This article was updated August 27.
The recall for three controversial Jefferson County School Board members is on. This week, Jefferson County Clerk and Recorder Faye Griffin certified the petitions submitted three weeks ago as valid.
As of Friday, five people have announced they will run for the seats held by board members John Newkirk, Julie Williams and Ken Witt.
The three embroiled board members were all elected in 2013, immediately forming a conservative majority on the five-member board. They started their tenure by hiring a new board attorney behind closed doors, a violation of the state’s open meetings law.
The board also had to hire a new superintendent shortly after taking over, when then-Superintendent Cindy Stevenson, who had been in the job for 12 years, announced shortly after the November election she would step down on June 30, 2014. She moved that resignation up to February, 2014, stating in a school board meeting that “I can’t lead and manage because I am not trusted or respected by this board of education,” referring to the new majority. Stevenson donated $1,000 to the petition effort.
Jeffco United for Action, which carried out the petition campaign, collected more than double the 15,000 required signatures for the three school board members. The petition drive netted about 110,000 signatures in 17 days, less than one-third of the time allotted for that effort.
The next big question is whether the election will be on November 3, along with the general election, or if the county has to hold a special recall election, which would take place after that.
Those who oppose the recall have 15 business days to challenge the signatures or the petitions. That period ends on September 8. Once that protest period is over, Griffin will announce a date for the election. As of Friday morning, her office said there had been no challenges.
Should a challenge occur, because of timing, the recall would go into an expensive special election. The school district will have to bear the costs of the recall election, whether it takes place in conjunction with the November 3 general election or as a special election. The cost to the district would be about $10,000 if the recall election happens on November 3, according to Jeffco United for Action. If it goes to a special election, the costs skyrocket to about $500,000.
Newkirk told The Colorado Independent he does not plan to challenge the signatures or petitions, despite saying they are filled with “erroneous, misleading, and outright deceptive language.”
“I have no plans to mount a legal challenge as I believe this provides an opportunity to discuss and highlight the many positive things the District has accomplished over the past two years, as well our plans to continue with these improvements and make Jefferson County the leader in public education nationwide,” Newkirk said in an email on Friday.
Williams earned special ire from recall supporters for proposing a change to the district’s Advanced Placement history curriculum last year. Williams suggested the curriculum should promote citizenship, patriotism and the benefits of the free enterprise system and discourage civil disorder. The proposal led to student and teacher walkouts district-wide, and it was later watered down.
She told The Independent Friday she also does not plan to challenge the signatures or petitions. “My plan is to focus on what is most important, the students of Jeffco,” and to continue the good work of the board, she said via email.
Witt said he has asked his supporters to not challenge the petitions, and he doesn’t plan to, either.
He told The Independent via email on Friday that he looks forward to this “dialogue with our fellow parents in Jeffco and to the opportunity to share the successes of Jeffco Schools. I couldn’t be more proud of our district and the way we have put our students first.” The recall effort will “serve to highlight the accomplishments of this board, staff and students.”
Witt pointed to the board’s implementation of a pay-for-performance structure to reward great teachers, building a new school without debt, expansion of “school choice” and putting $20 million toward teacher and staff pay hikes.
“Let’s get talking,” he added.
A Jeffco group supporting the three board members also will leave the petitions alone. Sheila Atwell of JeffcoStudentsFirst said Friday they would not challenge the signatures or petitions. She said her group will do what it’s always done: “distribute information on the great things the board has done.”
Like Newkirk, she complained about the accuracy of the petition language. “They were based on misinformation,” she said. “Every word of those petitions was inaccurate, which is a shame.”
Three candidates to replace the three school board members have the backing of Jeffco for Kids, which has been involved in the recall efforts. All are parents of children who attended Jeffco schools.
A native Coloradan and former president of the Arvada Chamber of Commerce, attorney Brad Rupert lives in District 1 and will vie for Williams’ seat. In a news release Thursday, Rupert said political agendas have no place on the board. The board’s “adversarial atmosphere” and apparent hostility toward teachers is causing “great teachers and school leaders” to leave Jefferson County.
“We need to return our focus to providing an excellent education to every student every day. Our economy and our democracy depend on it,” he said.
In District 2, Susan Harmon of Lakewood will run for Newkirk’s seat. She has been active in PTA since her children began school in the county. Also an attorney, she has served on school accountability committees and advocated for children with special needs. All children “deserve a world-class education,” Harmon said. “With this board, I am concerned that thousands of kids will miss out on the kinds of opportunities” her children had.
Ron Mitchell, a retired Jeffco teacher and principal, is one of two candidates for Witt’s seat. Mitchell served as principal at Alameda High School for ten years and for eight years at Columbine. “I believe that Jeffco was on the brink of greatness,” he said in a Thursday statement. “The ideological behavior and poor leadership of this board majority has rippled through each of our schools, pushing teachers to leave the district and negatively impacting the learning experience for our kids.” He pledges to listen to the community, “keep great teachers in the classroom and put education above ideology.”
As of Friday, two other candidates have filed for those recall seats. They include Paula Noonan, whose four years on the school board had controversies all its own.
Noonan became a polarizing figure after she took a strong stand against the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s InBloom database, that she believed would lead to ruining low student-teacher ratios in the schools.
In 2010, Noonan reportedly gave a “rambling, self-absorbed” commencement speech for Dakota Ridge High School that drew catcalls and boos from the audience. In January 2013, she was arrested on an outstanding traffic warrant from 2011. After witnessing a disproportionate number off “young brown men” in jail, she has volunteered for four years for CASA, working to keep youth of color out of prison.
She told The Colorado Independent Wednesday that the current board has lost the trust of teachers and staff and a large part of the community. “I don’t think this board can be effective in the future with that trust deficit,” she said.
“I approached my work on the board from an objective frame of mine and looked at issues deeply and broadly. I tried to rise above ideology to do good work for the kids…I have a deep understanding of the big issues facing education in Colorado,” which she said includes work on legislation on student assessments.
“When I was on the board, I really worked hard at making good decisions. I was not swayed by the administration. I tried to pay attention to what teachers and staff needed in compensation and other work issues” but always put the students first. “Those are the kinds of decision-making elements that create trust in a community. Right now, that trust is not there and must be restored so that Jeffco can perform to its highest levels.,” Noonan said Wednesday.
Another challenger for Newkirk’s seat is Matthew Dhieux of Littleton, a physician’s assistant with Wheat Ridge Internal Medicine. According to the practice’s website, Dhieux is a native Coloradan and a former elementary school teacher in Adams County.
Over the last five years, he said Friday, he’s watched political groups funneling money into what should be non-partisan school board elections. The political agenda of the board majority doesn’t match that of the district, he added. Dhieux, who has two children in the county’s schools, said he has the knowledge and experience to advocate for students and teachers. “I’m willing to listen and to use common sense to make decisions,” he told The Independent.
Two other seats on the five-member board are up for election in November.
Should the recall succeed, the school board could wind up with five new members, since the two current members not up for recall also are not running for re-election.
Photo credit: Cookieater2009, Creative Commons, Flickr.