(Re)Call Me Maybe

Why the tug-of-war for Jefferson County’s school board isn’t just about local classrooms

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?

Classroom tug-of-war

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. 

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.