Jefferson County voters cared more about kicking out three conservative school board members than about who replaced them.
Recent voter turnout numbers showed that more than 98 percent of Jeffco voters made a decision on the recalls of John Newkirk, Julie Williams and Ken Witt, but a substantially smaller group of people made decisions about who would replace them.
Voters likely came out because of the barrage of ads and news stories about the recall, said Seth Masket, a political science professor at the University of Denver. The publicity around the election was much more focused on the recall itself, and as a result, “people were more aware that there was a recall election,” but might not have known as much about the replacement candidates, Masket told The Colorado Independent.
And voter turnout numbers by party showed that Democrats, normally the strongest supporters of teachers and teachers unions, didn’t win this by themselves.
Total unofficial turnout, as reported by Jefferson County yesterday, was 185,467 ballots. That’s 46.38 percent of the county’s 399,918 registered voters.
In 2013, out of 412,554 registered voters, 178,265 people voted.
But more than 42,000 ballots didn’t include votes on the school board races. The highest number of votes cast, in the race between Witt and Gordon Van deWater in District 5, was 135,891.
Of the three recalled board members, more voters cast ballots on whether to remove Julie Williams in District 1 than for the other two board members.
Williams has been the lightning rod for much of the criticism of the board. It began with her proposal in Sept. 2014 to have a review committee change the Advanced Placement U.S. history curriculum offered in the Jefferson County Schools, although AP history curriculum is actually determined by the national College Board. The Board responded by saying any curriculum changes could cause the district to lose its authority to offer those courses. Students walked out of classes in protest for several days in September 2014, in response to her proposal.
Demonstrators were furious that Williams claimed the curriculum needed to be more patriotic and less focused on protest and dissent.
“Materials should promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights. Materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.”
She told 9News at the time “I don’t think we should encourage kids to be little rebels. We should encourage kids to be good citizens.”
On the Williams question, 181,906 people voted on the recall question, or 98.1 percent of all ballots cast: 116,418 said “yes,” and 64,678 said “no.”
What’s notable is that her successor and the only candidate on the ballot to replace her, Brad Rupert, got 114,197 votes – far less than the number of votes cast in favor of recalling Williams.
Rupert, a business attorney from Arvada, is a past president of the Arvada Chamber of Commerce and active with Habitat for Humanity. He said on his website he was inspired to run for the board by the exodus of good teachers and administrators in the wake of the board majority’s election in 2013.
“We can’t afford to lose excellent teachers and excellent administrators because of silly politics,” he told The Columbine Courier in August. Rupert’s two children both graduated from public schools in Jefferson County.
In District 2, represented by John Newkirk, 180,364 ballots were cast on his recall: 114,712 voted “yes” or 63.6 percent; and “no” votes were 65,652, or 36.4 percent. Newkirk, a small business owner, is a strong proponent of providing the same per-pupil funding for charter schools as is provided to district schools.
More voters cast ballots on who they wanted to replace Newkirk, a successor race with two candidates.
Susan Harmon won, taking 82.18 percent of the 117,454 votes cast, or 96,521 votes. Matthew Dhieux took 20,933 votes, or 17.82 percent. Harmon, a lawyer and PTA volunteer, campaigned on a promise for the board return to respect and civility. Littleton resident Dhieux, a former teacher and currently a medical assistant, said he would provide “unbiased perspective and common sense leadership, without hidden political implications.”
District 5, home of board President Ken Witt, had the fewest votes on the yes or no question. Of 179,948 votes cast, “yes” votes were 115,563, or 64.22 percent; “no” votes were 64,385 or 35.78 percent. That’s still 97 percent of all ballots received.
Witt is a business manager whose children attended public schools around the Front Range.
Like Newkirk, he strongly supports equal funding for charters. But he’s had his share of controversies in the past two years: he was accused of bullying a student at a board meeting and last month he called a press conference to announce he was filing an ethics “complaint” against himself with the state Independent Ethics Commission. That body has no jurisdiction over school boards and no authority to review complaints about violations of the state’s open meetings law, which was at the heart of his complaint, actually a request for an advisory opinion, which is usually requested in advance of an action, not two years after the fact.
