Academy School District 20’s superintendent search survey — intended to be used as a tool for the Board of Education to narrow down what the D20 community wants in a new leader — was slammed with thousands of submissions with identical responses that were solicited by groups with political aims, says Walt Cooper, the district’s search consultant.
The district, which enrolls the most kids of any in the Colorado Springs area, has been struggling with “culture war” issues like book challenges, religious references from board directors and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric since the start of the 2022-2023 school year and the election of a conservative-majority school board in November 2021.
Now it seems that those politics have also infused the district’s stakeholder engagement process as it searches for a new leader, after current Superintendent Tom Gregory announced in October that he’d retire at the end of the year. Cooper, a consultant for the national executive search firm McPherson & Jacobson, tells Sixty35 there were “thousands” of canned responses to an open, online stakeholder survey set up to get community feedback about board-set criteria for superintendent candidates.
“I’ve never experienced this in any other stakeholder feedback solicitation, and I’m really not sure what they hoped to accomplish,” says Cooper, who conducted the search last year for Colorado Springs School District 11’s superintendent and was a longtime superintendent in Cheyenne Mountain School District 12.
Parents in a Facebook group called Progressive Parents of Academy District 20 first called attention to the fact that the Church For All Nations Culture Impact Team, which has taken on the Christian Right’s education issues in the Springs, sent an email newsletter to congregants with a survey link, and encouraging them to fill it out and share with “like-minded D20 residents.”
According to the email shared with Sixty35, a “cheat sheet” had been created “for those who may not be well-informed of the issues and aspirations we have of the next superintendent” by Advocates for D20 Kids, a group that promotes “parental rights” or parents’ control of what’s taught in public education. Advocates for D20 Kids says it wants D20 to focus on academic achievement above all else.
Moms For Liberty – El Paso County, a multi-district group of conservative parents who have pushed for the removal of LGBTQ-inclusive library books from schools, posted a similar message to their Facebook group members, with word-for-word responses they suggested people input. The post says the responses were developed by Advocates for D20 Kids.
(Brian Moody, chair of Advocates for D20 Kids, tells Sixty35 that the group did not directly coordinate with either the CIT or M4L on the prepared answers. He says the answers were shared indirectly with those organizations.)
“They saw what we did and amplified it,” Moody says of the Church For All Nations CIT and Moms For Liberty. “I really appreciate and respect the work they do, but we don’t coordinate them directly in anything. We share a lot of the same values and objectives, but we don’t we don’t work together in a coordinated way.”
“They’re interested in one segment of the community’s concerns.” — Rob Rogers
One of the stakeholder survey questions asks respondents to list “the three most significant challenges or issues” the next D20 superintendent should be prepared to address. The “cheat sheet” prepared by Advocates for D20 Kids suggests this response: “The union and progressive/woke stakeholders are getting in the way of D20 focusing on academic excellence. Their tactics are divisive, personal, not grounded in facts, disrespectful, and are becoming more explosive.”
But the “vast majority” of the thousands of canned responses to the survey, Cooper says, were solicited by Rob Rogers, parent of a D20 high schooler who’s also a leader of the El Paso County Democratic Party and calls himself a resistance activist.
He sent out his own ask to his more than 18,600 TikTok followers — requesting viewers list “Church For All Nations” and “Moms for Liberty” as the “most significant challenges or issues” the next D20 superintendent would face. The TikTok had more than 145,400 views by Feb. 2 (the survey closed Jan. 31.)
“It isn’t right for religious leaders to have so much seemingly unchecked influence over such an important position for a school district,” Rogers tells Sixty35.
The result was 4,287 total responses to the survey by its close, with 61 percent of respondents self-identifying as parents, 10 percent as students, 15 percent as staff, 8 percent as non-parent patrons and 6 percent as “Other,” according to Cooper. And he’s not too worried about the flurry of canned submissions.
Cooper says he’s able to weed out responses that are obvious duplicates using IP addresses (while also considering multiple may come from the same family) and the responses presumably from Church For All Nations, Moms For Liberty and Rogers’ followers “were relatively easy to identify and eliminate, just incredibly time consuming, so I’m not concerned about the impact on my analysis and report to the BOE.”
