(Re)Call Me Maybe

Thousands pack rally to launch Jeffco school board recall effort

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Organizers of an effort to recall three members of the Jefferson County school board addressed about 2,000 residents at a kick off event July 8.

GOLDEN — Thousands of Jefferson County residents packed the local fairgrounds Wednesday night to learn what they could do to recall three members of their school board whom they believe are wasting taxpayer dollars, skirting open meeting laws, and disrespecting teachers and community members.

The mood in the barn ranged from curious to outright giddy, with some recall advocates jumping up and down, hugging each other, and dancing to a galvanizing playlist that included Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’ and Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping.”

“There’s been a lot of hard work leading up to this moment,” said recall organizer Wendy McCord. “But the fight has just begun.”

Critics of the three board members — Ken Witt, Julie Williams, and John Newkirk — began exploring the possibility of a recall almost as soon as the board majority was elected in 2013. The trio was bent on pushing a conservative free-market education reform agenda in Jefferson County, the critics charged.

The intervening 18 months have only solidified their concerns, as some board members sought to censor an Advanced Placement class, approved a charter school linked to a Christian university, and changed the way teachers are paid.

Now, if all goes according to the recall organizers’ plan, Jefferson County voters will get the option to recall Witt, Williams, and Newkirk on this November’s ballot. But as opponents of the recall have pointed out, that plan is far from assured.

Organizers have only a short time to get enough signatures to put the measure on the ballot. In the coming weeks, volunteers will canvass neighborhoods, parks, and businesses to round up support, organizers said.

Thousands of Jefferson County residents packed a barn at the local fairgrounds to learn about an effort to recall three of the county's school board members.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Thousands of Jefferson County residents packed a barn at the local fairgrounds to learn about an effort to recall three of the county’s school board members.

If Wednesday night’s event was any indication, they are likely to find traction.

The crowd of approximately 2,000 included plenty of teachers and parents familiar with the ongoing dustup in Jefferson County, as well as fresh faces and political figures.

It also included many students, who have been a powerful force in lobbying against the board members. Before recall organizers took the stage, students from Jeffco Students for Change led the crowd in chants of “Recall! Recall!” and “The people, united, will never be defeated!”

Not everyone in Jefferson County is excited about the prospect of a recall.

Sheila Atwell, executive director of Jeffco Students First and a supporter of the board majority, said she believes the recall campaign will end up as a waste of time and money.

“For right now, I’m just focusing on highlighting all the great things this board has done,” she said when asked what role her organization might play in defending Witt, Williams, and Newkirk if voters do face a recall choice in November. Atwell raised money for the board majority during the 2013 campaign.

There are signs that the recall effort is mobilizing families who more typically would stay on the sidelines.

Back at the barn, Jeffco Public School parent Loreli Bratton, who will organize petition gathering in Wheat Ridge, said she was initially reluctant to join the recall effort.

“I would much rather be in my garden or reading a book,” she said amid mud and the scent of wet cow manure. “But when people start messing with my child’s education, I’m forced to get involved.”

Dozens of young Jefferson County residents ran through the barn and climbed on rails during a campaign rally July 8.
PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Dozens of young Jefferson County residents ran through the barn and climbed on rails during a campaign rally July 8.

Decision day

Unity prevails: Jeffco incumbents easily beat back challengers

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Meredith Van Deman signs the back of her 2014 mail-in ballot outside the Columbine Library in Littleton before turning it in.

The status quo has held in Jeffco Public Schools.

Two incumbents facing opposition easily defeated two challengers, ensuring that the governing board of the state’s second largest school district will remain united 5-0.

In District 1, incumbent Brad Rupert won by 20 percentage points over against Matt Van Gieson, a parent and former president of the parent teacher organization at a Jeffco charter school, Golden View Classical Academy.

In District 2, incumbent Susan Harmon claimed a similar margin over Erica Shields, a conservative Jeffco parent.

Current board president Ron Mitchell ran unopposed. The other two seats are not up for a vote this election.

The current board, supported in large part by the teachers union, was elected in 2015. That election, voters recalled three conservative board members and voted in five new members who have since hired a new superintendent, signed an extended contract with the teachers union, given some pay raises and voted to close an elementary school.

The school board incumbents raised considerably more money than the challengers, including thousands of dollars from the teachers union.

 

Keeping the peace

Jeffco voters to decide whether school board will remain united or include dissenting voices

Students at Edgewater Elementary School in Jefferson County work on iPads during class.

