Opponents of Denver Public Schools board president Nate Easley on Tuesday carried through with their vow to present thousands of petition signatures to city elections officials, in a bid to recall him less than halfway through his inaugural term.
More than 20 of Easley’s most vocal critics arrived at the Denver Elections Division mid-afternoon with what they estimated to be about 6,300 petition signatures, roughly one thousand more than needed to force a recall vote.
“It is a shame that the people of DPS District 4 have had to take such drastic steps, initiating a recall in order to have our voices heard,” recall organizer John McBride, president of the Northeast Community Congress for Education, said in a press conference moments before turning in the signatures.
“Time and again, we have attempted to meet and work with Nate,” McBride said. “Time and again, Nate has ignored us. While he has failed to show up at community meetings, he’s got time to attend fundraisers outside of our district.”
Easley issued a prepared statement as the signatures were being turned in. It read, in part, “At a time when our school district is facing incredible financial hardships, I feel that it is the exact wrong time to be forcing us to divert over $100,000 from our classrooms to pay for this politically-motivated recall election.”
In an interview later in the day, Easley said, “I’m happy to take this debate about why we need to have better schools to the people.”
Checking signatures, window for challenges
Tuesday’s submission triggers a window of 10 business days in which elections officials must determine whether Easley’s critics have gathered at least 5,363 valid signatures. That number represents 40 percent of those who voted when Easley was elected from Far Northeast Denver in November 2009.
Because city workers have a scheduled furlough day this Friday, city elections spokesman Alton Dillard said he expects that sufficiency – or insufficiency – of the signatures will be “determined around April 13.”
If recall backers are found to have enough proper signatures, then anyone wishing to challenge the signatures’ legitimacy has 15 calendar days in which to do so. Should an adequate number of signatures pass scrutiny, elections officials expect a special election by all-mail ballot would likely be set for the final week of June.
The names of potential replacements for Easley, if the recall passes, would appear on the same ballot. Potential candidates must submit petitions bearing at least 50 names in order to qualify.
The estimated $100,000 cost of the special election would have to be borne by DPS.
“Today, we are submitting 6,000 signatures of people of DPS District 4 who want to send a message to Nate to step down. That is more than the 4,500 votes he was elected with. And I was one of those votes,” said McBride.
Those seeking Easley’s recall describe themselves as a coalition comprised of numerous groups. Prominent among them is Democrats for Excellent Neighborhood School Education (DeFENSE). Easley used the name of that group in making his case that they’re on the wrong track.
“It’s ironic that they are called DeFENSE because it’s defending a status quo in Montbello, where only six out of 100 kids can go to college without need for remediation,” said Easley, who graduated from Montbello High School in 1983.
“That is the kind of school they are defending, which to me is ironic. This group should instead be demanding better schools, and be frustrated that we’re not moving fast enough.”
Recent school board recall efforts
To date, recall organizers have shown no money raised and no money spent, in the one report on file with the Colorado Secretary of State. McBride has said Easley’s opponents have just been spending small amounts of money out of their own pockets.
McBride was asked Tuesday if that will change, now that the recall effort has reached a new stage.
“We’ll talk among ourselves, and we’ll strategize where we want to go from here,” he said. “This was our first priority. We’ve done that. Now we’ll go to the second, third, fourth, wherever we have to go … This is just the beginning.”
Henry Roman, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, said the union is not involved in the recall campaign as a group, although some of its members are participating on an individual basis. He said the union will not participate collectively in either the recall or in campaigning for candidates that might bid to replace Easley.
The DCTA will, however, be active in the regular November school board elections, he said.
Brad Stauffer, associate executive director for the Colorado Association of School Boards, said his organization had no data showing campaign expenditures on past school board recall elections in the state.
The most recent successful recall involving a large Front Range district may be that in December 2006, when voters in Colorado Springs District 11 recalled board members Eric Christen and Sandy Shakes, with more than 70 percent favoring the recall.
More recently, Stauffer said, was that in the tiny Pawnee Re-12 School District, serving Grover, Hereford and Keota in northern Weld County. There, four of five board members were recalled in a Dec. 14 vote, with the fifth member resigning prior to the vote.
The Pawnee Re-12 District has about 80 students K-12, and 15 teachers and an annual budget of $1.8 million. By contrast, as the state’s second-largest district, DPS has nearly 80,000 students, more than 4,500 teachers and an annual operating budget of about $650 million – federal dollars not included.
Allegations behind the recall effort
At the heart of the drive to recall Easley, his opponents say, is the alleged conflict of interest created by Easley holding a job as deputy director of the Denver Scholarship Foundation at the same time that he serves as president of the DPS board.
“This group should instead be demanding better schools, and be frustrated that we’re not moving fast enough.”
They call attention to the fact that Superintendent Tom Boasberg is a member of the foundation board of directors, as is DPS at-large board member Theresa Peña, both of whom they describe in a press release as “strong proponents of shutting down or phasing out under-resourced public schools and converting them into privatized charter schools as part of the DPS ‘turnaround’ strategy.”
As a consequence of Easley’s alleged conflict, the recall petition charged, “Dr. Easley has consistently voted for policies that are not reflective of his constituents’ interests, closing schools, supporting an atmosphere of distrust among district employees, and failing to provide sound fiscal oversight of DPS monies.”
Easley, however, has pointed out that he sought an opinion from DPS legal counsel John Kechriotis, prior to mounting his District 4 campaign, as to whether the attorney saw a conflict in Easley’s holding the foundation job and a seat on the DPS board. Kechriotis determined Easley did not, and later signed an affidavit to that effect.
Addtionally, DSF communications director Dana Smith said that Boasberg, as an ex-officio member of the board, is not a voting member and that the board hires only one DSF employee – its executive director, not Easley.
In a press release announcing the submission of their petition signatures, recall supporters made clear that their complaints with Easley range far beyond any potential conflict of interest, and cited what they see as the negative fallout from the district’s ambitious turnaround plan for low-performing schools.
Easley is convinced the recall bid is firmly rooted in his casting a vote as part of a 4-3 majority in November, approving dramatic reform measures for Montbello High School and nearby schools.
“I vote on policy, and if they disagree with a policy I voted for as a school board member, then Theresa Peña, Bruce Hoyt and Mary Seawell should be recalled as well,” said Easley, naming the rest of the 4-3 majority with which he voted Nov. 19.
Now, facing the possibility of a looming fight to keep his seat on the board, Easley struck a note of diplomacy.
“I don’t believe in carrying a grudge,” he said. “I look forward to working with these guys, together, to see how we can improve Denver schools.”