SBE gets an earful

State Board gets taste of Jeffco controversy

Toni Walker expressed her opinions with her blouse is criticizing the new AP U.S. history course at the State Board of Education.

Citizens who spoke at the State Board of Education’s monthly public comment session Wednesday gave members a taste of the passions that have roiled the Jefferson County Schools in recent weeks.

The Jeffco board “is attempting to bring politics and a private agenda to this wonderful district we love,” said retired Jeffco teacher Kristine Kraft.

The morning comment session was pretty one-sided, with four witnesses criticizing the Jeffco board and no one speaking up in support. Ann Rutkovsky, representing the Jeffco League of Woman Voters, said, “Our observers have become increasingly concerned about what’s happening on that board.”

Over the last year SBE comment sessions have become a well-used forum for public remarks about a variety of issues, many of which the board has no authority over. The comment sessions have been dominated by Common Core and testing, and the board recently started scheduling two sessions per meeting to accommodate the public.

Board members generally don’t respond to comments but made an exception to that on Wednesday morning.

“I think the State Board of Education would be remiss if we didn’t say anything,” said Democrat Elaine Gantz Berman of Denver. “I think you should continue being strong and continue representing your perspective,” she said. “Hold the school board accountable.”

Democrat Jane Goff of Arvada, a former Jeffco teacher and administrator, said the conflict “is extremely upsetting to see,” adding, “I know that Jefferson County will rise up together and find a solution.”

Board chair Paul Lundeen, a Republican from Monument, said, “I am always heartened when people are engaged in their civic life” but cautioned that people who want “to go back to the way it was” should remember that student achievement levels are not what they should be in Jeffco or statewide.

And Republican member Marcia Neal of Grand Junction reminded the speakers, “Colorado is a local control state. I hope you all know we can’t do anything about local districts.”

Other speakers Wednesday were critical of the AP U.S. History course, an element in the Jeffco debate.

Retired Air Force Col. Curtis Dale of Parker – wearing full uniform – said he was “insulted, disappointed and even infuriated” about the “advocacy history” he believes is in that program. “It is biased against America.”

Jeffco’s troubles got less attention during the second, late-afternoon session. Speakers focused their ire on the new AP course – many criticized the perceived lack of military history – and the Common Core State Standards.

Here’s a sampling:

  • “Anyone who supports this APUSH does not deserve to live in America.” Anita Stapleton, Pueblo. Stapleton has become a recognized anti-Common Core activist. She also recited lyrics from singer Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.,” prompting her supporters to stand up.
  • “My grandchildren will not be allowed to take AP history or any of the Common Core exams. I can tell you right now this grandmother is not going down without a fight. Are we trying to make brown shirts out of our school children?” – Andrea Gilmore, Denver
  • “Common Core is a global plan.” Delores Kopp, who identified herself as a “concerned citizen”
  • The allegedly un-American tone of the AP U.S. history course “even makes young people more susceptible to Islamic indoctrination.” Mary Tuneberg of Adams County

A couple of speakers also supported the embattled Jeffco board. Toni Walker of Loveland said, “I applaud the Jeffco board for standing up.” Jeffco resident Dee Oltmans said, “We have someone who is speaking up for us, and we love it.”

In contrast to the morning session, board members didn’t say anything following the afternoon testimony.

Decision day

Unity prevails: Jeffco incumbents easily beat back challengers

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Meredith Van Deman signs the back of her 2014 mail-in ballot outside the Columbine Library in Littleton before turning it in.

The status quo has held in Jeffco Public Schools.

Two incumbents facing opposition easily defeated two challengers, ensuring that the governing board of the state’s second largest school district will remain united 5-0.

In District 1, incumbent Brad Rupert won by 20 percentage points over against Matt Van Gieson, a parent and former president of the parent teacher organization at a Jeffco charter school, Golden View Classical Academy.

In District 2, incumbent Susan Harmon claimed a similar margin over Erica Shields, a conservative Jeffco parent.

Current board president Ron Mitchell ran unopposed. The other two seats are not up for a vote this election.

The current board, supported in large part by the teachers union, was elected in 2015. That election, voters recalled three conservative board members and voted in five new members who have since hired a new superintendent, signed an extended contract with the teachers union, given some pay raises and voted to close an elementary school.

The school board incumbents raised considerably more money than the challengers, including thousands of dollars from the teachers union.

 

Keeping the peace

Jeffco voters to decide whether school board will remain united or include dissenting voices

Students at Edgewater Elementary School in Jefferson County work on iPads during class.

