Adams 12 school board candidate sent dozens of CRT-obsessed emails

Ben Helgeson harassed the superintendent and a teacher over the equity plan and anti-racist training courses

Photo shows Adams 12 Five Star Schools district offices in Thornton. The blue entryway has a sharp angle with a large sign with the district name.
Adams 12 Five Star Schools is the sixth largest school district in Colorado and serves a diverse suburban community north of Denver. (Screen capture of Google Maps)

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As a candidate for school board, Ben Helgeson says he wants to serve as a bridge between parents and teachers, opening up dialogue and restoring trust.

As a parent, Helgeson sent dozens of emails to district administrators, teachers, and union leaders accusing a teacher of being a “priestess” of critical race theory, accusing the union of pushing a racist, religious ideology, and accusing Superintendent Chris Gdowski of being complicit in it all. 

Helgeson is part of a slate of conservative candidates seeking to shift the balance of power in Adams 12 Five Star Schools, a diverse suburban district north of Denver. It’s one of dozens of Colorado districts seeing contested school board races this year shaped by religious and political divisions. Teachers unions and conservative groups are spending big in an effort to sway voters. 

In Adams 12, the public rhetoric is more muted. Candidates on both sides talk about paying teachers more, improving academic outcomes, and keeping students safe. But Helgeson also is deeply concerned the teachers union is pushing critical race theory into Adams 12 classrooms. 

Chalkbeat obtained many of Helgeson’s emails through a public records request. Some were redacted or withheld. Helgeson’s first complaints involved quarantines and masking rules, but soon he was writing almost entirely about critical race theory. Critical race theory is an academic field that analyzes how race is embedded in American laws and policies, but it has become a catch-all term for progressive approaches in education. 

Helgeson wrote that teacher training courses offered by the Colorado Education Association on books like Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility” and Ibram X. Kendi’s “How To Be an Antiracist” were themselves systematically racist and would pave the way to authoritarianism. An Adams 12 high school teacher led one of the courses.

In one email, which bore the subject line “Happy Memorial Day and Addressing Inconsistencies,” Helgeson linked to a proposal from Kendi that the United States should create a Department of Anti-racism to monitor policies and public officials’ statements and intervene to prevent racial disparities. 

“That would mean, for example, that Ibram or one of his racial gestapo deputies could enter my home, slaughter my family, harvest our organs, take all of our material possessions and financial resources and re-allocate them as they determine, in accordance with their supreme power,” Helgeson wrote. 

Helgeson said in an interview with Chalkbeat that he stands behind the substance of what he wrote, including his fears that anti-racism could lead to bloodshed, but he has some regrets about how he expressed himself. 

“I’ll be honest,” he said. “That was me feeling like they’re not going to listen to me anyway, so I’ll say whatever I want to say. I felt like I was told to basically shut up.” 

Political divisions hard to discern in Adams 12

The 35,000-student Adams 12 district is the sixth largest in Colorado and serves a diverse student body that is 42% white, 44% Latino, and 6.5% Asian American. More than 45% of students qualify for free or reduced price lunch, a measure of poverty. Those students are concentrated in the southern part of the district, while the northern half is more affluent. 

The district is also politically diverse, with a large share of unaffiliated voters, and saw bitter disagreements over remote learning, masks, and quarantines during the first year of the COVID pandemic.

Two years ago, while conservatives won board majorities in many Republican-dominated parts of Colorado, the blue and purple communities along the Front Range mostly saw union-backed candidates who favored progressive approaches prevail. Conservatives picked up seats here and there, including one on the Adams 12 board. 

This year, conservative education group Ready Colorado is backing Helgeson, Rebecca Elmore, and Ken Murphy-Montoya, while the teachers union is backing incumbent board president Lori Goldstein and newcomers Paula Battistelli and Alexis Marsh-Holschen. 

Libertarian Brian Klein is running independently. 

