Voters in three school board districts sent a powerful message Tuesday night to conservative billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch, Americans for Prosperity and affiliated organizations: Hands off Colorado’s school boards.
In the Loveland-based Thompson School District and in the state’s largest district, Jefferson County, conservative majorities were tossed out in favor of those supported by teachers, parents and students. In Douglas County, the 7-0 conservative majority shifted to a 4-3 conservative majority.
Americans for Prosperity and other groups, such as the Independence Institute-affiliated Jeffco Kids First and Colorado Independent Action, poured hundreds of thousands of dollars, with difficult-to-track disclosure, into either opposing the Jeffco recall or encouraging county residents in Jefferson and Douglas counties to voice their support for the conservative majority school boards.
The marquee race of the night was in Jefferson County, and the conservative majority of Ken Witt, Julie Williams and John Newkirk conceded their defeat less than an hour after the polls closed.
The decision for Jefferson County voters appears to have been an easy one.
In all three recall races, voters overwhelmingly decided the conservative majority had to go. Unofficial results Tuesday night showed voters recalled all three at about the same percentages: 64 percent in favor of the recall, 36 percent against.
As to the successors: Brad Rupert, the only candidate in District 1, replaces Williams. In District 2, Susan Harmon won in a landslide against Matthew Dhieux, 82.5 percent to 17.5 percent and will replace Newkirk. In District 5, home of board president Witt, Ron Mitchell won a three-way race with 70 percent of the vote.
The other two seats on the board became open when incumbents Lesley Dahlkemper and Jill Fellman decided not to run for reelection. In District 3, Ali Lasell defeated Kim Johnson, 58 percent to 42 percent; in District 4, Amanda Stevens defeated Tori Merritts, 66 percent to 44 percent.
Tuesday night’s results means the Jeffco board has five new members for the first time in its history.
Among some of its first decisions: What to do with board attorney Brad Miller and Superintendent Dan McMinimee, hired in less-than-transparent fashion by the board majority?
Teachers also hope that a new board will reexamine the length of the current contract. Past contracts usually run for three years, but the most recent contract, approved in August, is just 10 months.
A jubilant John Ford, president of the Jefferson County Education Association, told The Colorado Independent the results show the voters’ support for public schools, teachers and students’ learning environments. As to the immediate future, “We’ll have to get to know each other,” Ford said regarding the new school board. Other issues, such as performance pay or the length of contracts will have to come later, he said. “We need time to heal.”
The conservative majority did not represent what the majority of Jefferson County believes is right for education, according to former state Sen. Evie Hudak of Arvada, also a former member of the state board of education. The election results show that Jefferson County residents believe in public education, she added.
Teacher Anthea Samuels said she didn’t always feel supported working under the board majority. The election shows what happens when people work collaboratively and on the same goal: doing what’s best for Jefferson County kids and schools, she said.
State Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, also is a teacher. “Any time a community like Jefferson County can get together and give the ‘middle finger’ to the Koch brothers, it’s a good night,” he quipped.
Kerr said what turned people off the majority was their “we know better and don’t have to listen to you” attitude. He said he knows people who agreed with most, if not all, of the board’s decisions, but the attitude offended a lot of people, including voters.
Newkirk, Williams and Witt did not respond to requests for comment. Williams, in an interview Tuesday night with The Denver Post, blamed a “liberal agenda and union bosses.”
Thompson School District
Board politics in the Thompson School District have been no less controversial than they have been in Jeffco. The conservative majority has been accused of trying to get rid of its teachers union, and is currently embroiled in a lawsuit, filed by the union, over an expired contract and whether the union can still act as the teachers’ negotiating partner.
Results as of 10 p.m. from the Larimer County Clerk and Recorder show candidates supported by teachers and parents beating their opponents by a 2 to 1 margin in all four races. In District A, Jeff Swanty defeated Aimee Randall for an open seat; in Disrtrict C, incumbent Denise Montagu defeated challenger Vance Hansen; in District D, incumbent Pam Howard defeated Tomi Grundvig and in District G, David Levy defeated Bruce Finger for that open seat.
Douglas County has held a conservative majority on its board since 2009. The board has since marshaled through a voucher program that allows taxpayer money to go to private schools, including religious ones; and the board got rid of its teachers union.
The voucher lawsuit is now headed to the U.S. Supreme Court, with $500,000 from the Daniels Fund for legal expenses.
Tuesday night’s election results showed three incumbents being shown to the door, although the conservative majority retains its control by one vote.
All three challengers who won Tuesday night were endorsed by Douglas County Parents, an organization of 1,400 parents, teachers, students and community members who support public education and are concerned with the actions taken by the board in the past six years.
All three challengers won by roughly the same margin: 59 percent to 41 percent. In District A, business owner Wendy Vogel defeated incumbent Craig Richardson. The District C matchup between Anne-Marie Lemieux, a stay-at-home mom and school volunteer, and incumbent Kevin Larsen, went to Lemieux. Retired Principal David Ray picked up the District F seat, defeating incumbent Richard Robbins.
In Aurora, teacher and parent-supported incumbents Dan Jorgensen and Cathy Wildman won re-election to their seats. New to the board, conservative Monica Colbert.
The seats up for election Tuesday night for the district, known as Adams-Arapahoe 28J , were all at-large, meaning the races would be won by the top three vote-getters out of a field of seven. The Aurora school board is a seven-member body.
Colbert, development director for the Carson J. Spencer Foundation, received endorsements from Congressman and Aurora Republican Mike Coffman and from former Aurora City Council member and perpetual Republican candidate Ryan Frazier.
Jorgensen, who works for the Colorado Department of Education, won endorsements from the other six Aurora Public School board members, and from state Sens. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora and Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora. Wildman, a former teacher, ran a low-key campaign, without a website and with $3000 in contributions from the Colorado Education Association and the Aurora Council for Teachers and Students (ACTS). The group is not registered in the Secretary of State’s business database but shares office space with at least two teachers’ unions: the Cherry Creek Education Association and the Aurora Education Association.
Celebrations and fights to come
Today, newly-elected school board members, teachers, parents and community supporters are celebrating their stunning victory.
In a statement issued Tuesday night, Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, said Coloradans become concerned when school boards make decisions “behind closed doors and spend money on attorneys and public relations consultants instead of in the classroom, where it benefits students.”
“Parents, teachers and communities made their voices heard today.”
While conservatives lost almost as big as they possibly could Tuesday night, their supporters want people to know their work will continue.
At a September education summit hosted by the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, several speakers pointed out that despite what happens in the recall, “we’ll be back on November 4.”
Michael Fields, state director of Americans for Prosperity Colorado, issued a statement Tuesday night to remind Coloradans of that.
“Increasing choice in education, implementing strong pay-for-performance systems, and equalizing funding for all public schools are the right policies for helping our kids have the tools they need to succeed,” Fields said. “Now is when the real work begins. We will continue to advocate for policies in education that are best for students and families.”
Photo by Marianne Goodland