Jeffco Spring

Jeffco interrupted: Who’s writing what you’re reading?

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Jefferson County students, parents, and teachers rallied outside of the Jefferson County Ed Center last month to protest a proposed curriculum review committee. The rally was organized by a network of organizations, including the teachers union, and their online networks. Several websites and organizations have been created to serve as watchdogs and supporters of a conservative board majority.

The first post on JeffCoSchoolBoardWatch.org, a website created to track the efforts of a new school board majority who many fear will lead to radical change in their school district, was uploaded nearly a year ago on a January evening.

It reads, in part, “Specifically, we are worried about the ideological direction that they may try to take the district.”

Since then, hundreds of blog updates, links, videos, and comments have been posted on that website and several others that have sprung up. These websites, mostly critical of the Jefferson County Board of Education and its new majority, have served as part watchdog, part organizing tool, and part rumor mill.

While the motives driving the websites and their creators are clear, the identities of the individuals behind the sites and their financial backers are often not.

What’s happening in Jeffco is a smaller example of the phenomenon that’s happened all over the world of on-the-ground activism being spread and aided by online tools like WordPress and Twitter.

During a week’s worth of protests last month, students and adults panned a controversial proposal that would review an advanced history class. At the height of the protests, a hashtag “#JeffcoSchoolBoardHistory” was trending nationwide.

CHALKBEAT EXPLAINS: Jeffco interrupted 

“Social media has definitely become a player in how news is reported, but in some cases it also has a role in how news happens,” said Gil Asakawa, manager of student media at the University of Colorado-Boulder and an expert on social media. “Social media, because it gathers together all these voices of like mind, it can actually facilitate an event, like a protest. It happened in Iran during the elections there four years ago, and it has happened pretty much anywhere there’s a big policy protest.”

Both journalists and consumers of online media need to be wary.

“The accuracy of stuff that is out there in social media, well, you have to take it with a little bit of a grain of salt because of how easy it is to say whatever you want,” he said. “It’s the responsibility of the consumer, public to question everything and decide what sources you can trust.”

With promise of more websites and advocacy organizations to come, Chalkbeat Colorado decided to take a look at the who’s who of the online players in the debate as it’s unfolding.

Support Jeffco Kids

Position: Anti-board majority
Founded: February 2014
Founded by: Jeffco parents Shawna Fritzler and Jonna Levine. Fritzler has held many voluntary positions in the district, including serving as chair of the Strategic Planning and Advisory Council. Levine previously served on the district’s budget development committee.
Claim to fame: Support Jeffco Kids has a large library of videos, produced by another organization called Transparency Jeffco, from previous board meetings. The videos capture on film some of the board’s most controversial movements, giving viewers a sense of the tense atmosphere at board meetings. But, viewers should be aware, the videos are edited and are sometimes accompanied by commentary.
FYI: Support Jeffco Kids is a social welfare nonprofit that claims tax-exempt status under section 501(c)(4) of the federal tax code. Unlike other nonprofits, these organizations are allowed to endorse candidates and donate to candidates.
Social media: The group has a Twitter handle, @supportJeffkids, and is on Facebook.

JeffcoTruth.org

Position: Anti-teachers union
Founded: September 2014
Founded by: Unknown
Claim to fame: JeffcoTruth launched during a week of student walkouts with two videos. The videos intend to blame the Jefferson County Education Association for the student walkouts. In one video, a compilation of student interviews, the organization tries to reclaim the narrative of the curriculum review committee by attempting to discredit the students’ motives and highlighting the school board’s duty to review curriculum. Like some of the Support Jeffco Kids videos, the JeffcoTruth reels have a clear agenda. Unlike the Support Jeffco Kids video, they have a killer soundtrack featuring the ominous attack-ad themed music.
FYI: Rumors have circled across Jefferson County about who exactly is behind the website. Some point to local conservatives. Others suggest out-of-state money is behind the effort.
Social media: The group has a Twitter handle, @JeffcoTruths, and is on Facebook.

Stand Up For All Students

Position: Anti-board majority
Founded: Spring 2014
Founded by: Jefferson County Education Association
Claim to fame: More than anything, Stand Up has been more of a social movement and brand than a just website. The organization has launched and maintained a successful hashtag on Twitter, #standup4kids,” and “IRL” will begin to sell T-shirts. Other organizations have adopted similar branding. Stand Up has also led the organizing behind three countywide protests, including two along Wadsworth Boulevard that stretches 30 miles.
FYI: Critics of the union claim that rather than basing their arguments on fact, they’re using their outsized might and “field-tested” talking points of secrecy, waste, and disrespect to win emotional support. A union spokesman told Chalkbeat the union hasn’t polled on any language.
Social media: No official Twitter of Facebook presence. Advocates are encouraged to tweet with the hashtag “#standup4kids.”

JeffCo School Board Watch

Position: Anti-board majority
Founded: January 2014
Founded by: Unknown
Claim to fame: No other website spooks supporters of the board majority like JCSBW, short for JeffCo School Board Watch. Some believe it’s backed by local Democrats. But sources close to the organization and those who claim to have interacted with the organization say that’s not true. Perhaps JCSBW’s signature post is this breakdown of all the elements of a recall effort.
FYI: If you’re looking for shortcuts to specific pages on the actual Jeffco Public Schools website, JSBW is a great place to start. It has links to meeting agendas, school ratings, and email addresses for board members.
Social media: The group has a Twitter handle, @JCSBW.

Other organizations and resources

Before there was a new board majority, there was already an active online ecosystem surrounding Jeffco Public Schools. Here is a look at a couple of additional players who have continued to play an active role as the politics have intensified.

Jeffco Students First

Founded in 2011, Jeffco Students First has been leading the charge for education reform ever since. In 2013, the nonprofit’s political arm Jeffco Students First Action supported the candidates who now make up the board majority and has continued to do so. Its website features talking points and blog posts that generally back up — and sometimes elaborates — the reasons board majority’s thinking. Jeffco Students First also distributes the Jeffco Observer, an education only publication. The organization has a Facebook page and Twitter handle, @JCStudentsFirst.

Jeffco PTA

This isn’t your mother’s PTA bake sale. One of the organizations most critical of the board majority has been the Jeffco Parents and Teachers Assocation. Led by Michele Patterson, the Jeffco PTA is a regular at board meetings and played a role in several of the countywide protests. When not acting like a watchdog, the organizations help recruit parents to volunteer on a number of school committees. It has a Facebook page and Twitter handle, @JeffcoPTA.

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.