Battle lines are being drawn sharply this week in Jefferson County as organizers make their final push to collect enough signatures to force a recall election of three conservative school board members they believe are taking their schools down the wrong path.
And that closing drive comes as supporters of those school board members — Ken Witt, John Newkirk, and Julie Williams — are preparing for their first public counterattack.
On Wednesday, volunteers for Jeffco United for Action lined a 19-mile stretch of the busy Wadsworth Boulevard that runs north and south in suburban Denver to collect signatures for the recall petition from county residents on their way home from work.
While they have until early September to collect 15,000 signatures per school board member, organizers are working on a self-imposed deadline of July 31 to better their odds of being on the general November ballot. That would put all five school board seats up for grabs and potentially save the school district thousands of dollars.
And on Saturday, supporters of the board majority, organized by the Colorado arm of the conservative grassroots organization Americans For Prosperity, will knock on doors to share what they believe are the board’s successes in improving Jeffco Public Schools.
The next few days in Jefferson County, which is home to the state’s second largest school district, will be emblematic of what Coloradans can expect throughout the fall if the recall effort is successfully put on the ballot: A nonstop campaign about what the future of public education — in Jeffco and around the nation — should look like.
And that battle will feature a large cast of special interest groups and potentially huge sums of money from local and national donors who are waiting to see whether the recall becomes a reality.
“I can imagine the magnitude of this attracting all sorts of people wanting to pour money in from both sides,” said Ben DeGrow, a education policy analyst at the Independence Institute, a libertarian think tank in Denver that supports the board majority.
What’s at stake
Organizers behind the recall effort believe the conservative school board majority has wasted taxpayer dollars, disrespected the community and teachers, and has violated the state’s open meeting laws.
Supporters of the board majority believe those claims are not only wrong, but the opposite of what the board has actually done: Balanced a billion-dollar budget without taking out a loan to build a new school, given teachers raises, and made the operations of the school district and board more transparent.
Critics of the board majority believe the majority’s endgame is to terminate the district’s agreement with the Jefferson County Education Association and continue to advance a reform agenda that includes more policies influenced by free-market principles.
The majority’s supporters counter that the teachers union is making a power grab to “regain control” it lost in 2013 when the conservative board majority was elected by wide margins.
It’s also possible that the recall could come down to none of those issues.
Instead, the average Jeffco voter is likely to make a decision on the recall effort based on a number of very public controversies that happened after the board considered a proposal to review an advanced history class that spurred weeks worth of student protests, a board member linked to an anti-gay hate group on her Facebook wall, and school administrators refused to let Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper sign an education bill at a Jeffco school, which many considered a political snub.
The deciding factor in the potential recall might turn on those controversies rather than the deeper policy disagreements because the general public probably likes some policy ideas from both sides, said Kris Amundsen, executive director for the National Association of State Boards of Education.
“I think the public likes both sides of the agenda,” she said. “I don’t think the public is as polarized as those inside the debate. It will be very difficult to draw a conclusion on the future of public education.”
But while the election itself might not be driven by the district’s big policy questions, those questions are what could make the election appealing to outside interest groups hoping to secure a win for their ideology.
The hottest policy debates in Jefferson County — the outcomes of which will be largely shaped by the victors of the recall fight — are familiar in many school districts around the country.
Should teacher pay be linked to the number of years in the classroom or student performance on standardized exams?
How should school districts expand education options for students while preserving and improving traditional neighborhood schools?
And how can a behemoth government bureaucracy built during the industrial revolution adapt in the 21st century to improve working conditions for teachers and learning by students?
It’s unclear what changes, if any, the political turmoil will prompt in Jefferson County classrooms.
Jeff Henig, a professor of political science and education at the Teachers College at Columbia University said he believes student learning will neither see immediate dramatic increases nor decreases as the political soap opera in Jeffco schools unfolds.
“A lot of these big ideological education battles don’t bubble down to the kids at all,” Hening said. “It’s mostly fodder for interest groups. Who gets control doesn’t necessarily lead to dramatic change at what happens in the classroom.”
In the two years the Jeffco board majority has been in place, the votes that came closest to changing how students learn were the non-controversial approval of a new math curriculum and the reorganization of two clusters of neighborhood schools.
