When voters cast ballots Tuesday in a school board race in suburban Denver, it will mark the climax of a two-year battle over public education that has reverberated well beyond the Rockies.
Spending on the school board election in Jefferson County, Colo., is expected to top $1 million, with money pouring in from Americans for Prosperity, the national organization founded by the Koch brothers, as well as a libertarian think tank and teachers unions.
The contest is actually a recall election, with activists trying to kick out three conservative members who won seats in 2013, becoming the majority power block on the five-member board.
“This is not a school board race, this is a proxy war,” said Jon Caldara, the president of the libertarian Independence Institute in Denver, which wants to keep the three conservatives in power. “This is a proxy war between education reform and union power.”
Tina Gurdikian, a parent who helped spearhead the recall effort, agrees that the election is a stand-in for a larger national debate about public education and she said she sees it as an ideological fight.
“This is really part of a national agenda by special-interest groups like Americans for Prosperity to privatize public education,” said Gurdikian, who has two children in the Jefferson County public schools. “We have a nearly $1 billion budget, and I think a lot of people look at that and want a piece of it. Privatization can work for some things, but not really public education. It really is a common good.”
All five seats on the school board are in play: The three conservatives face a recall, and the two other seats are being vacated.
Lynea Hansen, a political consultant to the activists trying to push out the conservatives, said a recent poll shows that the race is tight. Recall efforts are notoriously difficult to pull off, and in interviews, neither side has expressed confidence.
The most recent campaign finance reports filed with the state show that candidates and political committees have raised more than $450,000. But that does not include spending by Americans for Prosperity and other tax-
exempt nonprofit groups that are not required to report political contributions.
Michael Fields, state director of AFP-Colorado, said that his group is spending “in the low six figures” on cable television ads, mailings and canvassing in Jefferson County.
The skirmish has been tense, with alleged death threats, social media clashes and attacks on talk radio.
“It’s gotten a little ugly. People have been fighting back and forth,” said Esteban Arellano, a 16-year-old high school junior and founder of the Bright Futures Coalition, a student group that supports the recall.
John Straayer, a professor of political science at Colorado State University, said the events in Jefferson County mimic similar battles elsewhere in the state.
“This didn’t just pop up,” Straayer said. “It has a history to it, some organization to it. There are people who have long been pushing the charter schools, who are anti-teachers associations, who want pay for performance. In Jefferson County, it’s just sort of spun up and up and up. You’ve got this subterranean mixture of school politics, inside Republican politics, the school board takeover, the pushback, and all the players are starting to jump in.”
The discord in Colorado’s second-largest school district started soon after Julie Williams, Ken Witt and John Newkirk were elected in 2013. The trio aggressively moved to change district policies.
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.
“This is about power and control,” Williams said in an interview. “This is the first time there’s been a conservative board in 40 years, and the union bosses don’t like it. . . . They don’t like the changes. And the changes are good. In any business, if you don’t perform, you don’t get a raise, and you’re lucky to have a job.”
Activists behind the recall effort say the three board members have 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 say the conservative majority is to blame for higher-than-usual teacher turnover, and they created a Web site that carries resignation letters from scores of teachers.
“These board actions and the hostile work environment they have created are the sole reason I am leaving Jeffco,” Shannon MacKenzie, a former English teacher, said in a resignation letter posted on the Web site.
Susan Harmon, a lawyer, active participant in the Parent-Teacher Association and mother of two children in public schools, is running to replace Newkirk; she said that she was motivated to run after seeing too many good teachers leave the county. Harmon said that she has been surprised by the amount of attention and outside money flowing into the race.
“I think a lot of people are looking at this as a way to test the waters for what might take place in other areas,” Harmon said. “To me, this is an incredibly important election about moving public education in the right direction, not toward privatization.”
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.
The College Board, which administers exams to students upon the completion of AP courses, revised the history curriculum for the 2014-2015 school year in ways that angered conservatives, who say it paints a darker picture of the country’s heritage and undervalues concepts such as “American exceptionalism.”
Newkirk, Witt and Williams said that they wanted a committee to review the curriculum with the goal of ensuring that courses, Williams said, “present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage” and “promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free-enterprise system.”
Williams also said in a written proposal that “materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder [or] social strife.”
But that’s exactly what happened across the county last fall. There were teacher “sickouts” that shut down two schools, walkouts by thousands of students and a massive community protest.
The school board backed down from its initial plan to rework the curriculum. And the College Board revised the U.S. history framework yet again.
But the level of antagonism in Jefferson County did not abate, residents said.
“This is ground zero,” said Kim Gilmartin, a mother of three children enrolled in a charter school in Jefferson County. She has been volunteering with Americans for Prosperity to fight the recall and keep the conservatives in office.
“This could start a trend around the country,” Gilmartin said. “That’s what AFP wants. And the unions don’t want to see it. Would it really start a wave across the nation if it goes one way or another? I don’t know. We’ll have to find out.”