Total Recall

6 candidates, including longtime critic, in running to replace Jeffco school board recall targets

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
School board recall candidates Matthew Dhieux and Susan Harmon chat with incumbent John Newkirk after a candidate forum.

Six Jefferson County residents have collected enough signatures to be considered for the school board if an effort to recall three of its current members is successful, the clerk’s office said.

The final candidate to file paperwork before Monday’s deadline was Jefferson County parent Regan Benson, a special education advocate and longtime rabble-rouser in the district. She joins Paula Noonan and Ron Mitchell in the race to replace school board president Ken Witt in the southern part of the county that includes most of Littleton.

Benson’s candidacy adds a new wrinkle to the charged election: The board members facing recall have been criticized for taking right-wing stances on charter schools and the district’s budget, but Benson, who has ties to the Tea Party, might be even more conservative.

Benson made headlines in 2012 when her son was arrested for wearing an anti-Obama shirt to school on a day when First Lady Michelle Obama was visiting. Authorities eventually dropped the charges and, in a settlement brokered by the American Civil Liberties Union, the district agreed to pay the Benson family $4,000. Benson’s subsequent clashes with school administrators and with former superintendent Cindy Stevenson at one point led her to be banned from her son’s high school.

Since then she has gone on to create the Every Student Matters Project, a nonprofit that advocates for students with special needs.

The other five candidates to replace school board members who are facing recall had already filed their paperwork.

If the voters choose to recall John Newkirk, they’ll be asked to choose between Matt Dhieux and Susan Harmon. Brad Rupert is the lone candidate running to replace school board member Julie Williams.

In the recall election, voters will decide whether to recall each of the three school board members individually and then pick a replacement. Rupert, Harmon, and Mitchell are running as a joint slate backed by prominent Jefferson County Democrats including U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter.

The organization that spurred the recall claims that Witt, Williams, and Newkirk have wasted taxpayer dollars, disrespected the community, and met illegally in private. The recall targets counter that they’ve authorized building a school without increasing the district’s debt, given teachers raises, and opened access to school board meetings by streaming them live on the Internet.

In addition to the hotly contested recall effort, four candidates are also running for two open seats on the board. Ali Lasell and Kim Johnson are running to represent the northwest corner of the county that includes most of Arvada. Tori Merritts and Amanda Stevens are running to represent the central portion of the county that includes most of Lakewood.

Under state law, Monday was the deadline to file paperwork to be a candidate in the recall election. No other resident has an outstanding petition, a spokeswoman for the clerk’s office said.

But a conflict between state law and the constitution could still disrupt the election and potentially add more candidates to the ballot.

That’s because the Colorado Constitution allows residents to petition onto the ballot until 15 days prior to the day of an election — or Oct. 19 for this election. But state law set Monday as the deadline to declare an intention to run.

The secretary of state pointed to this conflict in a letter to both the Jefferson County and Broomfield County clerks, but ultimately, the secretary’s office approved election plans for both counties.

Still, someone who wants to join the ballot in the next few weeks would have grounds for a legal challenge. Such a challenge prevented mail-in ballots — which tend to be for Democratic candidates — from being used in the 2013 election to recall two Democratic lawmakers who helped pass gun-control legislation.

creating community

Seeking to broaden its support base, Jeffco looks at building bridges to community

Jeffco superintendent Jason Glass at the Boys & Girls in Lakewood (Marissa Page, Chalkbeat).

When Elizabeth Panzer’s 10-year-old son was diagnosed with cancer four years ago, the school community in northwest Arvada organized a schedule to prepare and deliver meals to her family those first few months.

“The community of that school, they kept us afloat,” Panzer said. “That was powerful for me because I didn’t know that many people in the school because I hadn’t been very involved.”

It was that experience of the community coming together that brought Panzer to join the group tasked with delivering recommendations to Jeffco Public Schools for how the district can engage and build better relationships with the community.

Superintendent Jason Glass said he convened the group after hearing during his listening tours that too many people in the county have no connection to the schools. Forging stronger ties with more folks is especially critical this year as the Jeffco district contemplates placing a tax measure on the November ballot to produce new local revenue.

“We recognized we have this disconnect, and we have an understanding that if we can increase that connection, we can also increase support for public education,” Glass said.

Panzer said she wondered if the same community strength that helped her family could be fostered to create a “give-and-take” relationship that benefits other children who may be struggling.

“There are so many people who are struggling, and they’re quiet,” Panzer said. “They’re not the ones involved. They’re the ones on the edges. The more connected we are, the better able we are to scoop up the ones on the edges who need help.”

From any school district’s perspective, there are many reasons to foster community engagement. Schools could use partnerships with local businesses to create apprenticeship opportunities for students. Community members can make good volunteers, mentors, or donors. And students can learn something from giving back to their community, too.

