Conservative members of Colorado Springs School District 11’s Board of Education, President Parth Melpakam and Vice President Jason Jorgenson, have participated in town hall events hosted by conservative activists and groups in advance of the Nov. 7 election.
On Tuesday, Jorgenson took part in the “State of Education in El Paso County” event alongside Woodland Park Superintendent Ken Witt and charter school advocate Mark Hyatt. The event was hosted by Engage the Rockies, a nonprofit formed in 2022 by El Paso County Commissioner Carrie Geitner and Cortney Salt, wife of Academy School District 20 board member Aaron Salt. In July, Geitner voted to deny a $20,750 Community Development Block Grant to The PLACE, a nonprofit that helps youth exit homelessness, over concerns related to abortion and transgender health care for minors.
Tuesday’s discussion focused on school performance and the use of the Colorado Measures of Academic Success (CMAS) test. “We went from 158th in the state to 79th in the state — and that’s out of 179 districts,” said Jorgenson. “We jumped halfway up the state rankings in one year. Before you asked about what we can attribute that to. We really had a kind of immense focus on ‘best first’ instruction, quality neighborhood schools and putting, as Mr. [Michael] Gaal [D11 Superintendent] would say, wraparound resources into the classrooms that need it.”
See Also: Fact Check: D11’s Academic Performance
In addition to academic performance, the panel also discussed school choice and charter schools. “A recent study was done by EdChoice, which I found extremely illuminating on how satisfied parents are with the education their children are receiving in El Paso County, in Colorado in general,” said Witt, whose tenure as Woodland Park Superintendent has been marked by the controversial approval of Merit Academy Charter School. “An interesting observation was that if you look at homeschooling, private schooling, traditional neighborhood schooling and charter schooling, and you first look at where our children are — where Colorado students are — and then you ask those parents, which of those four categories do they wish their children were in? You learn a couple of fascinating things. One, Colorado is known as the school choice, charter school state. We did it first. We did it better. We have a high percentage of charter school attendees in this state. 15%, roughly. The interesting thing from the study is about 15% of parents want their kids in charter schools, so we’ve done a fairly good job of addressing the need- not to say we’re done. But the point is we have great charter schools. We have a significant portfolio of charter schools, and most parents that want their kids in a charter school have their kids in a charter school. That’s great. Of Colorado parents who have their children in neighborhood schools, 47% of them wish they weren’t.”
Hyatt lauded the work of Witt and Jorgenson. “The cool thing about D11, Woodland Park, and many of these districts is they’re treating education like a marketplace,” he said. “I would just encourage all of you, as we [go on] to be school board members and everything else, to demand it from us school leaders. Demand choices, demand innovation, demand high standards, demand communication. And I see it happening. But don’t give up yet. Be tougher and tougher on them.”
On Sept. 16, Jorgenson, Melpakam, and candidate Thomas Carey took part in a town hall organized by Representatives Rose Pugliese (R-El Paso County) and Don Wilson (R-Monument). The panel was led by former Republican Senate candidate and KNUS radio host Deborah Flora. Flora is a board member of the Colorado Parent Advocacy Network (CPAN), an activist group that has advocated against LGBTQ and diversity policies in the Douglas County School District, which is currently facing a lawsuit for its alleged pervasive racism and bullying. Flora is also the creator of the film “Whose Children Are They?” which argues that the modern state of public education is part of a plot engineered by education pioneer John Dewey and teachers unions to enforce cultural Marxism, an antisemitic conspiracy theory popular in far-right circles.
“What they do is, even if it’s not a union district, they put all the money into the school boards and then they elect a school board that is friendly to unions,” said Flora. “When you take a school district, the next step is you have to protect it. … I love when people show their Marxist roots. Immediately after we flipped our school board, those opposed to it started a group called the ‘Douglas County Collective.’ You know, I think that ‘collective’ is just another word for Marxism.”
Melpakam built on Flora’s warnings about unions. “The unions and the forces that are against us are going to paint us as radical,” he said. “This upcoming election is going to be where the unions are going to come, and that’s where we need your support.”
Despite the conservative fear over the outsized influence of unions, D11 is actually the only school district in Colorado Springs where the union has a memorandum of understanding and bargaining power. Jorgenson blamed that on the previous board.
“The board that came before 2021 –Spring 2021 before elections– managed the bargaining agreement with the union,” Jorgenson said. “When that was still a conservative minority we didn’t have a lot of that say, and so they made that contract to 2025. The best thing we could do was ask for them to not discuss the terms of the contract, because the union always wants to have two to three to four years of a contract because they know they’re safe. … If we can give them a two-year and one-year contract, it is easier for us to negotiate. You know, they know they don’t have this long run of safety. And so when the former board, before 2021, had made that agreement to 2025.”
Melpakam hopes the conservative board will maintain control following the election. “There are going to be four seats that are going to be open in this November elections and we need to win at least two of those seats to maintain the majority,” he said. “We are hoping that we can win all of those things, and that will resonate well when we sit on the board dais, and so now we have a clear mandate. I think the accomplishments that we have made, the changes that we have made over the last couple of years, it is resonating with the public.”