints,” she wrote.

“Dr. Thomas believes the United States to be systemically racist,” she continued. “He has repeatedly connected these tragic events to racism. Perhaps racism did play a part. How does he know?” she wrote.

When Knox-Miller presented the audit findings to the school board in last August, conservatives were starting to complain about how the district was handling race.

“The number one question that people are asking me: ‘Is critical race theory in our classrooms?’ ” Thomas told the school board at its Aug. 4 work session. It’s not, he said. “When people are conflating equity with critical race theory, they’re grossly mistaken.”

Critical race theory, an academic construct that looks at the consequences of systemic racism, is not taught in K-12 classrooms, though the underlying ideas are part of lessons and policies in many places. And the equity findings that Knox-Miller was about to present were based on the idea that there was in fact systemic racism in the district.

For instance, the audit found that while 49 percent of students were children of color, just 19 percent of teachers were.

The board generally welcomed the results, with a few probing questions. One member, Parth Melpakam, said he agreed with the goal of employing a diverse teaching corps but added it was important that “competence and excellence are not sacrificed.”

Knox-Miller bristled. “When we start talking about equity, we always assume that somehow we are sacrificing excellence, and we are not,” she said. Later, in a letter to the school board president, she complained about comments that Melpakam and another board member had made. “The questions they asked were inappropriate and laced with racist/supremacist tropes,” she wrote.

The school board president shared the letter with Melpakam, and he was offended. Was he not allowed to ask any questions about this effort without being called racist?

As last fall’s political campaign intensified, Knox-Miller continued her work, setting up training sessions for staff and creating a Diversity and Equity Leadership Team to review programs and ensure that they aligned with the district’s equity focus. She also took the audit findings on the road for a series of “equity cafes” where she would discuss the report with parents and other community members.

Among the attendees at these sessions were members of a local chapter of a conservative group called Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism. They were there not to address the findings but to criticize the equity push as another form of racism. The entire enterprise, members argued, was a damaging form of “race essentialism,” defining students by their skin color.

At the equity cafes, Joseph Boyle, a leader of the group, repeatedly tried to ask questions and was told he wasn’t allowed.

The group “followed me to every community cafe,” Knox-Miller said. “They were there, poisoning the room.”

Boyle’s complaint that the equity work looked at the world through a racial lens felt personal to her. “I’m a Black woman, and I’m sorry, the world looks at me through a racialized lens. We’re not colorblind,” she said.

A reckoning at the ballot box

As Knox-Miller pressed on with her equity cafes, a slate of conservatives was running for the school board, including Nelson, who had written the letter questioning whether systemic racism still exists.

They received backing from a group of wealthy business leaders in the county, including Steve Schuck, who for years has advocated for more competition in education, favoring charter schools and taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools. He paid for the printing of cards showing poor test scores in District 11, the clear implication being that the current administration was failing, and he had little sympathy for the argument that test scores during the pandemic, which were down nationally, might be a poor measure.

Schuck considered the administration’s focus on racial equity to be “a distraction and a diversion” from core academic content. “While people focused on that, they weren’t focused on teaching them how to read,” he said.

More backing for the conservatives came from a secret-donor super PAC. Schuck would not say whether he helped fund the group’s political activity.

Thomas, the superintendent, tried to stay above the fray as he worked to pass a school-tax increase, which was also on the ballot that November. But he could tell, based in part on public comments at school board meetings, that the atmosphere had shifted.

“Concerns,” he said, “were growing in our community.”

In November, all three conservatives won their school board races, taking down two incumbents.

Besides Nelson, the winners included Al Loma, a pastor who fills his Instagram feed with a steady stream of anti-LGBTQ, anti-vaccine, anti-masking and pro-gun memes. Sandra Bankes was elected after vowing: “CRT does not have a place in our classrooms.”

Together with Jason Jorgenson, who remained on the board, skeptics of the equity work now made up a majority of the seven-member panel.

The ramifications spilled out even before the new members took office. In December, Knox-Miller suspended the equity committee. She said she couldn’t allow the team to continue working hard if the board might kill the entire program. In March, she went on a medical leave.

“It’s too much of a personal toll,” she said. She was convinced the board would not continue to fund her position anyway.

