staying power

Jeffco students to board majority: we aren’t going anywhere

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Jeffco Public Schools students took to the streets for a week in September to protest a proposed curriculum review committee they believed would censor some of their classes.

Feeling scorned by their school district’s conservative board majority, Jefferson County high school students plan to keep the heat on their elected officials.

Calling themselves the Jeffco Student Network for Change, the coalition plans to make their public debut at a noon rally Saturday in Littleton.

Organized by about 20 students from most of the suburban county’s high schools, the students plan to ask attendees whether they would support a recall of at least two members of school board majority made up of Ken Witt, Julie Williams, and John Newkirk.

The question of whether to attempt to recall the conservative majority, who were each elected by wide margins last year, has often been a topic of conversation among parents, teachers, and board observers.

While the conversation reached a fevered pitch last spring before a summer cool-down, no official campaign manifested. In fact, some of the most vocal and connected opponents to the board majority privately dissuaded one another from pulling the trigger on an expensive recall election.

It won’t work. It will cost too much money. It will be mutually assured destruction, they said.

But a recent decision to revamp an existing curriculum review process and place it under the board of education’s purview has changed things, said Ashlyn Maher, a Chatfield High School senior.

Still too young to vote herself, Maher said, “a recall is much more feasible now.”

If official recall petitions aren’t ready by Saturday, Maher said, students will collect contact information from attendees Saturday.

In order to establish a recall election, the student organization would need to collect 15,000 signatures, or 40 percent of the voters in the last regular election, per board member. They would have 60 days to collect those signatures after they file the recall petitions with the county clerk. If enough certified signatures are gathered in time, an election would be held between 45 and 75 days.

Jeffco Public Schools would be required to pay for the election’s costs.

“It’s a huge step, it’s a huge commitment, it’s a lot of money,” said Thomas Sizemore, a Lakewood High School student. “It’s a really big decision.”

Both Maher and Sizemore organized protests last month at their respective high schools during a week of acrimony. Thousands of students marched out of their classrooms to the street to protest a proposed curriculum review committee that they believed would lead to censoring a popular advanced history course.

While the board ultimately adopted tamer language, students are skeptical.

“It was like a smack on the face,” Sizemore said, referring to the board majority’s decision to move forward with the panel.

Both Sizemore and Maher said they believe the board majority chose to push their own political agenda instead of listening to a groundswell of public opposition. Opponents to the curriculum review panel outnumbered supporters by more than two-to-one during an expanded public comment before the board took its vote Thursday.

Witt, the board’s chairman, defended the 3-2 decision to expand the district’s current system to include teachers and students when curriculum is challenged and to make those meetings public.

“I’m delighted with the result we’ve come up with the curriculum review process,” he said by phone Monday. He said input from the district, community, and board were all a part of the final solution.

“Unanimity is not necessary for compromise,” Witt said. “I’m very confident that this is by far the best compromise we could have come up.”

While student organizers behind the network said they hope to establish working relationships with other community advocacy groups, their decisions are their own.

“We’re going to make our opinions known,” Sizemore said. “We’re not going to give up that easily.”

Besides reigniting the conversation about a recall, Jeffco Student Network for Change leaders plan to attend upcoming board meetings. 

“We will definitely be at the next meeting for sure, and the next one, and the next one, until we’re heard,” Maher said. “There is no stopping us now.”

Witt said he welcomes more students speaking during public comment.

“I think it’s great that our students want to involve themselves in our civic dialogue,” he said.

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.