Update: Thompson board member Bryce Carlson announced on Friday he would not run for a second term. His statement is below.
Wanted: Someone, anyone to run against the three incumbents on the Jefferson County Board of Education.
It’s not a joke.
On Monday, the Facebook page of the Jefferson County Republican Party posted a request for conservative candidates to run for three seats currently held by three pro-union members on the JeffCo board.
What a difference two years makes.
In 2015, the five-member Jeffco board was in chaos. Three conservative education reformers held the majority, the result of an election in 2013 that took many by surprise in the state’s second-largest school district with more than 85,000 students.
In the two years that followed the election, board meetings turned into warfare between the two sides. The superintendent quit, citing a lack of trust from the board majority. The board majority promptly brought in an administrator from Douglas County, considered the base for conservative education reform in Colorado. One board member suggested changes to a Advanced Placement history curriculum that isn’t under the board’s purview to change, and that led to student and teacher walkouts across the county. That same board member, Julie Williams, posted an anti-LGBT screed on her Facebook page and accused students of bullying her special needs son, a claim that a district investigation later found was not true.
In 2015, by nearly a two-to-one vote, Jefferson County voters said “enough” to the partisan battles and recalled the three conservatives. The other two members of the board chose not to run, and so in the wake of the 2015 election the JeffCo board wound up with an entirely new board, made up of five pro-union members.
The three new members who were chosen to replace the recalled members are now up for election for full four-year terms. These incumbents – Susan Harmon, Ron Mitchell and Brad Rupert – all filed to run in May. So far, they face no challengers. The deadline for candidates to file for the Nov. 7 election is Sept. 1.
It’s not as though there hasn’t been any opposition to what the new school board has been doing. Some of the same accusations levied against the three recalled members have been levied against the current board: too much done in secrecy, such as the recent search for the district’s new superintendent, Jason Glass, who started on July 1 and came to JeffCo from the Eagle County school district.
It’s a similar situation in the Loveland-based Thompson School District, which has slightly more than 16,000 students. Three seats are up for election this fall, held by three incumbents.
In the 2015 election, the stakes for the district couldn’t have been higher. The school board, with a conservative majority elected in 2013, balked at approving a collective bargaining agreement with the teachers’ union, leaving teachers without a contract for the 2015-16 school year. The union filed a breach of contract lawsuit against the school board for acting in bad faith. That lawsuit was promptly dropped when a pro-union slate took over the board majority in the November election and signed off on the contract.
But as in JeffCo, interest from conservatives in running for the Thompson school board appears to be lacking with just a few weeks to go before the filing deadline.
Board president Lori Hvizda Ward, a member of the current board majority, has filed to run for a second term. Carl Langner and Bryce Carlson, part of the three-member conservative minority on the seven-member board, have not filed. Langner told the Loveland Reporter-Herald in June he would not run for a second term.
Carlson announced on August 11 he would not seek a second term., and couldn’t resist a little dig at the Thompson Education Association that has opposed him.
“After much thought and prayer, I have decided not to run for reelection in the Thompson School District,” Carlson said in a statement. “Starting next May, I will be embarking on a new career, and a second term will simply not be possible as I make the transition. I am grateful for the opportunity I have had to serve my community and thank the many people who have supported me along the way…When looking at the challenges we face, it should be apparent to all that change is necessary. And yet, change will not happen without courageous individuals on the board who will not settle for the status quo—even if it means standing up to teacher’s unions and other entrenched interests.”
So far, two candidates in addition to incumbent Ward have filed to run for the three available seats: Paul Bankes, who sources say is likely to side with the current pro-union majority and who lives in Carlson’s district, and Barbara Kruse, a former teacher, who filed Wednesday to run for Langner’s seat and is also expected to side with the current board majority.
The challenges facing both districts are huge, and largely financial.
Voters in both districts last year rejected requests for increased property taxes and bonds to pay for boosts to teacher pay, curriculum and building costs. Jeffco sought a $568 million increase through bonds and increased property taxes that would have paid for the construction of several new schools. In the wake of that loss, the school board debated closing as many as five schools, but in the end chose to close just one: Pleasant View Elementary, a school where more than 80 percent of the students are on free and reduced lunch (FRL), a federal indication of poverty.
The Thompson district asked voters for $11 million from property taxes for teacher pay and curriculum, and another $288 million through a bond issue that would have paid for new schools and school maintenance and repair. As with JeffCo, voters said “no.”
In the wake of that defeat, the Thompson board is considering closing the district’s two smallest elementary schools, Van Buren and Stansberry. A series of town halls will be held in the fall to allow district residents to state their concerns about the possible closures.
Pam Howard, a current member of the board majority at Thompson, said she believes the election results from 2015 have a lot to do with the kind of people running for the Thompson board this year. She pointed out that she won the 2015 district seat with 68 percent of the vote, a landslide by any measure. The message from that election, which she said rejected the reform agenda pushed by conservatives, continues to resonate in the district today. “No one wants to be on the losing side,” she said. A call to the Larimer GOP for comment was not returned.
But another reason may be at play, and that’s the element of surprise. Candidates may be waiting until the last minute to file, to throw off the incumbents’ supporters and their donations, Mitchell said.
Added Harmon, at a Tuesday night kickoff rally, “this is the calm before the storm that I hope doesn’t come.”