The race to replace Witt had three challengers. That successor race also got the most votes (119,626) out of the three districts. Winner Ron Mitchell got 83,296 votes or 69.63 percent; Paula Noonan got 23,716 votes or 19.83 percent, and Regan Benson got 12,614 votes, or 10.54 percent.
Mitchell, a graduate of Arvada High, worked in the school district for 40 years, including as principal of Alameda High School. He said he was “deeply saddened” by the board politics, and pledged to bring respect back to the board and to be more collaborative with the community and his fellow board members.
Noonan, whose son graduated from Jeffco public schools, served on the board from 2009 to 2013 and owns a state capitol legislative monitoring business. She advocated for re-negotiating the current teacher contract to eliminate standardized testing as a yardstick for teacher performance and compensation. Noonan also indicated she didn’t buy the claim made by the board majority that they could build a new school, in the north Arvada area without debt.
“The district cannot afford to pay for all its construction needs through operations money or certificates of participation,” Noonan stated on her website.
Benson was a late entrant into the race. Her campaign committee documents were officially filed on October 2 and her candidate affidavit was filed on October 20, although the deadline for filing was actually September 28.
Benson is a special education advocate and Tea Party member. According to Chalkbeat Colorado she was banned several years ago from her son’s high school for clashes with the school’s administrators.
Benson, who listed her mailing address in her campaign documents as “Morisson” [sic], moved to Akron, Colorado three years ago, according to The Columbine Courier, in large part because of her dissatisfaction with the Jeffco school district. The Courier also reported she did not support the recall but got into the race because the other two candidates “do not understand many Jeffco students don’t get the skills they need to graduate prepared for a successful future.”
Will Jeffco residents get a very different board?
In a forum hosted by Colorado Public Radio two weeks before the election, all but one of the candidates as well as the current board majority said they supported performance pay for teachers. However, most of the candidates said they did not like the current model and would revisit it if elected.
Candidates also stated in that CPR forum that while support charter schools, they do not favor for-profit ones. The current board majority is looking at approval of a non-profit charter school that would contract for business management services with a for-profit corporation from Florida.
So, who voted in this election?
The Secretary of State’s office yesterday reported a slightly lower total number of ballots cast than is listed by Jefferson County, which did not report voting by party affiliation. Secretary of State Spokeswoman Lynn Bartels explained that their numbers were current as of 7 a.m. yesterday, but that counties are continuing to count and reconcile ballots, particularly those coming in from overseas military voters.
According to the SOS numbers released yesterday, Republicans easily had the highest turnout among all political parties in Jefferson County, at 66,858 votes cast. Democrats made up 59,654 voters; unaffiliated voters made up the next largest group, at 56,387 votes.
The total number of voters who participated in the election, according to the SOS, was 184,623. That number also includes the American Constitutional Party, Green Party and Libertarian voters.
Total turnout is close to what it was in 2013, when the three conservative board members were elected. This year’s total turnout, according to Jefferson County, was 46.38 percent, versus 43.17 percent two years ago.
Some of those who showed up at the recall watch party Tuesday night commented that they had initially voted for Williams, Witt and Newkirk, but the controversies and politics changed theirs minds and their votes.
In Douglas County, where three conservative incumbent members of its school board lost to pro-teachers-union candidates, the Secretary of State reported 92,272 votes cast. Republicans held a substantial advantage in this low-turnout race, with 47,963 casting votes. Unaffiliated votes came from 23,836, and 19,614 Democrats voted in the election.
Statewide, about 1.24 million voters participated on Election Day. Republicans held the advantage there, too, with 475,640 turning in ballots; Democrats turned in 406,752 ballots and unaffiliated sent in 341,224 votes.
Correction 11/10/15: The original article stated the board was considering a for-profit charter school. The board is considering a non-profit charter school that would contract with a for-profit company for business management services.
Photo credit: Sebastien Wiertz, Creative Commons, Flickr.