COLORADO SPRINGS — School board meetings in Colorado Springs District 11 have become popular, albeit contentious, sessions since the most recent election, which brought in three new directors: Reverend Al Loma, Dr. Sandra Bankes, and Lauren Nelson. Each ran on conservative platforms – some spoke directly against the district’s Equity Policy, taking issue with data compiled by the American Institutes for Research (AIR), which found wide-ranging inequities from school to school and from student to student within schools.
“Why is District 11 distinguishing ‘historically marginalized students and white students? The thing about history is, it doesn’t change. There will continually be historically marginalized students. At what point would this not need to be accounted for?” Lauren Nelson wrote in a 15-page-long open letter to “D11 Leadership” before winning a seat on the board months later.
With input from Superintendent Michael Thomas, Alex Knox-Miller, director of Equity and Inclusion, decided to pause work being done in response to AIR’s findings by the district’s newly-formed Diversity Equity and Leadership Team (DELT).
She called the decision an “emotional” one, noting it was not a decision made by the new board, but rather, influenced by the change in members.
“I think that’s what we’re pausing for,” Knox-Miller explained in late January. “To see where they’re at with equity.”
In explaining the process of the audit, Knox-Miller had this to say:
“AIR started with a really scientific process where they asked a couple of questions, asked us for a whole bunch of information. My hands did not touch any of the data AIR asked for. They asked HR, they asked finance, they asked every department that would help them paint a picture of what was going on in our district. [Board Vice President] Jason Jorgenson was also there. I’ve heard him challenge the findings and that’s concerning to me. He was part of the process. These community members – who I am very confident reflect our community – they’re the ones who came up with the findings based on the data.”
So the project moved outside of the district’s purview in a grassroots effort started by D11 parents and community members. They call themselves Neighbors for Education, and their numbers are growing.
“I think that that is amazing that they are continuing this work,” Knox-Miller said. “That tells me that the work that we were doing was important.”
In the meantime, tensions between the board and multiple groups of parents and community members are rising.
Recently, in an effort to hold D11 BOE Members accountable, the group filed for documents under the Colorado Open Records Act.
Their findings revealed a specific email written by Rev. Al Loma to Superintendent Michael Thomas, which focused on a comment made by Shaun Walls, Vice President of the Chinook Center and member of Men of Influence – a volunteer group that works for justice in the community.
The comment was made during the January 12 board meeting, where he’d signed up for citizen comment.
“Do you remember what you said?” I asked Walls on Wednesday.
“You’re in bed with the devil, but we carry the stick,” he answered. “I was referring to the people that paid for [board members’] elections and their campaigns.” And he said the phrase is well-known in “the protest world.”
But Rev. Loma said he interpreted the comment as a threat and noted others felt the same.
“When it was first said, I restrained my knee-jerk reaction to jump over our counter and gangster slap him, but I let it ride,” Loma wrote to Thomas. He reported some parents were also upset by what Walls said.
“The next day, three white female Parents [sic] called me. Needless to say, they were terrified by their words. Moreover, they said the men of Influence [sic] stared them down in a violent manner [sic],” he wrote. And Loma wrote when those parents asked him what they should do, he said, “I personally guaranteed their safety and told them to ignore ‘the barking chihuahuas.'”
“This guy, he racializes everything when the conversation doesn’t need to be singularly about race. He said ‘gangster slap’ because [the Men of Influence] were the only black people in the room,” Wallace said. “Those white women are more important in what they feel than what we feel is important.”
Walls also said his group had saved a seat at that same board meeting for another woman – who is Black – and was making her way over to her spot. But before she could get there, Walls said a security guard grabbed her by the arm to pull her out of the room.
“He actually touched her,” Walls said. “He grabbed her.”
Walls said Rev. Loma addressed him directly at a different meeting, saying he could relate to the Men of Influence because he “used to duck bullets, too.”
“We never said we ducked bullets,” Walls said. “That alone shows why the equity plan needs to stay in place. They’re doing it right to our face.”
Mike Williams is one of the parents who founded Neighbors for Education.
“The Men of Influence, who are a volunteer organization who do teen nights at Hillside on Fridays, did turkey drives, toy giveaways… is who Loma references here,” Williams said of the uncovered email.
“Jorgenson has said Men of Influence do great work in the community. I don’t think Jorgenson is going to put up a group that is threatening and violent. We don’t agree with Jorgenson on 99.9% of stuff. But he promoted the Men of Influence because he understands the work they’re doing in the community,” Williams said. “And they’re parents! They’re District 11 parents!”
And he chastised Loma for continuing to put inflammatory posts on his personal, albeit public, social media accounts – something Board President Parth Melpakam said he addressed.
But, after Whoopi Goldberg alleged that the Holocaust was “not about race,” resulting in a two-week suspension from her spot as host on ABC’s “The View,” Loma posted a meme that upset some parents.
His meme showed a color gradient (depicting skin colors from white to black) card held next to Goldberg’s face under the title “Black privilege [sic].” White and peach-colored skin tones on the card were next to the word “FIRED,” while the word next to the tan, brown, and black skin colors read “TWO WEEK SUSPENSION.”
When asked why he’d posted the Goldberg meme, Loma said, through email, “For similar offenses, one person was fired, and the other person was suspended.” In regards to the parents who took offense to the post, Loma said, “If someone was offended, that was not my intent. I was bringing to light that a Hispanic woman was treated unfairly.”
Loma did not clarify the woman’s name or the circumstances he was referring to.
“This board is out of control,” Williams said. “As soon as those three got elected, it’s just been chaos.”
In a board meeting held Wednesday, Melpakam said he read the following apology, written by Loma, who was on an excused absence:
“Dear President Melpakam,
Please accept my sincere apologies for recent comments and social media posts that have brought undue attention and criticism to myself and to the District 11 Board of Education.
It was never my intention to offend anyone by posting personal texts, expressions or images and I will strive to be mindful of the responsibilities and impact attributed to our words and deeds as members of this board.
Thank you for your consideration,
Per the board operating manual a public apology is the corrective step issued after a board member is addressed for a violation.
D11 is hosting a “Family Listening Tour” with a first stop on Thursday at 5:30 p.m. at the Hillside Community Center. Attendees are asked to RSVP because space is limited.