Both measures passed with support from both the board’s majority and minority members.
“You can’t change classroom instruction that quickly,” said Amundsen, the national school board executive. “It takes thoughtful effort. When you try sudden and wrenching change, I can almost guarantee it will not be successful.”
If anything, expert observers suggest that the back and forth will lead to high staff turnover, which critics of the school board majority already say is happening. Jeffco’s teacher turnover rate had a 5 point increase last year, according to state data.
“An unsettled political environment can impact kids based on teacher mobility,” Henig said. “It’s worth remembering that the old style of local school boards often were stagnant places. And some of the turmoil, stirring the pot, maybe for the good. But there is reasonably convincing evidence and anecdotal reports from teachers, especially when they’re in these high profile places that they’re finding the job more stressful and they’re opting out.”
Supporters of the board majority point out that Jeffco’s rising teacher turnover rate mirrors state and national trends.
Further, supporters believe the majority’s reforms, like linking teacher pay to performance, are critical to improving classrooms.
“These are reforms that benefit students, and we will work to keep them in place regardless of who is on the board now or ten years from now,” said Michael Fields, the state director for Americans For Prosperity-Colorado. “What we are engaging in is a long term policy battle across the state.”
A new national spotlight on local school boards
School board elections are usually sleepy affairs with miniscule budgets that don’t attract much of the electorate.
In fact, of the 178,000-some Jefferson County residents who went to the ballot box in 2013, only about 136,000 bothered to select a school board member in each of the three races. That’s compared to the more than 400,000 registered voters in the county.
But as federal and state governments become more polarized and gridlocked, local municipal and school board races are increasingly attractive to large national donors looking to make political points, Henig said.
“Most of the nation’s 15,000 school districts are pretty much untouched by the national money and attention,” he said. “But it’s happening a bit. And increasingly.”
Look no further than wealthy Douglas County, south of Jefferson, where Americans For Prosperity, backed by the billionaire Koch brothers, spent $350,000 in the 2013 election to maintain a conservative school board majority that instituted a market-based pay system for teachers and a voucher program that was recently struck down by the Colorado Supreme Court.
“In traditional local school board elections, issues are about ‘what are we going to do with the high school football stadium,’ or candidates position themselves because they’re a successful businessman,” Henig said. “But what we think we see is a growing recognition by national level education reformers that they need to fight battles at the local level. The need to establish proof points for their broader reforms.”
Jefferson County, which spreads nearly 800 square miles west of Denver, is urban, suburban, and rural. And it is known for being the political bellwether of Colorado.
Similarly, the school district operates schools that serves an increasingly diverse population. Schools on the border with Denver to the east are made up of mostly Latino students who come from low-income homes. Other schools in the southern suburbs serve mostly white students from homes with six-figure incomes. And still others serve students in small mountain communities like Conifer.
Those kinds of qualities make Jeffco schools attractive to outside groups trying to make a statement about what works in public education.
“Jeffco could be a framework to improve student achievement,” said the Independence Institute’s DeGrow. “It’s a suburban school district that has a really good cross-section of high performing schools, low performing schools, and a lot in between.”
Alan Franklin, political director from Progress Now, a nonprofit progressive advocacy organization said his side of the political spectrum, which has been mostly focused on state-level races, now recognizes the outsized role a school board can have on a community and larger political debates.
“School boards have a way of influencing students and communities,” Franklin said. “We’d be fools to ignore this battle. Our schools supply the future electorate. The right wing recognized this well before the progressives.”
Henig said a biproduct of the turmoil in Jefferson County is that more residents are paying attention to school issues and that could potentially reverse the trend of low turnout in school board elections.
“There was a sentiment 100 years ago that politics was corrupting education and what we needed was elections where people who knew the most and cared the most would actually vote,” he said. “The sleepiness was by design.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that the Jeffco Public Schools Board of Education approved a review of an advanced history class and refused to allow the Colorado governor to sign a bill into law at a local high school. The board did consider a review of the history class but later dropped the issue. And district administrators, not the school board, rejected the governor’s request.
This article has also been updated to reflect the correct amount spent by Americans For Prosperity in the Douglas County school board election in 2013. It was $350,000, not $35,000.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported how many Jefferson County voters voted in 2013. It was about 178,000, not 413,000.