Totally recalled

Jeffco school board members who pushed controversial changes ousted in recall

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)
Recall supporters react as the news was announced that the embattled school board majority conceded.

LAKEWOOD — After two years of political acrimony in the Colorado’s second largest school district, three conservative school board members were easily swept out of office Tuesday in a recall election that cost more than a million dollars and attracted national attention.

Replacing them are three candidates backed by a constituency of well-connected parents, high-profile county Democrats and the teachers union. They will serve the rest of the recall targets’ four-year terms.

Two other school board candidates supported by organizers of the recall also were elected, completely resetting the Jefferson County school board.

“It appears to me public education in Jefferson County is not for sale,” said school board member-elect Ali Lasell.

The conclusion of the tug-of-war for Jeffco Public Schools not only sets Jeffco Public Schools in a new, if not familiar, direction but also inflicts a high-profile blow to conservative education reform activists who support merit pay for teachers and expanding charter schools and voucher programs.

“Change is hard and sometimes the first agents of change suffer from a slow response,” said ousted school board president Ken Witt.

At odds in the recall were some of the nation’s thorniest education debates: how teachers are evaluated and paid, the role of charter schools and how to fund them, and how to pay for early childhood education.

The recall was a big gamble for the school board’s critics, considering that such efforts are expensive and rarely successful.

Ultimately, recall organizers were able to convince about 28,000 more Jeffco residence to cast a vote in this year’s election than in 2013. Those additional voters overwhelming voted to recall the school board majority in a race many political observers expected to be close.

For example, 82,868 voters in 2013 voted to put Julie Williams in office. In 2015, 104,845 voters voted to recall her, according to returns posted by 10:30 p.m.

Williams declined to comment on the results.

Organizers behind the recall, surprised by the two-to-one margin of victory, credited their vast network of parents, teachers and other civic leaders who volunteered thousands of hours to carry recall petitions, walk neighborhoods, host dinner parties and post relentlessly on social media.

“We might have been outspent by the other side,” said recall organizer Michael Blanton, “but we weren’t outworked.”

Jeffco Public Schools Superintendent Cindy Stevenson reacts to an outcry of support after announcing she'll leave the district in February. Stevenson said her decision came after a deteriorating relationship with the new majority on the district's board of education.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Jeffco Public Schools Superintendent Cindy Stevenson reacts to an outcry of support after announcing she’ll leave the district in February. Stevenson said her decision came after a deteriorating relationship with the new majority on the district’s board of education.

Genesis of a controversy
The three school board members recalled Tuesday — Witt, John Newkirk and Julie Williams — were elected by wide margins in 2013.

The three conservatives rode a wave of backlash against a controversial data management program being piloted in Jeffco schools that was backed by tech giant and education reform activist Bill Gates and a billion dollar statewide tax increase also on the ballot.

Further, the three candidates claimed Jeffco schools, which had a generally well-regarded reputation, could and should do better to boost student achievement, which was stagnant.

While critics claim the board majority was elected during a low turnout off-year election, 2013 boasted the highest ever turnout in Jefferson County in an odd election year: 43 percent. Turnout this year was 45 percent.

The day after the 2013 election, Superintendent Cindy Stevenson announced she’d leave her post at the end of the school year after leading the district for 12 years, later citing a breakdown in trust.

Later that spring after a national search, the school board, on a 3-2 vote, named Douglas County schools administrator Dan McMinimee as Jeffco’s new superintendent. His ties to Douglas County, where similar reforms were underway, and his salary would become recall campaign fodder.

Parent network sprung up early
The foundation for the recall effort’s ground game was built on websites and social networks created by a core group of parents that previously had the ear of superintendent Cindy Stevenson.

Soon after the school board majority was elected, parents and activists began videotaping school board meetings and uploaded clips to YouTube. Blogs tracking the school board majority’s every move sprung up. Facebook groups connected parents with civic leaders and teachers.

Once the recall was officially launched in late June, those YouTube filmmakers, bloggers and Facebook friends became ground troops that went door-to-door every weekend to wrangle votes.

“We couldn’t have done the recall without the network we’ve developed with parents groups and civic organizations,” Tina Gurdikan, one of the recall’s parent organizers.

Wheat Ridge High School teacher Arik Helm speaks during a March 14 bargaining session.
Wheat Ridge High School teacher Arik Helm speaks during a March 14 bargaining session.

Teacher pay was flagship reform
Perhaps the school board majority’s most contentious move involved how teachers are paid.

In September 2014, the majority approved a plan to link teachers’ raises to their annual evaluations. The plan, which did not include input from the teachers union, was based on a graph Witt drew by hand.

