Jeffco recall fight reflects national battle over future of public education
GOLDEN — Jefferson County residents want an electoral do-over in November, supporters of an effort to recall three Jeffco school board members said when they turned in double the necessary signatures to put the issue in front of voters.
On July 28, 17 days after the recall effort was launched, more than 37,000 Jefferson County residents had signed the petitions to seek a recall of school board members Ken Witt, Julie Williams and John Newkirk, organizers with Jeffco United For Action said outside the county clerk and recorder’s office.
Organizers had 60 days to collect just 15,000 signatures per board member.
“The message is clear, the people of Jefferson County want to hold this board majority accountable and demand a recall vote on Nov. 3,” said Tina Gurdikian, one of the Jeffco United’s leaders.
The conflict transcends JeffCo classrooms. It’s a fight over the future of public education — in Jeffco and around the nation.
The county clerk must validate those signatures, after which residents have to challenge the signatures. At that point the clerk may set a date for the recall election.
JeffCo school board president Witt, a recall target, said he welcomes the opportunity to have a dialogue with the public about his track record. But he declined to discuss whether he had any plans to counter the recall effort with a campaign of his own.
“I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished,” he said. “We heard loudly from voters that they want a focus on academic achievement, an expansion of choice, and ensuring we have accountability. I intend to remain focused on those goals. I am committed to ensuring Jeffco students get the great education they deserve.”
UNION VERSUS CONSERVATIVES
The battle will feature a large cast of special-interest groups and potentially huge sums of money from local and national donors who have been waiting to see whether the recall became a reality.
Critics of the board majority believe the majority’s endgame is to terminate the district’s agreement with the Jefferson County Education Association and continue to advance a reform agenda that includes more policies influenced by free-market principles.
The majority’s supporters counter that the teachers union is making a power grab to “regain control” it lost in 2013 when the conservative board majority was elected by wide margins.
School board elections are usually sleepy affairs with miniscule budgets that don’t attract much of the electorate.
In fact, of the 178,000-some Jefferson County residents who went to the ballot box in 2013, only about 136,000 bothered to select a school board member in each of the three races. That’s compared WITH the more than 400,000 registered voters in the county.
But as federal and state governments become more polarized and gridlocked, local municipal and school board races are increasingly attractive to large national donors looking to make political points, said Jeff Henig, a professor of political science and education at the Teachers College at Columbia University.
“Most of the nation’s 15,000 school districts are pretty much untouched by the national money and attention,” he said. “But it’s happening a bit. And increasingly.”
Look no further than wealthy Douglas County, south of Jefferson, where Americans For Prosperity, backed by the billionaire Koch brothers, spent $350,000 in the 2013 election to maintain a conservative school board majority that instituted a market-based pay system for teachers and a voucher program that was recently struck down by the Colorado Supreme Court.
Supporters of the Jeffco majority say the board’s reforms, such as linking teacher pay to performance, are critical to improving classrooms.
“These are reforms that benefit students, and we will work to keep them in place regardless of who is on the board now or 10 years from now,” said Michael Fields, the state director for Americans For Prosperity-Colorado. “What we are engaging in is a long term policy battle across the state.”
Alan Franklin, political director from Progress Now, a nonprofit progressive advocacy organization said his side of the political spectrum, which has been mostly focused on state-level races, now recognizes the outsized role a school board can have on a community and larger political debates.
“School boards have a way of influencing students and communities,” Franklin said. “We’d be fools to ignore this battle. Our schools supply the future electorate. The right wing recognized this well before the progressives.”
To read more about the battle over the Jeffco school board and more about the big-money fight nationally over public education, go to http://co.chalkbeat.org/.
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