Guest post: Jeffco school district’s no means no

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Submit a poorly written college application: expect to be turned away. Send in a job app marked by inattention to detail and lack of coherence: expect a heartbreaking rejection. Institutions of integrity define their standards, in part, by using their discretion to act as gatekeepers.

After thorough review, the Jefferson County Board of Education made a judgment that it was in the best interests of the school district’s families and teachers to deny Great Work Montessori School’s application for a charter. The State Board, on appeal, ordered the district to reconsider and that reconsideration is on the Jeffco Board’s agenda tonight. Taxpayers should take note. Whereas supporters want to see the school as a gift of choice for the underserved population of northeast Lakewood, circumstances suggest that a charter for Great Work may be a gift from Colorado taxpayers to the school privatization initiative of the Walton Family Foundation.

In October, Jeffco’s District Accountability Committee issued an overwhelmingly critical report on Great Work’s August charter application. In 61 pages of review, four bullet points covered the strengths of the proposal. Beyond that, the document enumerated diverse and serious flaws. The scathing, 10 page summary review decried poor scholarship and use of unedited, cut-and-paste boilerplate language from other sources, as well as undemocratic governance, lack of transparency, and forseeable challenges to financial solvency.

In November, the Jeffco Board denied the charter, focusing on policy and budget concerns that hadn’t been resolved. In December, citing only the importance of providing options, the State Board remanded the proposal back to the District, with instructions to collaborate to find a solution.

School choice is a deceptively simple and appealing message, but the matter before the District is complex and fraught. Surely the Board would love to unveil the option of a high quality, developmentally-based school for the underserved children of northeast Lakewood. Their decision not to take on the risks of a project replete with red flags was an exercise in due diligence on behalf of the voters and a demonstration of regard for the fates of children who stand to suffer if their school falters. The State Board is blatantly thumbing its nose at the constitutionally accepted wisdom of local authority. Who benefits if this flawed proposal is authorized?

Credible, public documents show that the Great Work Montessori School (GWMS) and its nexus of support organizations were all established by James Walton, a young director on the board of the Walton Family Foundation, who is not mentioned in the charter application and for whom I once worked as the interim executive director of Great Work, Inc. (I was terminated in May 2016.)

The property that would be leased by public funds is also owned by Mr. Walton. And, contrary to what organizers described in the application as “a local property development group…with a mission to make affordable facilities for schools serving diverse and underserved populations,” that developer incorporated in Delaware and shares a filing address in Bentonville, Arkansas with Walton Enterprises International.

The district accountability committee report revealed this discrepancy, and Mr. Walton wrote an 11th hour letter to the Jeffco Board assuring them he wants a long-lasting and mutually beneficial working relationship.

Whatever the legality and fiscal rationality of the arrangements, here, and without any attempt to impute motives to the actors, it should concern us all that Mr. Walton and his team have gone to such lengths to conceal his role as architect and financier of the entire Great Work charter start-up extravaganza.

If there’s anything to be learned from the recent national election catastrophe, it should be this: extreme concentrations of wealth, expressed as political power, pose a grave threat to democratic systems at all levels of government – particularly when cloaked in language of freedom (choice) and justice (serving the underserved).

If Mr. Walton really wants to create educational options for children in what Great Work Montessori principal Amy Malik has described as “one of the lowest income zip codes in Jeffco,” let us challenge him to help Jeffco start a district-run public option Montessori school in an underutilized building nearby. Fill it with the neighborhood’s children. Govern it democratically. Zip codes aren’t poor; children and families are. We must insist that the community be reflected (rather than fixed) by the proposal.

If the real neighbors of the school have no voice and only a fraction of the classroom seats, we wonder again: Who benefits?


Chris von Lersner, along with three Montessori colleagues and James M. Walton, was one of the original co-founders of the Great Work nexus of enterprises. She is now a resident of Santa Fe, NM.

Photo illustration by Ky via Flickr:Creative Commons


  1. Honestly, as a parent of color whose children would benefit from a school like Great Work Montessori, I am fed up with entitled white “educators” telling me what to do. This area is underserved and a new school that focuses on the children and community would be a great service to us. All of this bickering that has been going on here has only shown that all you folks care about is the teachers union and your paychecks. Because you’re definitely showing that you don’t care about underserved children in poor communities. I’m also insulted that someone who doesn’t even live in this community feels they have a right to speak for it. Extreme entitlement at its finest!

  2. Oh my. Trolling….


    Ma’am, why don’t you go out and gather cash deposits, just $500.00 each, from 100 committed families. That way all of us can be assured that you, and those you’ve organized, actually have the means to make this financial commitment. Letters of intent are one thing, and so are enrollment applications, but cash is another. You won’t get $50, because they, the so-called target of this altruistic charter, won’t give it to you. Rather buy food and pay rent.

