LAKEWOOD — Jefferson County voters got their first glimpse Monday at most of the candidates either running for or defending their seats on the school board.
Nine of the 12 declared candidates and incumbents met at a forum hosted by Colorado Christian University, giving voters a taste of what’s to come in a race that already has drawn national attention to a county known as a political bellwether.
In regular times, two of the five seats on the school board would be up for election.
But barring an unexpected development, voters also will be asked to recall the other three school board members that comprise the conservative majority — Ken Witt, Julie Williams and John Newkirk — and replace them with new faces.
That puts all five seats on the board in play. And it created a lively discussion at the private Christian university’s forum.
Here are Chalkbeat’s five takeaways from the evening:
The missing slate was the elephant in the room.
A few days after the Jefferson County clerk announced the recall campaign had supplied enough signatures to send the question to the voters, a group of three Jeffco residents backed by an anonymous group of parents announced their intention to replace the board majority.
That slate of candidates, however, did not attend the university’s forum. John Andrews, the forum’s host, a former state lawmaker and leader in Colorado’s conservative community, was a good sport about it. While he reminded the audience more than a few times that the slate turned down his invitation, he also encouraged audience members to do their own research on the candidates.
“To me, they missed an opportunity to demonstrate good faith of putting their goals and agenda in front of a large and engaged audience of Jefferson County voters and to submit to some give and take with people who want the same job they want,” Andrews told Chalkbeat.
Other supporters of the recall targets suggested the slate’s absence was evidence that the candidates would snub conservatives in favor of the teachers union.
When asked why he was unable to attend, candidate Brad Rupert said in an email he had a previous engagement.
Candidates Ron Mitchell and Susan Harmon did not respond to requests for comment.
What we’ll be watching next: The next forum is Sept. 12. Will the slate participate?
Julie Williams was more confident than ever and she owned the AP U.S. history controversy.
Conventional wisdom says school board member Julie Williams faces the toughest challenge keeping her seat this fall. Her name is linked with the most public controversy the board has weathered.
But you wouldn’t have known that Monday night. Williams, in a friendly environment, was poised and confident. And she received some of the loudest applause of the evening.
Last fall, Williams made headlines with a request to review the Advanced Placement U.S. History curriculum to ensure materials were patriotic. Her proposal, which mirrored another in Texas, sent thousands of Jeffco high schoolers to the streets in protest. Williams’s proposal eventually evolved into a rewrite of the district’s curriculum review process. No review of the history class was ordered.
This summer, the organization responsible for establishing the class’s framework and corresponding test issued new guidance that addressed conservatives’ concerns. The group added a section about American exceptionalism and filled in chunks of history Williams and others said needed to be explicitly addressed.
“I was right on AP U.S. History!” Williams said at the forum.
What we’ll be watching for next: How will Williams’s defense of her AP History position play in less friendly settings?
The fault lines on some hot topics like testing are fuzzy.
In an attempt to provide the audience with a snapshot of views on some of the hottest education policy debates in Jeffco and the nation, moderator Andrews asked a series of “yes” or “no” questions.
The candidates also could have answered “pass” if they thought the question was too complex to answer that way.
There were a few shockers:
Candidate Ali Lasell, who has been critical of the board majority’s record, said she supported their efforts for putting charter schools on the same financial footing as district-run schools. Williams broke rank with Witt and Newkirk when she said she didn’t support free full-day kindergarten for students who qualify for free and reduced-priced lunch. And Witt said he he would support vouchers for private schools as a parent, but not as board president of a public school system.
Not every topic drew sharp choices for voters.
Take the PARCC tests. Every candidate and incumbent except Amanda Stevens said they wanted Colorado to withdraw completely or partially from the multi-state testing partnership.
And every candidate and incumbent except Lasell approved of student-based budgeting, which allocates dollars to schools based on the number of students and their needs, and gives schools discretion on how to spend the money. Lasell said she wouldn’t form an opinion until after a year of using it.
What we’ll be watching for next: How do the incumbents and candidates differentiate themselves on complex policy debates, especially when they mostly agree?
The non-slate successor candidates, Noonan and Dhieux, will bring an edge to the debate.
It would be easy for the recall election to become slate vs. slate. But candidate Paula Noonan — running to replace Witt — certainly isn’t going to let that happen.
Noonan took both the recall supporters and targets to task several times. At one point toward the end of the forum, moderator Andrews referred to Noonan affectionately as an “Irish terrier.”
Noonan isn’t the only candidate unconnected to a slate seeking to replace a recall target. Matthew Dhieux, who is running for Newkirk’s seat, earned the attention of the room when he plainly explained — while other candidates dodged — what he believed the recall election was about: local communities losing control of their classrooms to special interests.
What we’ll be watching for next: How do Noonan and Dhieux push both the incumbents and the successor slate in the next debate?
The regular school board election might actually be the more substantive races to watch.
While the recall election is getting all the attention, the more authentic conversations may take place between candidates in the regular school board races.
Take this exchange between Ali Lasell and Kim Johnson about the achievement gap …
Lasell: “What we need to address is full-day kindergarten for every student … Once we get there, we need to man up for preschool.”
Johnson: “There’s more than one solution to close the achievement gap, because there is more than one reason why it’s there.”
Neither Lasell nor Johnson have run for office before. That’s true for Amanda Stevens as well. And Tori Merritts is a stranger to a political campaign in the age of Twitter; her last campaign for Jeffco’s school board was in 1999.
It’s clear that Witt, Newkirk and Williams have their talking points down. And it’s safe to assume the successor slate will bring messaging that echoes the recall campaign’s themes. As true with most campaigns, the incumbents and candidates will strive for fewer and fewer surprises.
So enjoy the fresh debate amongst the novices while you still can.
What we’ll be watching for next: Whose experience will resonate with voters more: Stevens’s experience in the classroom or Merritts’s experience on the board?
Update: This article has been updated to include the host of the event’s first name, John.