(Re)Call Me Maybe

Recall effort in Jefferson County has raised $43,000

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Jefferson County parents and recall organizers Loreli Bratton and Laura Center prepare recall petitions before a campaign event in Golden.

The organization behind the recall effort of three conservative school board members in Jefferson County has raised nearly half its fundraising goal in just two weeks, according to campaign finance documents.

Jeffco United for Action has raised — in mostly small and local donations — $43,981 of its $100,000 goal. The report, filed with the Secretary of State on Tuesday, signals that there is a committed grassroots effort to change the governing board of Jeffco Public Schools and that suggestions that the effort is entirely bankrolled by the teachers union are inaccurate.

A Chalkbeat analysis of the organizations first filing found that only $675 of the total raised came from outside the state. About one-fifth of the individuals who gave to recall effort listed Jeffco Public Schools as their employer. Slightly more than 90 precent of the 536 donations so far were for $100 or less. And the two largest donations were for $1,000.

One of the individuals who gave a grand to the recall group was former Jeffco Public Schools Superintendent Cindy Stevenson.

“I’ve seen such demoralization in the district,” Stevenson said. “I consider it a service to the kiddos and staff of Jefferson County to change the governance structure.”

Stevenson served as the district’s superintendent for a dozen years. She announced her retirement shortly after the board majority, which ran on a platform to challenge the district’s status quo, was elected. She then left her post early citing a poor working relationship with the school board’s new members.

Data Center
Find out who gave in the first fundraising push to support the recall effort here.

During the reporting period, Jeffco United for Action spent $5,159. Most of the organization’s expenditures thus far have been on fees for its online fundraising site.

By comparison, the political committee that supported the school board majority, Believe in Better Schools, spent slightly more than $22,000 to get Ken Witt, Julie Williams, and John Newkirk elected in 2013, according to campaign finance reports.

Jeffco United for Action is a political 527 group. That means it can raise and spend an unlimited amount of money on the recall effort.

The same group of individuals has also established a nonprofit organization that can also raise an unlimited amount of money. But that money can only be used to “educate” the public about issues — not directly campaign. Unlike the 527 committee, the nonprofit is not required to disclose its donors.

So far, neither the nonprofit branch of the recall effort, which paid for a direct-mail campaign last month, nor the Jefferson County teachers union has made a contribution to the 527 group. That sort of funneling of cash between nonprofits with 501(c)(4) tax status and political committees has become the status quo in elections.

Meanwhile, the nonprofit behind the political committee that supported Witt, Williams, and Newkirk is also actively seeking donations to raise awareness about what they consider positive steps for the suburban school district under the board majority.

“I think it’s incredibly unfair that [Jeffco United] is doing this,” said Sheila Atwell, executive director of Jeffco Students First, in an interview earlier this month. “I want to be sure that the parents who voted for this board have a voice.”

Atwell said her organization is taking a wait-and-see approach as to whether to launch another political committee to directly support candidates this fall.

Backers of the recall, which kicked off with a campaign at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds, have until Sept. 8 to collect 15,000 signatures per board member they wish to recall. Organizers want to be on the regular-November ballot and not force a costly special election are pushing to get enough signatures by the end of July. They believe if the recall effort can collect enough signatures by the end of the month, there is a strong likelihood that will happen. However, there is no guarantee the recall will be part of the general election.

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.