do you hear the people sing?

Jeffco students continue demonstrations; hundreds rally along major streets

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Josh Billups, a junior at Pomona High School, was one of the first students to arrive at a student organized protest. Students across Jefferson County have rallied for three schools days. They're worried a proposed curriculum review panel would lead to censorship.

ARVADA — Hundreds of Jefferson County students took to the streets today for the third school day in a row to voice their concerns over a proposed curriculum review panel they believe could stifle an honest teaching of U.S. history.

Meanwhile, Julie Williams, the suburban school board member who has proposed that the district review an advanced U.S. history curriculum, reaffirmed her position in an early morning statement to the media.

Williams, echoing concerns of conservatives across the country, believes the new curriculum for the Advanced Placement U.S. History course portrays the nation’s history in a negative context.

“I was truly surprised by the reaction of so many people regarding the AP U.S. History curriculum,” Williams said. “I must not have explained myself clearly. I thought everyone, or at least everyone involved in education, understood the huge debate and controversy surrounding the new [curriculum]. … Balance and respect for traditional scholarship is not censorship.”

Architects of the new curriculum and teachers who are using it have said the concerns are unfounded. Instead, the new curriculum guide actually allows teachers flexibility and focuses on key historical concepts that have shaped the nation’s identity.

Resistance to the idea that a community committee would review the curriculum has grown since last Thursday, when the board tabled action on the committee.

Tuesday’s protest, made up of demonstrations across the county, is the largest so far. Hundreds of students walked out of Pomona and Arvada high schools between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. to busy intersections along the county’s main artery Wadsworth Boulevard. Students from Golden High School rallied at the district’s headquarters and some later moved to an intersection near Wheat Ridge High School to join students there.

Other schools that had planned protests include Arvada West and Ralston Valley high schools.

While the student protests have primarily aimed to voice concern about the proposed committee, some students are also demonstrating on behalf of their teachers. Tension between the county’s teachers and the school board’s majority appears to be at an all-time high. The conflict has led to a teachers union vote of no confidence in board chair Ken Witt and an apparent teacher “sick out” that closed two high schools.

“The frustration level is just so high right now among students and teachers,” said Kayla Greco, a senior at Pomona High. Greco led the walkout there. “It’s not just the teachers who are upset about changes.”

Arvada High School students rallied along Wadsworth Boulevard Tuesday morning. They're upset over a proposed curriculum review committee.
Arvada High School students rallied along Wadsworth Boulevard Tuesday morning. They’re upset over a proposed curriculum review committee.

Student walkouts are likely to continue throughout the week.

Jeffco school officials said they’re monitoring social media, the main platform students have used to organize, and trying to communicate with parents as quickly as possible.

I respect the right of our students to express their opinions in a peaceful manner,” said Jeffco Superintendent Dan McMinimee in a statement. “I do, however, prefer that our students stay in class.” 

Jeffco officials this morning also dispatched central administrators to schools they knew had planned protests to help answer students’ questions. But that didn’t seem to deter students from rallying.

“I want the school board to know we don’t want to be sugar fed history,” said Leighann Gray, an Arvada High student. “They didn’t send anyone from the school board to talk to us. [The central administrator assigned to her school] is not from the board. So I don’t care.”

As the protests have grown in size, it is becoming less clear how much the students are speaking out versus acting out. Some students who left school to rally along Wadsworth were treating themselves to nearby fast food, running through intersections, and loitering in parking lots.

Others couldn’t articulate why they were protesting. Some students incorrectly believed the board had already acted and that the new curriculum was created because of the state’s new standards. Others believed teachers were going to see pay cuts if they didn’t comply with teaching American exceptionalism.

Student organizers, such as Greco, took it among themselves to self-police goofballs, including asking some to leave. Arvada authorities were also on hand observing students.

Pomona High School students gathered at a busy intersection near their school to protest a proposed curriculum review committee they believe will lead to censorship.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Pomona High School students gathered at a busy intersection near their school to protest a proposed curriculum review committee they believe will lead to censorship.

It’s important that our community understand that no decisions have been made regarding the curriculum committee,” McMinimee said in his statement. 

But there is no indication at this point Williams will withdraw her proposal.

Despite her call for balance in history classes, Williams’s statement concluded with her belief that students should be taught that America is uniquely great.

“I humbly ask our Jeffco history teachers to review their philosophical position on the [curriculum]. I think the majority will be surprised to find they agree. I invite them to join us while we investigate this curriculum together.”

The Jeffco school board may take the issue up at its Oct. 2 meeting.

Students from Golden High, who met with district staff during their rally, said they plan on addressing the board then.

“We weren’t as prepared as we should have been,” said Noelle Cohn, a Golden High senior. “We’ll be back in a civilized way to address the board.”

Most of the protests ended by the afternoon.

In an email to parents, Pomona High principal Andy Geise said, “This is our students’ school. As I see it, they are trying to make it the best they can. I appreciate our community’s support of our students. We have great kids here at Pomona. I’m proud of all of them.”