Rogers says he doesn’t feel bad about using the tactic, especially after learning how the district would be using the survey. He says he walked away from one of the district’s stakeholder town hall meetings on Jan. 18 feeling like the survey and community input process overall was “pointless” and “performative.”
It was also clear to Rogers from some of the survey’s questions that the board already has particular aims for superintendent candidates.
For example, the survey’s second page asks stakeholders to rank their level of agreement with a list of pre-set “desired leadership characteristics” for a superintendent. The list, which mirrors the selection criteria on the public superintendent job posting, includes “prioritizes academic growth and achievement above all else” and “ensures distracting agendas are kept out of the classroom,” which Rogers believes come straight from the desires of conservative parents and board members and their thoughts on so-called “woke” agendas.
“I think that’s why so many parents have the impression that [board directors] don’t really care” about the opinions of D20 stakeholders, he says. “They’re interested in one segment of the community’s concerns. They are not interested in mine.”
When asked what was meant by the “distracting agendas” criterion, Board President Tom LaValley told Sixty35 it applied to political agendas on all sides.
“Whether it’s right-wing agenda, left-wing agenda, it doesn’t belong in the classroom,” he says, adding that he believes a civics class is the only proper place for both sides to be discussed in school. “We don’t want agenda-driven education, we want excellence-driven education.”
As Cooper explains it to Sixty35, the survey responses will not be tallied for a majority vote by the community on what they most want to see in a superintendent — “it was designed ultimately to be a litmus test” for how in line the board’s criteria are with stakeholders, and to be used as the board wishes, he says.
“Maybe folks had an unrealistic expectation of what we were asking for,” Cooper says.
“I don’t think any of the criticism is off base. I think largely it may have been based in a desire that the criteria for selection, for example, wasn’t [determined] by the board but would’ve been done by broad-based public input on a survey. And that’s just not feasible.”
Cooper emphasizes that the primary purpose of the survey is to identify district-wide trends from the fill-in-the-blank responses that community members left on its final page. Those will be compiled into a report with the comments he’s heard from the four community town halls held during January and seven or eight other district groups he held feedback sessions with, such as the District Accountability Committee and the Patron Council, a group of D20 neighbors who are 65 and older.
The report will then be posted to D20’s website, says Chief Communications Officer Allison Cortez.
Moody, for his part, has confidence that the board will select the best leader for the job — Advocates for D20 Kids has been very supportive of the conservative-majority board, which they believe reflects their priorities.
“The reality is that the decision on the superintendent, the criteria for superintendent, who amongst the finalists gets picked, indirectly, that decision was made two years ago at the November election of our board,” Moody says. “We have a representative democracy, really, in this aspect — we voted on a board, and they’re the ones that ultimately pick [a superintendent].”
Cooper was optimistic that when the stakeholder feedback is neatly compiled, commonalities between the two sides would emerge. That’s what he typically finds during superintendent search processes, and he’s already seeing glimmers of it in D20 based on the town halls and meetings, he says.
“Because of some recent upheaval and some tension and some disagreements … there’s this thought that there are widely differing opinions about every single thing that happens,” he says. But when it comes right down to it, it’s focused on student needs, great teachers and community support — all those kinds of things are consistent between groups.”
One thing Cooper says he’s heard repeatedly from the community is a desire for the new superintendent to have an education background or experience in the classroom (although Moody says for his group, this isn’t a must.)
LaValley says the board is leaning very heavily towards someone with education experience, and even says, “I would be hard-pressed that this board would even consider someone without education experience. I don’t see that as a possible scenario.”
“There has been zero discussion about hiring anybody who doesn’t have education experience. I don’t think there’s been any thought going down that route,” LaValley says. “We are not a failing district; we are a high-performing district. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel in District 20.”
There were 26 applications for the superintendent job as of the deadline, LaValley said at a Feb. 2 board meeting. Details about the process going forward are at asd20.org/superintendents-office/superintendent-search
Editor’s note: This is an extended version of the story that appears in the Feb. 9 print edition.