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Ceasefire! School board members call a truce after a year of equity battles

After a year of fighting over equity policies following the election of four conservatives, the school board of an affluent Denver suburb is calling for unity.

After a tumultuous year fraught with fights over equity, recall efforts, lawsuits and the contentious firing of the superintendent, a Denver suburb’s school board has made a push for unity for the sake of the community.

"I'm pleased the board has been able to come together on many important issues that are key and central for our students," Susan Meek, a director on the Douglas County Board of Education, told Fox News. "It's our job as board members to do everything possible to bring our community together."

WATCH MORE FOX NEWS DIGITAL ORIGINALS HERE

Four conservative directors were elected in 2021 after running on platforms opposing the district’s newly imposed equity policy and its COVID-19 policies. But the board has encountered controversy after controversy since then.

"If you had to summarize why I ran in one little soundbite, it would be restoring parent role and voice in education," said Mike Peterson, the school board president and one of the conservatives elected last year. "Whatever we can do to make parents feel respected, heard and put them back in partnership with our teachers who also need to be respected and heard, I think it will be good for the district."

One thousand teachers walked out after the conservative members successfully voted to fire the superintendent, which came after the four had discussions behind closed doors. A judge, as a result, put an injunction against the four conservatives and required them to follow Colorado’s open meeting laws.

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A recall effort was also launched.

"Our students deserve to be in a district where the community comes together regardless of the political affiliations," Meek told Fox News. "And unfortunately, that's something that our district has struggled with in the past decade or so, and partisan politics kind of seeping into the board elections."

Still, both Meek and Peterson both emphasized their commitment to moving forward and working together, though the two noted that split votes were ongoing.

"We have the humility to learn from the past, whether that's how certain things were done or to constantly evolve and reconsider what we can do better," Peterson said. "I think that's going to be the key to our success."

Earlier this year, the board came together to send two items to the November ballot: a $450 million bond to build, maintain and expand schools and a $60 million mill levy override — effectively a property tax increase — to give staff a raise. Though both measures failed, all seven campaigned for the initiatives.

"We've been able to find common ground on the board, and that's what we've been trying to emphasize," Peterson told Fox News. He said having a more normal school year after facing strict COVID-19 protocols has been particularly helpful.

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Still, there were contentious moments between Peterson and Meek, who insisted on doing a joint interview with the board president.

"What I'm seeing is, frankly, a return to basics, a return to academic growth and achievement as the benchmarks," Peterson told Fox News. "And frankly, I think we're trying to – and this is as a board as well – get rid of some of the other distractions which aren’t core academic pursuits."

Meek replied: "I'm not really sure what you mean by return to basics, because I'm not really sure that I've seen any significant changes that ever happened in our policies."

She noted that the district’s equity policy was still in effect. Both directors were ambiguous about whether its implementation in schools had changed, particularly given that a new superintendent had been appointed.

"Our mission at Douglas County is to set the educational foundation that allows each student to achieve his or her individual potential," Peterson said. "That was really the focus, just to reaffirm to say anything we do under equity falls under our larger mission and vision as a district, and that's really centered around individual success."

In the glow of his election victory in 2021, Peterson called equity "a squishy word."

"So what we intend to do is keep the calm and keep the good inclusion, belonging, kindness, respect," he told Fox News at the time. "But anything that creeps over into critical race theory, division, intersectionality, some voices being more valid based on the speaker and not on the merit or the virtue of the argument, we're going to separate the wheat from the chaff, keep the good and we're going to get rid of the bad."

More recently, Peterson told Fox News that he wasn’t aware of any such issues in Douglas County schools.

"I don't think there's a lot of upset with how it's being implemented right now," he said.

Contention surrounding equity could crop up in the coming weeks, however. The superintendent as well as a school board committee are reviewing community feedback on the policy.

But for now, the Douglas County school board appears to remain in a ceasefire.

"It's a privilege and an honor to be on a school board, and I respect everyone on our board for taking on that role," Meek told Fox News. "The past several years have been the most challenging that I have seen, and I've been in public education for two decades now."

To see Meek and Peterson's full interview, click here.

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