In questionnaires posted on the Adams 12 district website, candidates describe their deep ties to the district and their commitment to improving education. Political divides are hard to discern. Mailers from independent expenditure committees, though, are making the divisions clearer. Helgeson and Murphy-Montoya also participated in a voter guide prepared by Transform Colorado, a group that seeks to “restore biblical values in the public square.” They answered questions about pronouns, parental rights and sex education. 

Equity audit, anti-racist training prompted emails

Helgeson worked as a teacher in neighboring Westminster Public Schools for 19 years. He names Thomas Sowell, an economist, professor, and prominent Black conservative, as an inspiration. Helgeson was placed on unpaid leave in October 2021 because he refused to get vaccinated against COVID. He sued the district. Court records show he reached a settlement last year. In an interview, he described this as a time of grief and suffering, but said it also opened a door to a new opportunity as the manager of a fly fishing business. 

If elected, Helgeson said he would work to recruit and retain experienced teachers with higher pay, signing bonuses, and incentives to work in high poverty schools. He would promote co-teaching and disciplinary practices that support safe schools, he said.

“The campaign that he’s running is not representative of the person that I experienced,” the teacher who was targeted in Helgeson’s emails told Chalkbeat. “At least stand in who you are as a person. If you are going to make threats to educators, at least be authentic and not this other person.”

Asked if his responses to candidate questionnaires would give voters enough information to understand where he stood on controversial issues, Helgeson said that was a good question, and he doesn’t know. If the district stays focused on academics, it shouldn’t come up, he added.

In an interview with Chalkbeat, the teacher asked to remain anonymous because she fears further harassment. She said Helgeson never directly called for her to be fired, but she was alarmed by how he described her in his emails and that he emailed her again after Gdowski told Helgeson not to. It was especially upsetting to be accused of supporting authoritarian beliefs because her family includes people killed and imprisoned by both the Nazis and the Soviets, she said. In one email, Helgeson told the teacher and Gdowski the “cautionary tale” of a California teacher who resigned under pressure after a viral video showed him making left-wing statements. A district investigation also found he violated policy. 

District administrators had previously told Helgeson that CRT was not taught in Adams 12. A letter from Gdowski to parents describing a planned equity audit was evidence to the contrary, Helgeson wrote, describing equity as “the holy grail of Critical Race Theorists. It’s their god.” 

Correspondence shows district leaders were concerned about the volume and tone of the emails and discussed how best to respond. Helgeson says now that he particularly regrets calling the superintendent “an enemy of the state” and a “complete failure.” The school board is responsible for hiring and supervising the superintendent. Helgeson said he was deeply frustrated at the time, didn’t appreciate the competing pressures Gdowski was under, and “was encouraged by other parents who were saying far worse.”

Helgeson still has concerns about training courses offered by the union. 

“A parent might hear from a school that CRT is not part of a given curriculum, but a course like that is designed not necessarily to come up with curriculum but to embed some of these ideas that are highly politically charged, unproven, and even religious into the classroom,” he said in an interview.

The teacher targeted by Helgeson said her anti-racist philosophy is about being aware of her own biases and accounting for them so she can be a better teacher, not about any lessons she teaches to students. In the classroom, she said she’s very careful about keeping her political beliefs private so students can reach their own conclusions. 

Asked what he would do about these courses, which teachers pay for and take on their own time, if elected, Helgeson hedged. He’s just one person, he said, and there would need to be a conversation. But he wants parents to know what kind of training teachers are seeking out, and said teachers should only move up the salary schedule when they take courses the district deems useful. 

Teachers who engage in what he sees as political indoctrination from any direction, he said, may be well-intentioned and should be given an opportunity to change their ways. But if they don’t, “now you have a political mercenary and not a public educator.”

The election is Nov. 7.

Bureau Chief Erica Meltzer covers education policy and politics and oversees Chalkbeat Colorado’s education coverage. Contact Erica at emeltzer@chalkbeat.org.

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