(Re)Call Me Maybe

Organizers say they have double the signatures necessary for a Jeffco school board recall

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Jeffco United for Action organizer Wendy McCord speaks to the news media Wednesday while employees of the Jefferson County Clerk and Recorder's office begins processing recall petitions. Supporters of the recall effort believe they have double the number of signatures needed to put the recall question on the ballot.

GOLDEN —  Jefferson County residents want an electoral do-over in November, supporters of an effort to recall three school board members in suburban Denver said today when they turned in double the necessary signatures to put the issue in front of voters.

In the 17 days since the recall effort was launched, more than 37,000 Jefferson County residents signed the petitions to seek a recall of school board members Ken Witt, Julie Williams, and John Newkirk, organizers with Jeffco United For Action said outside the county clerk and recorder’s office.

Organizers had 60 days to collect just 15,000 signatures per board member.

“The message is clear, the people of Jefferson County want to hold this board majority accountable and demand a recall vote on November 3,” said Tina Gurdikian, one of the Jeffco United’s leaders.

The county clerk now has 15 days to validate those signatures. There will be another 15-day period for any resident to challenge the signatures. At that point the clerk may set a date for the recall election.

State law leaves some room for ambiguity when it comes to putting voter initiatives on the ballot. But advocates of the recall believe they’ve hit the sweet spot on a complicated timeline in order to put the decision before voters in November.

PREVIOUSLY: Why the Jeffco recall effort matters to a classroom near you

“As parents, as a community, we did everything we could to put his on the November ballot,” said organizer Wendy McCord. “Now it’s up to our opponents to respect the voters and put this on the November ballot.”

If the recall is not placed on the general ballot, then Jeffco Public Schools will have to pick up the costly six-figure tab for a special election.

Jeffco school board president Witt, who is being targeted for recall, said he welcomes the opportunity to have a dialogue with the public about his track record. But he declined to discuss whether he had any plans to counter the recall effort with a campaign of his own.

“I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished,” he said. “We heard loudly from voters that they want a focus on academic achievement, an expansion of choice, and ensuring we have accountability. I intend to remain focused on those goals. I am committed to ensuring Jeffco students get the great education they deserve.”

 

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.