    At $1500 per month, sliding scale or not, seems like a tuition GWCS KNOWS families can’t come up with. No way will you get that kind of money up front. Jeffco doesn’t need another charter swearing they can make it, only to request a loan at the first signs of financial difficulty. That’s called financial responsibility to the taxpayers, that’s what you call white elitist Educators telling you what to do. No. By allowing an obviously flawed plan to go through, Jeffco schools would set kids up for failure and disruptions to their lives and educations. This BOE is better than that. Y’all shoulda tried this when WNW were around. Now, don’t you want something you can rely on? Why not fight for equitable funding for Deane and Lasley ES, for starters? Fight for their viability instead of making a smart decision about race.

    Seems like the teachers’ union is the last defense against scams like GWCS. Bickering? No. Looks like the union and the district are united against scams like yours, ma’am. No kids cleaning toilets in neighborhood schools. And pray, clarify the connection between the BOE decision and a teacher’s paycheck.

    If only the GWCS could’a gotten by with cherry picking for families outside of 80226. 80226 is your low-income neighborhood that GW’s charter is supposed ta serve, right? but that leader got caught in that lie, didn’t she, now? “Our mailers covered one, three, and five miles distances from our location.” Well 80226 isn’t that big. One mile away is, for starters, Lakewood Country Club on 6th Avenue, and for seconds, Belmar Complex just west on Alameda Avenue. East is Denver, and Denison Montessori is thriving nicely, thank you, without pulling the stirs that GWCS is attempting. Y’all are picking outside of where you said you were going to serve.

    You see, when charters cherry pick, they broadcast THEIR elitism. Public schools are supposed to be equal, but when scams like GWBS cherry pick, and are allowed to cherry pick, then there goes equality. We all supposed to be on equal footing, but cherry picking, and I hear the school tried to pick as far as North West Arvada where Jeffco is building new schools for ALL, creates inequality. And yet you call for equality. Psh.

    You even call for autonomy. Your complaint to allow families to make their own decisions and allow communities to permit this charter, is a call for autonomy. Well, Jeffco public schools is being its own autonomous body as well. So, autonomy is autonomy, small scale or large scale. It’s just that an organization the size of a district has to ensure equality and equity for ALL, not just poor kids in 80226! and defend against scam “choices.” You know as well as I do, that choice is the fool’s word for privatization. Come on. Charters like this, just want to suck the funding out of neighborhood schools in order to weaken them further. Yes autonomy is what you’re calling for, autonomy to wield your choice, but we know you’re not who you say you are. Besides, if Colorado funded schools equally and not according to their zip code, cherry picking and tuition and scams and trolling and choices wouldn’t be necessary or so easy to get away with.

    I don’t believe you are who you say you are, anyway, and aren’t the educators leading this school white? So you trust THEM to tell you what to do; there wasn’t a single person of color in the GWBS support pen, at the BOE meeting, was there?

    And oh my word, how in the world can you defend a plan to have teachers and students cleaning rooms and floors at the end of the school day, yet you tired of white entitled educators telling you what to do?

    Cash. Flawed plan. Lies. Entitled. Autonomy. Choice. Slavery.

    Reader, can you say trolling?

    Bigly inconsistent. Fake.

  3. Did you know Chris Von Lersner, the “guest” who wrote the article actually, help found “Great Works” and then was terminated by the organization. Don’t believe I have read that in any of her websites or articles.

    Also, $50/month for FULL DAY PREK is the actual low-end cost! If you read the documents you would see that. The $1500 figure used above is the average expected tuition. I don’t know of any other school in the entire state that offers that. That, my friends, is intentional misdirection.

    It seems like Ms. VL’s article is just a personal vendetta. Not sure if the agenda of the comment above is also personal or just an attempt ensure low income families are not afforded educational options…or some other agenda.

    Be careful folks. As is taught in great schools everywhere (regardless of whether they are traditional school, option, magnet or charter), go back to the original documents to find the truth. Biased “Spark Notes” written by agenda driven individuals can be dangerous.

  4. I too am disheartened by an ex employee trying to discredit the need our community most certainly has.
    It is clear that this woman has no idea the needs of out children and our county as evident by the fact that she does not even live in the same state! That seems completely absurd.
    It also seems evident that the impact this school has had in the area has been not only needed but mighty! The board actually nominated to vote and approve the charter so that more children can benefit from the teachings of Maria Montessori and how dare this woman try to stop children and families in need from accessing important resources!

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