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.

Idea pitch

Despite concerns, Jeffco school board agrees to spend $1 million to start funding school innovations

Students at Lumberg Elementary School in Jeffco Public Schools work on their assigned iPads during a class project. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

Jeffco school employees can apply for a piece of a $1 million fund that will pay for an innovative idea for improving education in the district.

The school board for Jeffco Public Schools on Thursday approved shifting $1 million from the district’s rainy day fund to an innovation pool that will be used to provide grants to launch the new ideas.

The district will be open for applications as soon as Friday.

The board had reservations about the plan, which was proposed by the new schools superintendent, Jason Glass, in November, as part of a discussion about ways to encourage innovation and choice in the district. The board was concerned about how quickly the process was set to start, whether there was better use of the money, and how they might play a role in the process.

Glass conceded that the idea was an experiment and that pushing ahead so quickly might create some initial problems.

“This effort is going to be imperfect because it’s the first time that we’ve done it and we don’t really know how it’s going to turn out,” Glass said. “There are going to be problems and there are going to be things we learn from this. It’s sort of a micro experiment. We’re going to learn a lot about how to do this.”

During the November discussion, Glass had suggested one use for the innovation money: a new arts school to open in the fall to attract students to the district. He said that the money could also be used to help start up other choice schools. School board members balked, saying they were concerned that a new arts school would compete with existing arts programs in Jeffco schools. The board, which is supported by the teachers union, has been reluctant to open additional choice schools in the district, instead throwing most of their support behind the district-run schools.

Board members also expressed concerns about what they said was a rushed process for starting the fund.

The plan calls for teachers, school leaders and other district employees to apply for the money by pitching their idea and explaining its benefit to education in the district. A committee will then consider the proposals and recommend those that should be funded out of the $1 million.

Board members said they felt it was too soon to start the application process on Friday. They also questioned why the money could not also help existing district programs.

“I think a great deal of innovation is happening,” said board member Amanda Stevens.

Some board members also suggested that one of them should serve on the committee, at least to monitor the process. But Glass was adamant.

“Do you want me to run the district and be the superintendent or not?” Glass asked the board. “I can set this up and execute it, but what you’re talking about is really stepping over into management, so I caution you about that.”

Glass later said he might be open to finding another way for board members to be involved as observers, but the board president, Ron Mitchell, said he would rather have the superintendent provide thorough reports about the process. The discussion is expected to resume at a later time.

Stevens said many of the board’s questions about details and the kind of ideas that will come forth will, presumably, be answered as the process unfolds.

“Trying is the only way we get any of that information,” Stevens said.

year in review

A new superintendent and a new vision for Jeffco schools in 2017

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Jeffco Public Schools started the year making big news when its board of education decided to open a search for a new superintendent. Former Superintendent Dan McMinimee left the role in March before a new leader had been hired.

Just before he left, McMinimee proposed to the Jeffco school board a plan to close five schools as a way to save money so the district could raise staff salaries as the board had directed.

The schools recommended for closure served a disproportionate number of low-income students and housed several centers for students with special needs. They also included a high-performing school. Officials said they did not consider academic achievement in selecting the schools.

In addition to closing five schools, the proposal suggested cuts to other programs, including one for helping students develop social and emotional skills and one that helped students struggling with reading.

But in a last-minute move, the superintendent altered the proposal during a school board meeting just before the board was set to vote. In the end, the board voted to close one elementary school and spare four others as well as the programs.

A few months later, the school board selected Jason Glass as the district’s new superintendent. Glass, who was a superintendent in Eagle County at the time, had a history as a reformer helping create pay-for-performance systems. But he changed his support of some reforms after learning about education systems around the world.

One of the first changes Glass announced in Jeffco was a timeout on any school closure recommendations while district officials review and create a new process for deciding if school closures are necessary and if so, which schools to close.

Glass also published his vision for Jeffco, which will have the district take a closer look at inequities and outside factors that affect students, such as poverty. At least one school was already experimenting with that work by moving to a community school model. And the district was already considering outside factors as they were rolling out restorative practices, which change how school leaders respond to student discipline issues.

More recently, Glass asked the board, which will remain the same after the November election, to consider an expansion of school choice in Jeffco with proposals to create new options schools such as an arts school to help attract new students to the district. District officials may release more information about that plan and other changes, like a study on high school start times, in the coming months.