out of the mouths of babes

Jeffco students, at rally, flirt with recall effort

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Evergreen High School student Mali Holmes, center, gets a hug from a fellow student after she spoke at a rally, organized by students, to gauge interest in a possible recall of three Jefferson County board members.

LITTLETON — Students, incensed over what they call disrespect from their elected officials, told their suburban community today they’re prepared to lead the charge in a recall election of three school board members.

Making their public debut at a park near Columbine High School, Jeffco Students for Change told a crowd they’re ready for a change on the Jefferson County Board of Education. Board members Ken Witt, Julie Williams, and John Newkirk can make the change themselves, they said, or the students will do it for them.

“Like pawns, students are on the front lines of this issue,” said Mali Holmes, an Evergreen High School student, referring to a statements made by Witt, who called students who organized earlier walkouts pawns of the union. “But the difference is, we will not back down. We will stand together and fight until we win this battle. We will be the ones to call check mate.”

The three board members, elected nearly a year ago, have found themselves embroiled in controversy after controversy with vocal members of the Jeffco Public Schools community.

Several of the students’ speeches either called for the board to resign, improve their relationships with the community, or face a recall.

CHALKBEAT EXPLAINS: Jeffco interrupted

But student organizers said they’re still determining whether a recall is feasible. They’ll gauge how many individuals who attended the rally provided the students with contact information.

In an earlier interview, board chairman Witt said he was focused on improving student achievement, not the politics of a recall. He also encouraged students to continue to share their opinions at board meetings.

Despite months of acrid debates between some community members and the board’s majority, today’s rally is the first time any organization has hosted a public conversation regarding a recall election.

Rumors of a recall raised to a fevered pitch last spring but puttered out during the summer. In fact, some parents and board observers privately discouraged a recall because they rarely work and are extremely expensive for both organizers and the school districts. Under Colorado law, Jeffco Public Schools would have to pay for the election’s costs.

Today, it’s unclear what sort of political wherewithal a student-led recall would have, or whether reluctant parents and adult organizers would stand with them. The students organized this rally in about a week. And a parent donated the $1,000 for the park permit, organizers said.

Jeffco Students for Change, is the newest kid on a crowded block of anti-board majority organizations. It loosely formed during a week’s worth of earlier protests over a proposed board-appointed curriculum review committee.

Some students, teachers, and parents believed that committee, which would have been tasked with reviewing an advanced history course, would lead to censorship. Those students left their classrooms for the streets by the hundreds.

Jeffco board member Williams, who proposed the review committee, said critics were misinterpreting her proposal.

Ultimately, the school board, on a 3-2 vote, amended Jeffco’s curriculum review process and put it under the board’s purview.

Students behind the new organization and Saturday’s rally rejected the board majority’s claim of a compromise. There are still many details to be worked out, which the district is handling.

About 250 people, mostly parents, attended the rally. The audience waived signs while students spoke and local bands, Red Fox Run and From Thin Air, provided musical entertainment.

Some local political campaigns took advantage of the rally including State Board of Education member Jane Goff, who is running for re-election. Goff had volunteers there. Her opponent, Laura Boggs, a former Jefferson County Board of Education member herself, stopped by. Some parents vocally shooed her away.

“We don’t want you here,” one parent yelled.

Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, who was out campaigning himself, also made an unannounced stop at the rally.

Meanwhile, other rally attendees played hacky sack, ate ice cream, and updated their voter registration.

“If you are of legal age to vote, then make your voice heard at all levels,” said Kyle Ferris, a Columbine High School student. “Many people didn’t vote in the school board election because they didn’t feel like it was important — and look where that got us.”

Decision day

Unity prevails: Jeffco incumbents easily beat back challengers

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Meredith Van Deman signs the back of her 2014 mail-in ballot outside the Columbine Library in Littleton before turning it in.

The status quo has held in Jeffco Public Schools.

Two incumbents facing opposition easily defeated two challengers, ensuring that the governing board of the state’s second largest school district will remain united 5-0.

In District 1, incumbent Brad Rupert won by 20 percentage points over against Matt Van Gieson, a parent and former president of the parent teacher organization at a Jeffco charter school, Golden View Classical Academy.

In District 2, incumbent Susan Harmon claimed a similar margin over Erica Shields, a conservative Jeffco parent.

Current board president Ron Mitchell ran unopposed. The other two seats are not up for a vote this election.

The current board, supported in large part by the teachers union, was elected in 2015. That election, voters recalled three conservative board members and voted in five new members who have since hired a new superintendent, signed an extended contract with the teachers union, given some pay raises and voted to close an elementary school.

The school board incumbents raised considerably more money than the challengers, including thousands of dollars from the teachers union.

