(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.

Idea pitch

Despite concerns, Jeffco school board agrees to spend $1 million to start funding school innovations

Students at Lumberg Elementary School in Jeffco Public Schools work on their assigned iPads during a class project. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

Jeffco school employees can apply for a piece of a $1 million fund that will pay for an innovative idea for improving education in the district.

The school board for Jeffco Public Schools on Thursday approved shifting $1 million from the district’s rainy day fund to an innovation pool that will be used to provide grants to launch the new ideas.

The district will be open for applications as soon as Friday.

The board had reservations about the plan, which was proposed by the new schools superintendent, Jason Glass, in November, as part of a discussion about ways to encourage innovation and choice in the district. The board was concerned about how quickly the process was set to start, whether there was better use of the money, and how they might play a role in the process.

Glass conceded that the idea was an experiment and that pushing ahead so quickly might create some initial problems.

“This effort is going to be imperfect because it’s the first time that we’ve done it and we don’t really know how it’s going to turn out,” Glass said. “There are going to be problems and there are going to be things we learn from this. It’s sort of a micro experiment. We’re going to learn a lot about how to do this.”

During the November discussion, Glass had suggested one use for the innovation money: a new arts school to open in the fall to attract students to the district. He said that the money could also be used to help start up other choice schools. School board members balked, saying they were concerned that a new arts school would compete with existing arts programs in Jeffco schools. The board, which is supported by the teachers union, has been reluctant to open additional choice schools in the district, instead throwing most of their support behind the district-run schools.

Board members also expressed concerns about what they said was a rushed process for starting the fund.

The plan calls for teachers, school leaders and other district employees to apply for the money by pitching their idea and explaining its benefit to education in the district. A committee will then consider the proposals and recommend those that should be funded out of the $1 million.

Board members said they felt it was too soon to start the application process on Friday. They also questioned why the money could not also help existing district programs.

“I think a great deal of innovation is happening,” said board member Amanda Stevens.

Some board members also suggested that one of them should serve on the committee, at least to monitor the process. But Glass was adamant.

“Do you want me to run the district and be the superintendent or not?” Glass asked the board. “I can set this up and execute it, but what you’re talking about is really stepping over into management, so I caution you about that.”

Glass later said he might be open to finding another way for board members to be involved as observers, but the board president, Ron Mitchell, said he would rather have the superintendent provide thorough reports about the process. The discussion is expected to resume at a later time.

Stevens said many of the board’s questions about details and the kind of ideas that will come forth will, presumably, be answered as the process unfolds.

“Trying is the only way we get any of that information,” Stevens said.

year in review

A new superintendent and a new vision for Jeffco schools in 2017

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Jeffco Public Schools started the year making big news when its board of education decided to open a search for a new superintendent. Former Superintendent Dan McMinimee left the role in March before a new leader had been hired.

Just before he left, McMinimee proposed to the Jeffco school board a plan to close five schools as a way to save money so the district could raise staff salaries as the board had directed.

The schools recommended for closure served a disproportionate number of low-income students and housed several centers for students with special needs. They also included a high-performing school. Officials said they did not consider academic achievement in selecting the schools.

In addition to closing five schools, the proposal suggested cuts to other programs, including one for helping students develop social and emotional skills and one that helped students struggling with reading.

But in a last-minute move, the superintendent altered the proposal during a school board meeting just before the board was set to vote. In the end, the board voted to close one elementary school and spare four others as well as the programs.

A few months later, the school board selected Jason Glass as the district’s new superintendent. Glass, who was a superintendent in Eagle County at the time, had a history as a reformer helping create pay-for-performance systems. But he changed his support of some reforms after learning about education systems around the world.

One of the first changes Glass announced in Jeffco was a timeout on any school closure recommendations while district officials review and create a new process for deciding if school closures are necessary and if so, which schools to close.

Glass also published his vision for Jeffco, which will have the district take a closer look at inequities and outside factors that affect students, such as poverty. At least one school was already experimenting with that work by moving to a community school model. And the district was already considering outside factors as they were rolling out restorative practices, which change how school leaders respond to student discipline issues.

More recently, Glass asked the board, which will remain the same after the November election, to consider an expansion of school choice in Jeffco with proposals to create new options schools such as an arts school to help attract new students to the district. District officials may release more information about that plan and other changes, like a study on high school start times, in the coming months.