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The Douglas County School Board walks a fine line between listening to its constituents and carrying out the ideals on which its members were elected, board president Kevin Larsen said.
“Whether you’re at the national, state or local level, one thing you try to do is be upfront and say what you stand for when you’re running,” he said. “Whether the outcome is lopsided or very narrow, ultimately, the winning side prevails, and it’s their agenda that’s going to be adopted.
“If you’re elected, then you do what you said you were going to do — while all the time listening to where people are.”
All school board members support the district’s education-reform policies, which include a pay-for-performance program for teachers, a wide variety of school choice options and the Choice Scholarship, or voucher, program.
Larsen, who has served as board president for about a year, said in December 2013the board would extend “the hand of friendship” to those who disagreed with certain programs. Not everyone feels that effort has been successful.
Lone Tree resident and parent Todd McCusker sees dramatic contrasts among local elected officials.
McCusker expressed concerns to the city council about a lack of bicycle lanes, an issue Lone Tree is in the process of addressing by restriping its main thoroughfares.
“I was struck with the sense that the city council is really trying hard to please the citizens,” he said. “For the most part, we’ve all become highly skeptical and cynical of politics at the national level and from our experiences with the Douglas County School Board. The Lone Tree City Council reminds us that there are still governing bodies out there who seem to still hold the constituents’ best interests at heart.”
In 2011, when several residents proposed Lone Tree secede from the South Suburban Parks and Recreation District, the city paid $40,000 for a cost analysis of the plan. Their findings showed secession would cost taxpayers additional funds, and in the end, Lone Tree stayed with SSPRD.
The city can’t always accommodate residents’ requests, Lone Tree Mayor Jim Gunning said. In the case of the recreation district question, “There were enough voices asking us to take a look at that that we felt it was our responsibility to take a deeper dive, rather than just making a decision at council.
“I think certain decisions you have to look at and say, `It’s not incumbent upon us to make this as a council.’ We need to go and get additional, more enhanced information to make sure the decision we’re making here indeed serves the whole community.”
Gunning considers listening to city residents among his duties as mayor.
“If I’m elected by the people of Lone Tree and they put their trust in me, it’s incumbent upon me to listen to them. I weigh that against the impact to the whole city. The most important piece to that is we listen to every concern. We don’t dismiss it.”
Residents appear to approve. City surveys conducted every three years show Lone Tree residents are highly satisfied with their quality of life and city government.
It’s similar in Douglas County, where a 2014 survey showed two-thirds of respondents said the county is moving in the right direction, and the government listens to the people’s voice.
“All the elected officials I deal with take that very seriously,” said Douglas County Commissioner Roger Partridge. “We listen first.”
The county also takes extra steps to ensure residents understand the issues, he said. He pointed to 2011 meetings on proposed oil and gas drilling regulations, during which the county brought in representatives on both sides of the issue to explain the potential issues to residents.
“We do know we have a highly educated, highly engaged population,” Partridge said. “We really consider the citizens and taxpayers owners. That’s the attitude we take there — you are an owner.”
The school district has not conducted a survey since 2012, though community members repeatedly have requested a return of the once-annual process.
The first reform-friendly board was elected in 2009. Every successful candidate since has run on a pro-reform platform, receiving campaign contributions from school-choice proponents living outside Douglas County.
Critics contend the board is implementing a conservative education agenda that is polarizing residents of the district.
The school board’s focus is on its constituents, Larsen said.
“If you’re genuine and honorable, as all of us have been, you’re doing it with the goal of bettering whichever constituency you’re representing,” he said. “In our case, it’s the school district, the citizens in the school district, and the children. We’re doing this to improve their lives.”
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