 

Keeping the peace

Jeffco voters to decide whether school board will remain united or include dissenting voices

Students at Edgewater Elementary School in Jefferson County work on iPads during class.

With little controversy, no national media attention and control of the school board not at stake, this fall’s school board race in Jefferson County has centered on whether a board that is consistently united could use a dissenting voice.

Three of the five board of education seats are up for grabs, but only two of the incumbents have challengers — a single one in each race.

A win by the two challengers, both conservatives who oppose much of what the current board has done, would not change many of the votes or direction of the school district, but it could change the conversations. Some voters now say they are weighing whether to vote to keep the stability of the current board, which often vote unanimously, or whether more diversity of thought is needed. One question is whether different voices would repeat the drama of the previous, split, school board that saw conservative members ousted in a recall election.

“Everyone in Jeffco wants us to commit to maintaining civility,” said Ron Mitchell, the board president, who is the member running unopposed. “I don’t see that changing.”

Some who support the current board say even one dissenting voice could slow down progress, distract from the current work or create doubt in voters if the district asks for a tax increase soon.

“I believe that even one or two detractors on the board will stagnate progress,” said Jeffco parent Kelly Johnson, who helped recall previous board members. “Our district has already paid too much in lost opportunities with the chaos of the past.”

Erica Shields and Matt Van Gieson, the two challengers, say they want to work with the current board.

“We are not there to disrupt,” Shields said. “We are not about that. We don’t want to return to the old type of board mentality. We want to make things better.”

The incumbents have a huge money advantage.

Those current members running for re-election — Mitchell, Susan Harmon and Brad Rupert — supported by the teachers union, have raised large amounts of money as of the last finance reports filed two weeks ago. The two in the contested race each had more than $40,000 raised, compared to about $3,200 raised by Shields and $2,300 raised by Van Gieson.

Mailers and yard signs for the incumbents advocate for all three together.

Since their election two years ago, the current board members have hired a new superintendent in Jason Glass, approved an extended contract with teachers union, given teachers a pay raise and advocated for better school funding.

Opponents Shields and Van Gieson say, recent events pushed them to consider running for school board independently, but now both also are running together, asking for voters to support them as a team.

Shields said she is running after realizing the work she does as a volunteer helping homeless people doesn’t address the root causes of the problem, which she now sees as a lack of good education opportunities for everyone.

Van Gieson, said that he hears too often from people who feel they no longer have a voice on the current school board. He said he official decided he wanted to run after a spring board meeting in which several community members asked the board not to close their schools.

School closures have not been a major issue for voters, most say, because Glass has said he would pause any school closure recommendations until district officials can create a better system for evaluating if a school should close.

Instead, campaign messages and questions at forums have centered on typical political divisions such the sources of campaign contributions, the support of teachers and positions on charter schools or private school vouchers.

“Sometimes I think there are issues created by others that are really just divisive wedges,” Mitchell said. “For example, charter schools. Every year we seem to try to drive the charter school wedge into the election.”

Mitchell said the current board is not against charters schools. In previous board discussions, Jeffco board members have expressed a desire for more authority to decide if a charter application is good enough for Jeffco, instead of just legally meeting its requirements to open.

Van Gieson, who is on the parent-teacher organization of a charter school in Jeffco, said he thinks charter schools are treated differently in Jeffco, and if elected, wants to help all schools have similar accountability.

“Where a charter school has to come in front of the board and answer for lower achievement, it would be beneficial to do the same things for neighborhood schools,” Van Gieson said.

The campaign also has included an increased focused on equity.

Joel Newton, founder of the local nonprofit Edgewater Collective, joined Jefferson County Association for Gifted Children to hosted, for the first time, a forum just for discussions on the needs of diverse learners. In previous years, the Jefferson County Association for Gifted Children has hosted a similar forum alone.

“I don’t think that was part of the conversation in the past,” Newton said. “The interesting thing now is both sides have a piece of the puzzle. One side talks about school choice…the other side makes the argument that poverty is the real issue.”

Glass, the superintendent, has emphasized the importance of the school district working with community partners to tackle poverty and other out-of-school factors that impact learning.

Tony Leffert, a Jeffco parent who lives in Golden and supports the new superintendent, said the issue on his mind is keeping the current board on track. He said adding a dissenting voice to the board, could set up a possibility for the minority opinion to take control of the board in two years.

“Given the last school board election that we had, every school board election is important in Jeffco going forward,” Leffert said. “We do not want a repeat of that again.”

Clarification: This story has been updated to note that a forum on the needs of diverse learners, which was hosted for the first time with the Edgewater Collective, has been hosted in the past by Jefferson County Association for Gifted Children.