Lights - camera - action

Relive the Jefferson County school board recall in 12 minutes

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Recall supporter Cecelia Lange waved signs at 52nd and Wadsworth Tuesday morning.

What can a school board election tell us about American democracy?

Well, if that school board race happens to be in Jefferson County, involve the nation’s largest teachers union and one of the country’s most influential conservative nonprofit groups … quite a bit, actually.

At least that’s the premise of a new documentary short film, “Million-Dollar School Board” by independent filmmakers Louis Alvarez, Andy Kolker and Paul Stekler. 

The film chronicles the high-profile school board race — which included debates about how history should be taught and how teachers should get paid — that ended with three conservative members being ousted by a coalition of teachers, parents and community members. More than $1 million was poured into the campaign from all sides, hence the film’s title.

The Jeffco film is part of a nine-part series of short documentaries, “Postcards from The Great Divide,” released in a digital partnership between PBS’ Election 2016 initiative and The Washington Post, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and Latino Public Broadcasting, with a PBS broadcast on the World Channel.

The goal is to answer this question:

As substantial interest group money flows down into even local races, does it also bring the same stark ideological and partisan divisions that mark our national politics today into debates that were once totally separate from Washington?

You can view the roughly 12-minute film in its entirety here:

Then reread a sampling of our coverage:

 

full disclosure

Teachers unions gave huge sums of seed money to Jeffco recall, new records show

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Organizers of a school board recall effort in Jefferson County, from left, Michael Blanton, Wendy McCord, and Tina Gurdikian, spoke at the campaign kick off event in July.

National and local teachers unions provided more than $265,000 to a nonprofit group that served as a catalyst to recall three conservative school board members in Jefferson County.

That is according to campaign disclosures filed Thursday in response to a judge’s order that the group, Jeffco United, disclose its donors.

The organization, a social welfare nonprofit with tax-exempt status, was established in May and received its first donation — $25,000 — from the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. In total, the CEA gave $113,500 to the group, records show.

The national union was even more generous. The National Education Association gave $150,000 to Jeffco United in late August.

Complete Colorado — an arm of the free-market think tank The Independence Institute, supported the recalled school board members — first reported the NEA contribution.

The disclosures shed significant new light on who bankrolled the high-profile recall, which opponents of the conservative board majority repeatedly described as a broad community-based effort. But the full picture of the financial forces on both sides of the campaign remains incomplete, because of lax state and federal reporting requirements.

Who gave to Jeffco United? |
• National Education Association, $150,000
• Colorado Education Association, $113,500
• Jefferson County Education Association, $20,000
• All other individuals, $3,115

“This is all we asked for,” said Dede Laugesen, director of Colorado Government Watch, the El Paso County-based organization that filed the complaint against Jeffco United. “It is only too bad voters did not have this information before the election.”

Lynea Hansen, spokeswoman for Jeffco United, said it would be a mistake to say the recall was “union-led.”

“This was a parent-led and parent-organized recall,” Hansen said. “But parents can’t raise the kind of money to compete with the kind of out-of-state money that keeps coming into Colorado. This is the way the game is set up. We’re playing by the rules that we’re given.”

Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Jeffco United eventually launched two sister political committees to finance the recall and the election of a five-candidate slate. Most of that money — more than $200,000 — was raised locally.

Those committees raised and publically disclosed hundreds of thousands of dollars, including a large donation from Jeffco United early in the campaign.

An administrative court judge last week ruled that Jeffco United violated the state’s campaign finance laws. The judge found there was enough evidence to suggest that Jeffco United’s “major purpose” was to spearhead the recall of Ken Witt, Julie Williams and John Newkirk.

Typically, social welfare nonprofits — such as One Colorado, Progress Now and Americans For Prosperity — are allowed to raise money without disclosing their donors and then donate a portion to political committees, which are required to disclose donors to the secretary of state.

It’s common practice for advocacy organizations to operate multiple fundraising and spending apparatuses including 527s, independent expenditure committees and issue committees.

However, under Colorado law if an organization’s “major purpose” is to act only on a singular political issue, it must file as a political committee with the secretary of state and not as a nonprofit.

Judge Robert N. Spencer, in his decision, found Support Jeffco Kids — another group named in the original complaint — had an established track record of work on a variety of issues, therefore it did not violate the “major purpose” law.

Spencer’s decision only applies to Jeffco United.

Other nonprofits, including Colorado Independent Action, which acted similarly to Jeffco United, came to the aid of the recall targets. Independent Action, like Complete Colorado, is an arm of the Independence Institute, which does not disclose its donors.

Ousted board chairman Witt said the institute has a long track record for supporting politicians who champion for expanding school choice.

“I don’t think there was any surprise in those organizations being strong advocates for what we’re doing,” Witt said. He added, “I’m delighted that the truth has finally come out.”

The transparency watchdog organization Colorado Ethics Watch earlier this month called on lawmakers to revisit the state’s campaign finance laws that govern school board races.