D-11: The Money’s On The Boot

Recall election countdown is now in full swing in Colorado Springs’ largest school district, and the money’s on Eric Christen and Sandy Shakes getting booted off the island on Tuesday.

In recent weeks, Shakes – a feisty former teacher who was elected three years ago in a massive pro-voucher coup, only to switch allegiances and then back again – has been uncharacteristically quiet. But Christen – fanatically anti-union and anti-public school – has refused to go quietly. In addition to launching an embarrassingly personal website full of modeling pictures of himself half-dressed, Christen repeatedly threatened/promised to resign, which he finally did too late for it to actually count.. (Cynical observers have theorized that Christen was trying to throw a confusing wrench into the recall, in the hopes that voters would think that since he’s already quit the board, they don’t have to vote him out.) 

The outcome will be known on Wednesday, and in the meantime, let’s revisit some of the livelier moments of the Christen/Shakes regime. (Though truth be told, the other two horsemen of the Apocalypse, Craig Cox and Willie Breazell,  have certainly added a certain, hmmm, je ne sais quoi, to the board after all four were elected as a “pro-reform slate” in 2003. For whatever reason, Cox and Breazell aren’t the targets of recall – at least not yet.Some of the most eye-popping interludes have occurred in the middle of board meetings. That’s when Christen would often go into orbit, much to the chagrin, or delight – depending on your outlook – to audience members and folks watching on the TV at home. And yes, the theater of the absurd often included the four so-called “reformers” feeding off each other. Like when Christen called Shakes a “buffoon,” or when he criticized a resolution recognizing Cinco de Mayo, which had been requested by Breazell.

In October, 2005, when Christen and Shakes were enemies, Shakes appeared to go out of her way to push all his buttons. During one board meeting, Christen’s pal Breazell was claiming that the system (District 11) is “broke.”

Breazell repeated it a few times: “We’re broke,” he said. “D-11 is broke.”

Shakes finally jumped in, correcting Breazell’s grammar: “I don’t know if I would have used that term; I might have said ‘broken,'” she said.

Christen, enraged, leaned forward, to the microphone.

“Your pettiness knows no bounds,” he boomed at Shakes. “You owe Director Breazell an apology. You are petty and shameless. You are not even a serious person.”

Christen has also repeatedly attacked parents and other residents living in the boundaries of the 30,000-student district, including in responses to their e-mailed notes. Here are just a couple of gems, obtained through a Colorado Open Records Act request:

On April 13, 2004, D-11 resident Lynn Johnston wrote a letter to the school board: “I am wholeheartedly opposed to vouchers! They will undermine public education and create a caste system in the schools,” she wrote. “And as a parent, I advocate responsible discussion of homosexuality in sex education classes.”

Christen wrote her back:

“I have news for you, there’s already a caste system in education and I intend to help end it. Poor people deserve hope too and I am not pretentious enough to think I know what’s best for other people’s kids.

“Interestingly enough, you seem to think parents will pull their kids out of our schools in droves once given the chance. I think most will stay while a few, those being most poorly served, will go to where their kids will actually learn.

“Who is really the ‘anti-public education’ proponent here?”

On Nov. 9, 2004, another parent, identified only as “Theresa,” wrote to the district, complaining that as a result of the district’s efforts to keep a Gay-Straight Alliance club out of Palmer High School, the number of accepted clubs at other high schools had been severely reduced. Her child, a Coronado student, was being negatively impacted by the decision, she wrote.

This is how Christen responded:

“As they say, facts to a liberal are like kryptonite to Superman.”

Speaking of facts, it’s now been a full year since District 11 – after spending an estimated half-million dollars trying to ban the Gay Straight Alliance – settled that lawsuit. During that two-year battle, D-11 tried so hard to keep the club out that it completely dismantled its student clubs policy and severely crippled other student organizations, including Book Club, the Film Club, the Unified Sports Team, the Dance/Drill Team and Interact, a volunteer community service organization.

How’s that for a legacy? Way more memorable than those topless modeling shots…

Cara DeGette is a longtime editor and columnist at the Colorado Springs Independent.