Readin', Writin' and Rabble-Rousin'

Boulder school board president Stephanie Hult is an old liberal with conservative ideas--and a king-sized chip on her shoulder.

The program encourages team teaching and group learning. Instead of a seventh-grade student having seven different teachers in one day, the middle-school philosophy calls for a smaller number of teachers to work together teaching a variety of topics. Advocates believe many junior-high students get lost in the shuffle, and the program calls for middle-school children to get to know at least one teacher well. The idea is that teachers will be more likely to catch budding emotional and learning problems that can lead to serious difficulties down the road.

But Boulder's middle-school advocates soon ran into a wall of opposition--mostly because of their plan to do away with seventh- and eighth-grade honors classes. Those pushing middle schools argued that children in those grades were too young to be separated by ability. But many parents bitterly resented losing the honors program.

"They were trying to make the kids feel good instead of educating them," says Kim Saporito, one of Hult's allies on the school board. "They wanted to hold the bright kids back."

Hult was outraged that her middle-school-age daughter, Caroline, was grouped with students who could not perform as well. "My daughter was bored a lot," Hult says. "I was concerned about the heterogenous grouping of kids. There was a heavy emphasis on group learning and everything being interdisciplinary. The psychosocial stuff bothered me. They had 25 minutes a day where they'd play games that had a psychological overlay."

Many parents shared Hult's concerns. The middle-school philosophy soon became a hot topic in Boulder, as hundreds of parents showed up at community meetings to protest the elimination of honors classes. Hult emerged as a leader of the middle-school critics, and in 1993 she decided to run for the school board, basing her campaign on a call for "academic excellence."

For two years Hult and Saporito served as the vocal opposition on the seven-member board. Then the 1995 election gave the back-to-basics group a majority, with Don Shonkwiler and Janusz Okolowicz joining Hult and Saporito. They soon elected Hult as board president. Susan Marine's resignation in August--she said it was futile trying to work with Hult and her supporters--allowed the board majority to appoint another fellow traveler, Dorothy Riddle.

Once she had a majority in place, Hult moved quickly to make her mark. The board negotiated a new contract with the teachers' union, giving teachers a 6 percent wage hike--the largest in a dozen years--in return for accepting cuts in teacher planning time. The loss of planning time was seen widely as a lethal blow to the middle-school philosophy, since the interdisciplinary classes that formed the heart of that program required teacher preparation.

Two of the district's top three administrators--the director of curriculum and the budget director--resigned a few months after Hult took charge. In June Hult pulled off her biggest coup, forcing out superintendent Dean Damon, her old nemesis and Boulder's most forceful advocate for middle schools. Damon agreed to take early retirement after leading the district for six years. His settlement package with the board was valued at $165,000 and included a $111,000 payment into his retirement fund.

While viewed as controversial by some parents, Damon was beloved by many teachers, who felt he respected them as professionals. "We had a good relationship with Dean Damon," says Steve Armitage, president of the Boulder Valley Education Association.

As head of the teachers' union, Armitage has dealt regularly with Hult and her colleagues on the board. Despite the generous wage increase the teachers won from the board, Armitage says Boulder Valley's teachers are treated with disdain by Hult and her allies. "There's never been a time in our district when professional educators have been held in such contempt as under the leadership of our current school-board majority," he says.

As the child of a university professor, Hult insists that she respects most teachers. "Both my parents were teachers," she says. "I value the profession."

However, the district grapevine says otherwise. Stories of boardmembers bullying teachers and principals now circulate regularly through the school system. While it's difficult to ascertain how much truth there is to the various reports--one person's intimidation is another's informational phone call--it seems clear that many teachers are afraid to publicly condemn the school board.

"We all hear about the list that supposedly exists of teachers that aren't up to par," says Linda Wood, a Boulder High French teacher with twenty years of experience. "Who knows what that means? It could mean teachers who disagree philosophically with the board. A lot of the teachers are afraid to speak up because they feel the board could make things difficult for us."

Another veteran teacher, who asked not to be named, said she got an angry phone call from Hult after writing a letter to a newspaper saying teachers felt unimportant in the eyes of the board. "If somebody that powerful feels it's important to intimidate someone with no power, she must really want power," says the teacher. "You'd look at a kid that acted like Stephanie and say, 'That's a wounded child.'"

Shoemaker says the board majority is openly antagonistic, not just toward teachers but toward anyone else who might disagree with it. "There's no respect for teachers, administrators, other boardmembers or the public," she says. "You have a group of boardmembers that think they know what is right."

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