It called for the minimum salary to be raised to $38,000; teachers rated effective to earn a raise and those rated highly-effective to receive even more compensation. Teachers who were rated less than effective would receive no raise, unless their minimum salary was less than $38,000.

Previously, the minimum salary was $31,000 and teachers were given raises based on years of service and their education level.

The school board majority’s relationship with the teachers union only further deteriorated in 2015 when the board majority — as well as the board’s minority members — approved a higher salary scale for teachers who would join the district in 2015.

Jeffco veterans, who voluntarily took pay cuts and pay freezes during the previous five years, felt snubbed.

That vote — along with refusing to allocate $15 million in one-time money for raises — almost derailed contract negotiations with the union.

Ultimately, a new contract was signed and more than $21 million went to pay for teacher raises. But as critics pointed out, that averaged out to about a 1 percent raise per teacher, far less than the increase in cost-of-living.

Standley Lake High School students rallied near their school Sept. 19, 2014, to raise awareness over a proposed curriculum panel that would report to the school district's Board of Education. The rally was the same day as an apparent teacher "sick out."
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Standley Lake High School students rallied near their school Sept. 19, 2014, to raise awareness over a proposed curriculum panel that would report to the school district’s Board of Education. The rally was the same day as an apparent teacher “sick out.”

A contentious history lesson
The nation’s attention first turned to the turmoil in Jefferson County when thousands of high school students began protesting a 2014 proposal to create a new curriculum review committee taking aim at a recently-revised advanced U.S. History class.

Conservatives across the nation had complained that a revised Advanced Placement U.S. History class was too critical about the nation’s history and did not emphasize important political figures like Thomas Jefferson.

Teachers, parents and students saw school board member saw an overreach in Williams’ proposal, which asked for curriculum that promoted American Exceptionalism and discouraged social strife.

After two weeks of student walkouts, national headlines and a trending hashtag — #jeffcoschoolboardhistory — on Twitter, the school board majority passed a dramatically scaled-back resolution that placed parents and students on an existing curriculum review panel. They also made that panel responsible to the school board so those meetings would be public.

It was that debate over the U.S. history course that weighed heavily on Westminster voter Brian Little. He voted for the recall.

“I didn’t like that history thing they did last year,” he said Tuesday, referring to school board member Julie Williams’ proposal.

On the other side of the Advanced Placement U.S. History debate and recall was Don Fitzner. He said he believed the teachers union used students as pawns to drive a wedge in the community.

“The teachers union is out to railroad these guys,” he said. “They want to teach a version of history that blames America for everything that is wrong in the world.”

Big money on both sides flooded campaign
The combined costs for the recall and the campaign for two open seats is expected to swell beyond a million dollars and stands to be the most expensive school board election in state history. Much of that money will never be fully disclosed because of limited disclosure requirements.

The political committees Jeffco United for Action, which launched the recall, and Jeffco United Forward, were financed mostly by small donors throughout Jefferson County, including $13,000 collected by selling yard signs at $10 a pop.

Low-profile Democratic donors with deep pockets and the county’s teachers union also gave liberally to support the slate of candidates backed by recall organizers.

Meanwhile, three social welfare nonprofits came to the defense of the school board majority: Jeffco Students First Action, the Denver-based Independence Institute and Americans For Prosperity, which is backed by the conservative billionaire Koch Brothers.

Because the three organizations are nonprofits, they are free to raise an unlimited amount of money and so long as they don’t directly advocate for candidates, are free to keep their expenditures private.

Healing, but first a little gloating
While the recall effort garnered national attention, the issues and rhetoric were extremely personal.

In one instance, Witt’s youngest daughter was harassed at her high school. In another, a supporter of the board majority suggested members of teachers union should “executed.”

Jabs were exchanged on Twitter and the micro-social networking site Nextdoor. Accusations were flung back and forth on news websites.

All five newly elected school board members Tuesday night pledged to work with all members of the Jeffco Public Schools community , while also reveling in their easy victory.

“We didn’t just win this — we slammed them,” said Ron Mitchell, who will succeed Witt. “What an incredible thing: We the people pushed back against big money, pushed back against an agenda that was not good for our schools.”

School board member-elect Amanda Stevens took a different tone.

“We look forward to reconciliation and paths forward as a united Jeffco,” she told the audience.

Superintendent McMinimee, in a statement said he looked forward to working with the new school board to bridge the divide in the school community.

“We hope that our Jeffco community can heal its rifts and reunite to focus on ensuring that every Jeffco student is well-equipped and prepared to excel in his or her college life or career,” he said.

Chalkbeat reporter Ann Schimke contributed to this report.

This article was updated to include updated voter turnout numbers. 

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.