The conservative majority on Jeffco’s School Board defended its record at a candidate forum Monday night, while the candidates vying to oust them played hooky.
Challengers Susan Harmon, Brad Rupert and Ron Mitchell — who were recently recruited by recall organizers to replace incumbents Ken Witt, John Newark and Julie Williams from office — skipped the event hosted by Colorado Christian University.
“It’s a weird coincidence that they all had scheduling conflicts tonight,” moderator and CCU President John Andrews said to sarcastic chuckles from the crowd of more than a hundred of JeffCo education watchers.
A group called Jeffco United for Action is heading up the recall effort, citing grievances that began as soon as the conservative took over last fall. Here’s a portion of its petition, filed with the Jefferson County Clerk’s office on August 18 with more than double the required signatures.
Jeffco School Board President Ken Witt and the School Board Majority have failed Jeffco taxpayers, parents and students. A recall now will:
Restore ACCOUNTABILITY: The Board Majority wasted millions of taxpayer dollars, including hiring a novice Superintendent for $280,000 — $80,000 more a year than the previous nationally recognized Superintendent of 12 years — and hiding $90,000 each year in legal expenses from the public.
Restore TRANSPARENCY: They have repeatedly violated Colorado open meeting laws by secretly making major decisions behind closed doors. They have severely limited public comment at board meetings, bullied students and parents, and released a minor student’s private information in violation of state law.
Restore RESPECT: They attempted to censor US History classes, leading thousands of students to walk out of class in protest. Their unprofessional actions have pushed over 700 educators this past year to leave Jeffco schools, most to teach in other districts, because the educators believe the Board Majority’s policies hurt their ability to educate our students.
In the interest of our children, community and schools, we need to send the message that our kids’ education and fiscal responsibility come before politics.
Andrews lobbed some open-ended softball questions Monday. Right off the bat, he asked candidates what the recall is all about.
“Change is difficult,” said Julie Williams. “That’s what this recall is about.”
Williams’ proposal to review the Advanced Placement United States History curriculum was a breaking point in the district. Critics charged her and the board majority with trying to censor history so JeffCo students learn a hyper-patriotic, oppression-free version of the American past.
Williams proudly cited a Washington Post article about the College Board’s recent decision to release a “clearer and more balanced” course guide “based on feedback gathered over the past year.” That feedback, according to the article, included a resolution passed by the Republican National Committee, a letter signed by a handful of historians calling the 2014 AP U.S. History framework “a grave new risk” to the idea of American exceptionalism, and the outcry sparked by one Julie Williams in Jefferson County, Colorado.
“I took a stand,” Williams told the audience. “And I was right.”
Matthew Dhieux, the former elementary school teacher who’s challenging John Newkirk, had a different perspective.
“This community feels like it lost control of the school board,” he said. “The optimal result here is getting rid of the political agenda and starting with a clean slate.”
Former board member Paula Noonan, who recently jumped into the race against board president Ken Witt, echoed that sentiment, but was careful to distance herself from both the board majority and the recall effort.
“Unfortunately, this district is split 50/50 and neither side trusts the other,” she said. “It’s untenable.”
Noonan expressed concern about the toxic political environment Jeffco students now find themselves in.
“We are not being good role models,” she said. “We don’t just need a change in tone, we need a total reboot.”
Noonan’s opponent disputed her bleak picture of the district. Witt agreed with his colleague Williams that the recall is about change — not the need to change the board, but fear of what the board is changing.
“I’m proud of the fact that we took a close look at a 120-page, decades-old contract and thought hard about what needed to be changed in there,” he said about the board’s recent agreement with the teachers’ union.
Relations between the conservative board majority and the union have been tense since the outset of the term. But last week they eased just enough for a contract to come through. The new contract strikes seniority protections, codifies a pay-for-performance compensation system and limits class sizes. The district will also stop automatically deducting union dues from teachers’ paychecks.
But perhaps the most notable aspect of the new contract is its duration — ten months compared to the usual four years.
“It’s a bad deal. We know it. We absolutely know it,” Jefferson County Education Association president John Ford told Chalkbeat Colorado after the board approved the contract. “But we had to get rid of this distraction… We have to get to work. We have to get to work right now. We have a big lift in November.”
At Monday’s forum, sitting board members insisted their relationship with the union is amicable and professional.
“We do love and respect our teachers and we would love to pay them more,” Williams said about whether she supports the union. “But we have to look at funding when half goes toward compensation.”
Newkirk’s challenger Dhieux rejected the idea that everything’s so peachy.
“Right now we’re shutting them out and we need to be inviting them in.”
Andrews wrapped up the forum by reminding the audience that a quarter of Jeffco students don’t graduate in four years and a third need remediation.
“That’s why we’re here,” he said. “86,000 kids depend on the grown-ups in this room to work it out like grown-ups.”
Right now, no one knows when the recall election will be held. Anyone who wants to challenge the petition signatures has a week left to do so. If there are no challenges, the recall will be held on the Nov. 3 general election. And if there are, the recall will be held as a special election at some undetermined future date.
As The Colorado Independent‘s Marianne Goodland reported last week, a special election would be costly — to the tune of six-figures — and logistically tough. All three board members facing recall are urging supporters not to raise any challenges.
“If we have to spend $500,000 on an election, I’ll be pretty livid,” John Newkirk told The Independent. “Every parent in the district will be livid.”
Still, the prospect of a recall during the general election strikes Newkirk as a “vulgar and gross misuse of the process.”
Five candidates are vying to oust three of the majority members. Brad Rupert is gunning for Williams’ seat; Susan Harmon and Matthew Dhieux are targeting John Newkirk; and Ron Mitchell and Paula Noonan are gunning for Ken Witt.
Harmon is a mother, attorney and active PTA member. Rupert is a father, attorney and former president of the Arvada Chamber of Commerce. Mitchell is a father and not an attorney, but rather a retired teacher and principal. Together, the three (“Her Royal Majesty” as Andrews has dubbed them) comprise the Support Jeffco Kids slate. None of them responded to inquiries about why they skipped Monday’s forum.
Incumbents Jill Fellman and Lesley Dahlkemper aren’t seeking re-election, leaving Districts 3 and 4 up for grabs. Kim Johnson and Ali Lasell are vying for the seat vacated by Fellman in District 3 while Tori Merritts and Amanda Stevens will duke it out in District 4 for Dahlkemper’s old seat. Support Jeffco Kids, a group related to the one that officially led the petition drive, endorsed Lasell and Stevens in those races.
On September 8, Jefferson County Clerk Faye Griffin will announce the date of the recall.
Photo by Nat Stein