Glass cited all of those reasons. He has asked the task force to give him recommendations on better engaging the community — particularly Jeffco residents who aren’t connected to schools — by September.

Next meeting:

  • 6 p.m. Monday July 30
    at the Ed Center, 1829 Denver W Dr, Golden
  • More information on providing input online, here

The tight deadline reveals another reason improving community engagement is important to the district now. If Jeffco’s school board next month decides to ask voters for increased local funding this November, the district must prepare to communicate their needs to voters.

Two years ago, the district asked voters for new dollars to improve salaries, add new counselors at elementary schools, and to improve buildings by adding space and by replacing older schools. But voters rejected both requests.

“The work of this community engagement task force is really important for that work coming up,” Glass said.

Many put the percentage of Jeffco residents who don’t have a connection to schools as high as 75 percent. Using rough estimates from the district including 86,000 students, 14,000 employees and about 130,000 parents, that would leave almost 60 percent of the estimated 575,000 residents of the county without a direct link to schools.

So far, the task force of about 35 people has met twice. Its volunteer members are asking for more input from the community and for more participants to help draft the recommendations. Anyone interested in joining still may. The next meeting is at 6 p.m. July 30.

Katie Winner, a district mom on the task force, said many participants have shared stories of how they were involved at their school or examples of problems they faced in trying to get access to a school in their neighborhood.

The task force will look at ways to address barriers people have faced in connecting with schools. It also will look at what kind of engagement makes a difference and is worth the district’s support. And they will consider if different strategies are needed for various segments of the community such as senior citizens, faith based organizations, or local businesses.

“We have to think about policy for an entire district,” Winner said. “So, it’s challenging.”

Panzer said she believes the group should look at having more open schools and creating trust.

“I believe the power will come from us reaching out to the community first,” Panzer said. “That starts to build trust.”

Glass said he didn’t create the group with any preconceived ideas about what kind of recommendations it should create, but instead said he wants it to lead to a better relationship with the community.

“I’m really relying on the members of this task force to draw on the wisdom of the community,” Glass said. “Schools and districts can operate with a sort of fortress mentality. We haven’t necessarily done the work to show the community we honor and value them. We realize there is work to do to show the community there’s outreach that its genuine and real.”

task force

Jeffco takes collaborative approach as it considers later school start times

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

The Jeffco school district is weighing pushing back start times at its middle and high schools, and the community task force set up to offer recommendations is asking for public input.

Nearby school districts, such as those in Cherry Creek and Greeley, have rolled out later start times, and Jeffco — the second largest school district in Colorado — in December announced its decision to study the issue.

Thompson and Brighton’s 27J school districts are pushing back start times at their secondary schools this fall.

The 50-person Jeffco task force has until January to present their recommendations to the district.

Supporters of the idea to start the school day later cite research showing that teenagers benefit from sleeping in and often do better in school as a result.

Jeffco is considering changing start times after parents and community members began pressing superintendent Jason Glass to look at the issue. Middle and high schools in the Jeffco district currently start at around 7:30 a.m.

The task force is inviting community members to offer their feedback this summer on the group’s website, its Facebook page, or the district’s form, and to come to its meetings in the fall.

Katie Winner, a Jeffco parent of two and one of three chairs of the start times task force, said she’s excited about how collaborative the work is this year.

“It’s a little shocking,” Winner said. “It’s really hard to convey to people that Jeffco schools wants your feedback. But I can say [definitively], I don’t believe this is a waste of time.”

The task force is currently split into three committees focusing on reviewing research on school start times, considering outcomes in other districts that have changed start times, and gathering community input. The group as a whole will also consider how schedule changes could affect transportation, sports and other after school activities, student employment, and district budgets.

Members of the task force are not appointed by the district, as has been typical in district decision-making in years past. Instead, as a way to try to generate the most community engagement, everyone who expressed interest was accepted into the group. Meetings are open to the public, and people can still join the task force.

“These groups are short-term work groups, not school board advisory committees. They are targeting some current issues that our families are interested in,” said Diana Wilson, the district’s chief communications officer. “Since the topics likely have a broad range of perspectives, gathering people that (hopefully) represent those perspectives to look at options seems like a good way to find some solutions or ideas for positive/constructive changes.”

How such a large group will reach a consensus remains to be seen. Winner knows the prospect could appear daunting, but “it’s actually a challenge to the group to say: be inclusive.”

For now the group is seeking recommendations that won’t require the district to spend more money. But Winner said the group will keep a close eye on potential tax measures that could give the district new funds after November. If some measure were to pass, it could give the group more flexibility in its recommendations.