In a striking upset, voters in suburban Denver on Tuesday recalled three conservative members of a school board who had worked to weaken the local teachers union while boosting funding for charter schools and pushing through other market-driven policy changes for public schools.
By a margin of 64 percent to 36 percent, voters opted to replace Julie Williams, Ken Witt and John Newkirk, who had been elected in 2013 to form a majority power bloc on the five-member Jefferson County school board. About 40 percent of registered voters turned out.
“It looks decisive,” Witt said Tuesday night, moments after he conceded.
Ron Mitchell, who won Witt’s seat, said the new board will take the county in a new direction. “Our mission will not be to privatize and charterize and voucherize our schools,” he said.
Lynea Hansen, a political consultant to the challengers, said turnout was key. “We had a huge ground game,” she said. “We were chasing voters to the polls.”
Both sides saw the contentious election as a stand-in for a larger national debate about public education. Spending on the race was estimated to top $1 million, with the recall targets getting help from a libertarian think tank and Americans for Prosperity, the political organization created by the Koch Brothers, while the challengers received backing from teachers unions.
“The community woke up and cared enough to fight for public education in Jeffco,” said John Ford, president of the Jefferson County Education Association, who estimated that the recall effort had about 2,000 volunteers knocking on doors. “The first thing that needs to be done is we need to start healing a community that’s been hurt over the last two years.”
Williams, Witt and Newkirk sought to inject competition and business principles into the management of Colorado’s second-largest school district. They passed a merit-pay system for teachers that uses a controversial evaluation system; they equalized funding for public charter schools, so charters receive the same amount as traditional schools; and they pledged to create more school choice for families.
Activists behind the recall effort alleged that the three board members violated open-meeting laws, spent lavishly on legal expenses and hired a new superintendent at a salary significantly higher than his more experienced predecessor. They also said the conservative majority was to blame for higher-than-usual teacher turnover.
Witt said the policy changes were popular among residents, pointing to the fact that the challengers all agreed to maintain equal funding for public charter schools.
“I’m confident that these reforms that we have championed will have a lasting impact and Jefferson County will be better for it,” Witt said.
He said he believes the recall was successful because of personal attacks.
“There was a long-term concerted effort to undermine the image of the individual members of this board, while the county has embraced the reforms that we put in place,” he said. “It’s a personal attack that caused us the most damage, not the reforms itself. Sometimes, it’s just difficult being the reformer.”
Controversy swirled around Williams, Witt and Newkirk almost as soon as they were elected in 2013. The county’s well-regarded, longtime superintendent resigned, saying she could not work for the conservative majority.
The conflict that drew national attention to the growing disputes came last fall, when Newkirk, Witt and Williams indicated that they wanted to “review” the content of the AP U.S. history course taught in county high schools because it failed to promote patriotism.
There were teacher “sickouts” that shut down two schools, walkouts by thousands of students and a massive community protest.
All five seats on the school board were in play; while the three conservatives faced a recall, the two other seats were being vacated.
Amanda Stevens, who won one of the two vacated seats, said she expects the new school board to make some immediate changes, including ending the contract of an attorney that the previous majority had hired to advise it.
“We need to revisit (teacher) compensation soon because that was also something that we know was done unilaterally, without working together with our teachers,” Stevens said. “I don’t think we’ll return to a traditional salary schedule, but we need to arrive at some compromises, so that we’re working in partnership with our teachers. We all have to work together now, toward reconciliation with deep respect for our community.”