With little controversy, no national media attention and control of the school board not at stake, this fall’s school board race in Jefferson County has centered on whether a board that is consistently united could use a dissenting voice.

Three of the five board of education seats are up for grabs, but only two of the incumbents have challengers — a single one in each race.

A win by the two challengers, both conservatives who oppose much of what the current board has done, would not change many of the votes or direction of the school district, but it could change the conversations. Some voters now say they are weighing whether to vote to keep the stability of the current board, which often vote unanimously, or whether more diversity of thought is needed. One question is whether different voices would repeat the drama of the previous, split, school board that saw conservative members ousted in a recall election.

“Everyone in Jeffco wants us to commit to maintaining civility,” said Ron Mitchell, the board president, who is the member running unopposed. “I don’t see that changing.”

Some who support the current board say even one dissenting voice could slow down progress, distract from the current work or create doubt in voters if the district asks for a tax increase soon.

“I believe that even one or two detractors on the board will stagnate progress,” said Jeffco parent Kelly Johnson, who helped recall previous board members. “Our district has already paid too much in lost opportunities with the chaos of the past.”

Erica Shields and Matt Van Gieson, the two challengers, say they want to work with the current board.

“We are not there to disrupt,” Shields said. “We are not about that. We don’t want to return to the old type of board mentality. We want to make things better.”

The incumbents have a huge money advantage.

Those current members running for re-election — Mitchell, Susan Harmon and Brad Rupert — supported by the teachers union, have raised large amounts of money as of the last finance reports filed two weeks ago. The two in the contested race each had more than $40,000 raised, compared to about $3,200 raised by Shields and $2,300 raised by Van Gieson.

Mailers and yard signs for the incumbents advocate for all three together.

Since their election two years ago, the current board members have hired a new superintendent in Jason Glass, approved an extended contract with teachers union, given teachers a pay raise and advocated for better school funding.

Opponents Shields and Van Gieson say, recent events pushed them to consider running for school board independently, but now both also are running together, asking for voters to support them as a team.

Shields said she is running after realizing the work she does as a volunteer helping homeless people doesn’t address the root causes of the problem, which she now sees as a lack of good education opportunities for everyone.

Van Gieson, said that he hears too often from people who feel they no longer have a voice on the current school board. He said he official decided he wanted to run after a spring board meeting in which several community members asked the board not to close their schools.

School closures have not been a major issue for voters, most say, because Glass has said he would pause any school closure recommendations until district officials can create a better system for evaluating if a school should close.

Instead, campaign messages and questions at forums have centered on typical political divisions such the sources of campaign contributions, the support of teachers and positions on charter schools or private school vouchers.

“Sometimes I think there are issues created by others that are really just divisive wedges,” Mitchell said. “For example, charter schools. Every year we seem to try to drive the charter school wedge into the election.”

Mitchell said the current board is not against charters schools. In previous board discussions, Jeffco board members have expressed a desire for more authority to decide if a charter application is good enough for Jeffco, instead of just legally meeting its requirements to open.

Van Gieson, who is on the parent-teacher organization of a charter school in Jeffco, said he thinks charter schools are treated differently in Jeffco, and if elected, wants to help all schools have similar accountability.

“Where a charter school has to come in front of the board and answer for lower achievement, it would be beneficial to do the same things for neighborhood schools,” Van Gieson said.

The campaign also has included an increased focused on equity.

Joel Newton, founder of the local nonprofit Edgewater Collective, joined Jefferson County Association for Gifted Children to hosted, for the first time, a forum just for discussions on the needs of diverse learners. In previous years, the Jefferson County Association for Gifted Children has hosted a similar forum alone.

“I don’t think that was part of the conversation in the past,” Newton said. “The interesting thing now is both sides have a piece of the puzzle. One side talks about school choice…the other side makes the argument that poverty is the real issue.”

Glass, the superintendent, has emphasized the importance of the school district working with community partners to tackle poverty and other out-of-school factors that impact learning.

Tony Leffert, a Jeffco parent who lives in Golden and supports the new superintendent, said the issue on his mind is keeping the current board on track. He said adding a dissenting voice to the board, could set up a possibility for the minority opinion to take control of the board in two years.

“Given the last school board election that we had, every school board election is important in Jeffco going forward,” Leffert said. “We do not want a repeat of that again.”

Clarification: This story has been updated to note that a forum on the needs of diverse learners, which was hosted for the first time with the Edgewater Collective, has been hosted in the past by Jefferson County Association for Gifted Children.