With little controversy, no national media attention and control of the school board not at stake, this fall’s school board race in Jefferson County has centered on whether a board that is consistently united could use a dissenting voice.

Three of the five board of education seats are up for grabs, but only two of the incumbents have challengers — a single one in each race.

A win by the two challengers, both conservatives who oppose much of what the current board has done, would not change many of the votes or direction of the school district, but it could change the conversations. Some voters now say they are weighing whether to vote to keep the stability of the current board, which often vote unanimously, or whether more diversity of thought is needed. One question is whether different voices would repeat the drama of the previous, split, school board that saw conservative members ousted in a recall election.

“Everyone in Jeffco wants us to commit to maintaining civility,” said Ron Mitchell, the board president, who is the member running unopposed. “I don’t see that changing.”

Some who support the current board say even one dissenting voice could slow down progress, distract from the current work or create doubt in voters if the district asks for a tax increase soon.

“I believe that even one or two detractors on the board will stagnate progress,” said Jeffco parent Kelly Johnson, who helped recall previous board members. “Our district has already paid too much in lost opportunities with the chaos of the past.”

Erica Shields and Matt Van Gieson, the two challengers, say they want to work with the current board.

“We are not there to disrupt,” Shields said. “We are not about that. We don’t want to return to the old type of board mentality. We want to make things better.”

The incumbents have a huge money advantage.

Those current members running for re-election — Mitchell, Susan Harmon and Brad Rupert — supported by the teachers union, have raised large amounts of money as of the last finance reports filed two weeks ago. The two in the contested race each had more than $40,000 raised, compared to about $3,200 raised by Shields and $2,300 raised by Van Gieson.

Mailers and yard signs for the incumbents advocate for all three together.

Since their election two years ago, the current board members have hired a new superintendent in Jason Glass, approved an extended contract with teachers union, given teachers a pay raise and advocated for better school funding.

Opponents Shields and Van Gieson say, recent events pushed them to consider running for school board independently, but now both also are running together, asking for voters to support them as a team.

Shields said she is running after realizing the work she does as a volunteer helping homeless people doesn’t address the root causes of the problem, which she now sees as a lack of good education opportunities for everyone.

Van Gieson, said that he hears too often from people who feel they no longer have a voice on the current school board. He said he official decided he wanted to run after a spring board meeting in which several community members asked the board not to close their schools.

School closures have not been a major issue for voters, most say, because Glass has said he would pause any school closure recommendations until district officials can create a better system for evaluating if a school should close.

Instead, campaign messages and questions at forums have centered on typical political divisions such the sources of campaign contributions, the support of teachers and positions on charter schools or private school vouchers.

“Sometimes I think there are issues created by others that are really just divisive wedges,” Mitchell said. “For example, charter schools. Every year we seem to try to drive the charter school wedge into the election.”

Mitchell said the current board is not against charters schools. In previous board discussions, Jeffco board members have expressed a desire for more authority to decide if a charter application is good enough for Jeffco, instead of just legally meeting its requirements to open.

Van Gieson, who is on the parent-teacher organization of a charter school in Jeffco, said he thinks charter schools are treated differently in Jeffco, and if elected, wants to help all schools have similar accountability.

“Where a charter school has to come in front of the board and answer for lower achievement, it would be beneficial to do the same things for neighborhood schools,” Van Gieson said.

The campaign also has included an increased focused on equity.

Joel Newton, founder of the local nonprofit Edgewater Collective, joined Jefferson County Association for Gifted Children to hosted, for the first time, a forum just for discussions on the needs of diverse learners. In previous years, the Jefferson County Association for Gifted Children has hosted a similar forum alone.

“I don’t think that was part of the conversation in the past,” Newton said. “The interesting thing now is both sides have a piece of the puzzle. One side talks about school choice…the other side makes the argument that poverty is the real issue.”

Glass, the superintendent, has emphasized the importance of the school district working with community partners to tackle poverty and other out-of-school factors that impact learning.

Tony Leffert, a Jeffco parent who lives in Golden and supports the new superintendent, said the issue on his mind is keeping the current board on track. He said adding a dissenting voice to the board, could set up a possibility for the minority opinion to take control of the board in two years.

“Given the last school board election that we had, every school board election is important in Jeffco going forward,” Leffert said. “We do not want a repeat of that again.”

Clarification: This story has been updated to note that a forum on the needs of diverse learners, which was hosted for the first time with the Edgewater Collective, has been hosted in the past by Jefferson County Association for Gifted Children.