As the new board took office, liberals grew furious at statements they saw as offensive. In February, Jorgenson posted an anti-transgender meme to his Facebook page. An open-records request showed Loma, in emails, referring to Black men who had spoken at a board meeting as “barking Chihuahuas” he wanted to “gangster slap.” (Jorgenson said he regrets making his “personally held beliefs” public on Facebook; Loma said, “That’s just who I am, how I talk.”)

Board meetings became standing-room-only affairs, with combatants on both sides lining up to speak and scrutinizing every utterance. Thomas was trying to figure out what he should do. Across the country, conservatives were taking over school boards, and several superintendents had already lost their jobs, including one in nearby Douglas County, Colo., where the schools chief was fired without cause by the new board. That led to an ugly public battle and a lawsuit.

“That, for me, was extremely alarming,” Thomas said. He considered what would happen if he was fired.

“I have too much respect and care for this community to let a public debacle like Douglas County happen in this community,” he said. “We are struggling enough to get out of all the pain and suffering from covid, let alone a very public meltdown between a superintendent and a board.”

The feeling that he should leave was evidently mutual, as the school board agreed to pay his salary and health-care costs for 14 months after he left the job, a separation package totaling nearly $300,000. Thomas said he is barred by his agreement from discussing any other details but added, “People are putting two and two together.”

Melpakam, who is now the board president, said he did not ask for Thomas’s resignation. His request, he said, was for him to “set aside politics” and “just focus on students and staff.”

It was called a “mutual separation,” but liberals in town blamed the board. At one meeting, a graduating senior, Delilah Tefertiller, laid into members.

“You forced Doctor Thomas, a progressive and forward thinker who had made amazing strides for D11, to resign,” she said. “You have stopped a committee whose only job was to make sure all students have the same opportunities to succeed. The purpose of a school board is to make choices that benefit each student, and as of right now, you are failing.”

To push back against the new board, a new liberal group called Neighbors for Education formed, and was already looking to the next election in 2023.

“Everyone is really angry right now,” said Jen Williamson, a local pastor who leads the group. “The name of the game for us is how we keep this going for a year.”

Among teachers, there were rumbles that some might need to alter their teaching, though it wasn’t clear how often that has happened. One middle school science teacher, who asked not to be named, said she used to talk to her students about sexual orientation and gender identity during a unit on human sexuality, even though those topics are not required. After the school board changed hands, she said she stopped.

“Now with this hostile school board, I think I could get fired if they heard I was doing anything other than sticking to the script,” she said.

To inform the hiring of a new superintendent, a search firm hosted several community feedback sessions. One evening in April, about 15 parents gathered in a history classroom at Doherty High School decorated with posters Cesar Chavez and Anne Frank. A rainbow flag was tucked into the corner. There was little consensus in the room.

At one table sat a trio of women who are regulars at the school board’s meetings. “This community is majority-conservative — in worldview, politics, culture, faith,” said Pam Berg. She said candidates for the job “need to know that.”

Her friend Jennifer Bertram replied, “We showed that through the polls and the last election.”

On the other side of the room, Jane Adams, the mother of three D11 graduates, said candidates should know: “We have a dysfunctional school board.”

The next evening, the school board met for a work session. On the agenda was a decision about whether to continue funding the equity director’s job. In its first two years, it had been supported by a grant. Thomas had recommended that the district spend $122,840 to maintain the position.

But Thomas wasn’t there to defend his initiative. He was at home, submitting job applications (and would soon be offered a position in Minnesota). Knox-Miller wasn’t there either. She was officially on leave and, unofficially, had simply given up.

Two school board members spoke up for the funding, while others suggested the efforts could be absorbed by other departments.

“The work isn’t done. We know that,” said Ott, one of the two remaining liberals.

Melpakam noted that no one was in the room to defend the program. He said it was hard to justify the spending given a budget crunch that meant cutting about 50 teaching positions.

By now it was late in the evening. Melpakam asked board members to show by thumbs up or down their view on the funding for the equity department. The tally was 4 to 2 against. Loma, the pastor, had left the meeting early and didn’t vote.

Members also indicated they would soon revisit the equity policy itself — the one that had passed unanimously just two years earlier. And this month, the board named a White man, Michael Gaal, as its next superintendent.

Hannah Natanson contributed to this report.