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Supporters rally as school superintendent’s contract reviewed by Mesa County school board

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A sign in support of District Superintendent Diana Sirko, Assistant Superintendent Brian Hill, and Director of Equity and Inclusion Tracy Gallegos, whose contracts were reviewed in a Feb. 8 Mesa County school board meeting.
Photo: Matt Thornton, Rocky Mountain PBS

GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. — Three separate standing ovations erupted at the Mesa County Valley School District 51 meeting — one for each of the three district employees whose contracts are being reviewed by the new conservative majority school board.

The board called for an executive session on Monday at R5 High School in Grand Junction. District Superintendent Diana Sirko, Assistant Superintendent Brian Hill, and Director of Equity and Inclusion Tracy Gallegos were cheered and applauded by the approximately 200 people who came to show their support as the new school board met to review their employment contracts. Board members met with District 51 attorneys David Price and Tammy Eret for legal advice regarding the contracts. They were to also review a district project management contract.

Supporters left the Harry Butler Board Room before the start of the closed-door meeting, joining an additional 100 or so supporters outside the building.

Grand Junction resident Lisa Eckert was one of those inside before the executive session started. School Board President Andrea Haitz appeared nervous and said she wasn’t expecting such a large group, Eckert said. As in previous school board meetings, Haitz was twice out of order with the agenda, and had to be reminded of proper protocol.

With equity on the mind of many in the audience, “We all stood and recited the Pledge, and at the final sentence, ‘with liberty and justice for all,’ the ‘all’ was punctuated loudly by the attendees, and even echoed by various attendees in the group — ‘all, all, all!’” Eckert said.

When reached earlier on Monday school board member Kari Sholtes questioned why her colleagues would call for an executive session the same week as the Douglas County School District’s firing of its superintendent, Corey Wise.

Conservative groups nationwide are taking similar steps to reject mask mandates and hire new legal counsel, including in Colorado, she said. The groups also oppose equity policies.

“It’s a pattern we find ourselves trapped in,” Sholtes said. “There appears to be a larger, coordinated effort. Who is running our school district? What’s going on?”

School board members Sholtes and Doug Levinson are in the minority after Haitz, Angela Lema, and Will Jones, who also works as a football coach and a strip club bouncer, ran as a conservative bloc in November and won.

Levinson said before the meeting that he didn’t know the purpose for the executive session.

He said he was initially surprised a couple of weeks ago when the majority mentioned they wanted to review the contracts.

“I’m hoping to find out tonight,” he said. “There should be more clarity after tonight, what their motives are.”

Lisa Adams, an English language arts middle school teacher at Grand River Academy, stood outside with a sign that said, “Kids in School — Not Politics.” She said she was there “because I’m concerned about the direction our board is heading and that they are following in Douglas County’s footsteps.”

On Feb. 4, the Douglas County School Board’s new conservative majority fired without cause Superintendent Corey Wise in a 4-3 vote.

[Related: Students lead walkout after controversial firing of Corey Wise]

Lema, who was reached by phone earlier in the day, denied that Mesa County is following Douglas County’s actions. She said she was unaware of the Douglas County school district’s actions until a constituent brought it to her attention.

“I don’t know anybody at Douglas County,” Lema said. “I had no idea about Douglas County until I got an email and Googled it last night.”

The recent firing of Douglas County’s superintendent, about 1,000 teachers there calling in sick in protest, and the subsequent student walkout on Monday have all received local, state and national media coverage.

Former teacher Nick Allan said he doesn’t believe Lema regarding Douglas County.

“If you’re involved in education and don’t know what’s going on in Douglas County then you’re not paying attention,” he said. “They had a teacher strike.”

Lema said it’s “common” for new leadership in an organization to review contracts.

“It’s bizarre to me. I don’t understand how people immediately assume that people are going to get fired. There’s nothing pre-destined here,” Lema said.

Former school board member and Mesa County Chief Deputy District Attorney Trish Mahre said in an interview the assistant superintendent is well-qualified and will provide a smooth transition to the role after Sirko retires this year.

“Dr. Hill is invested in working on behalf of all students,” Mahre said. “To change the course for District 51 would be disruptive and a setback as Dr. Hill has already demonstrated leadership and investment in our students and staff.”

She went on to say that it would be a “shame” to revoke Gallegos’ contract as equity and inclusion director because “it’s all about making kids feel safe and welcome so they can learn.”

When Lema was asked if she believed the district should be concerned about equity issues, she paused. She then said the district should take more time for fact-finding to understand the issue. She wouldn’t comment on the previous board, which reinstated the equity and inclusion position.

“We have to assess for ourselves what the needs are,” she said.

Mahre said she didn’t understand the intent of Monday’s meeting.

“I hope they’re not reconsidering (these positions),” she said. “It doesn’t look good. I was hoping that the new board would be positive and constructive. Obviously, the timing of this with Douglas County (actions) makes it look not optimistic. A sudden special meeting — what’s the urgency?”

Haitz and Jones did not respond to emails or phone messages left Monday.

This story originally appeared in Colorado Newsline, a nonprofit, nonpartisan, independent outlet. Sharon Sullivan is a freelance journalist based in Grand Junction.

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