Readin', Writin' and Rabble-Rousin'

Boulder school board president Stephanie Hult is an old liberal with conservative ideas--and a king-sized chip on her shoulder.

Stephanie Hult, 1960s feminist and anti-war activist, says she's misunderstood.

Her numerous enemies portray Hult, now the president of the Boulder Valley school board, as the spiteful leader of a band of right-wing elitists who want to destroy the Boulder Valley school system. But Hult says she's every bit the social radical she once was. She's still fighting the status quo, she insists, and she's still on the front lines of change, challenging the establishment at every turn.

"I am a revolutionary," says Hult, smoothing her fiery red hair with a hand that sports a large diamond ring and a gold watch. "In college I helped organize a strike in support of Kent State. I remember going to rallies. I was always considered the women's-libber in my sorority. My mother wanted me to be a librarian, but I was always bold and aggressive."

But many of the people she once considered comrades are now her most vehement foes, and Hult says they're engaged in a campaign of character assassination the likes of which Boulder hasn't seen in years. Her opponents like to point out, for instance, that many of her ideas have been endorsed by groups like Focus on the Family, but Hult says that's a way to smear her in a liberal college town. "Now some people think I'm a fundamentalist Christian," she says. "Calling me religious right is a way to demean me in this community." Her vote not to recognize homosexuality as one of the "diversities" valued by the district led to more attacks. "I'm also called homophobic, even though I have a gay brother," adds Hult.

The daughter of a University of Colorado history professor, Hult is a registered Democrat who grew up hearing stories of her parent's struggles during the Great Depression. But in the 1990s Hult has a new enemy: the liberal establishment that she accuses of "dumbing down" the Boulder Valley schools. As the president of the school board and head of a five-person back-to-basics majority that has stirred up one controversy after another since taking power in 1995, Hult describes herself as the most notorious woman in Boulder.

She may also be the most hated. Whether she's endorsing vouchers for private schools or questioning the presence of handicapped children in school classrooms, Hult has a way of infuriating many of her constituents. But nobody has ever questioned her willingness to stand up to critics. "When I get in a fight, I just get tougher," Hult says. "That's what drives people crazy."

Hult has held her ground as hundreds of parents and teachers have crowded school-board meetings and lined up for the opportunity to attack her. With a take-no-prisoners style, she's stared down pickets outside her office and made it clear that she and her board colleagues plan to call the shots.

In the past year the board majority has turned the district upside down, firing the superintendent, forcing out a popular high-school principal, and revamping everything from graduation requirements to teachers' planning time. The board is now working on top-to-bottom changes in the Boulder Valley curriculum that will include a new emphasis on phonics, grammar, memorization and old-fashioned math drills. "There is an educational revolution going on in this community," says Hult.

Her sparring skills honed by years of work as a medical-malpractice attorney, Hult views herself as part of a crusade, an educational jihad against legions of "educrats" who have ruined the public schools and turned out a generation of students who can't read or write, much less understand calculus. In Boulder, she vows, all that is about to end.

Hult and the board majority--once dubbed the "gang of four"--are spearheading an ambitious effort to undo the changes made in education over the past thirty years. Their attempt to go back to the future and install methods of education they remember from their own school days in the 1960s has their opponents seething. Hult has already survived an abortive recall drive that didn't garner enough signatures to force an election but still drew the support of more than 8,000 Boulder Valley residents.

The split in the community is mirrored in the board, whose members have cursed at one another, diagnosed each other as mentally ill and accused each other of harboring delusions of grandeur. The low point in board animosity may have come in December, when former school-board member Susan Marine, who resigned in disgust last August, joined a picket line outside Hult's private law office to protest the ouster of Boulder High School principal Jean Bonelli. A few days later a school-board meeting took on the atmosphere of a high-school food fight as more than 200 of Bonelli's supporters showed up to boo the boardmembers.

Boardmember Linda Shoemaker outraged her colleagues by breaking confidentiality rules and revealing details of an executive session where Bonelli's removal was discussed, prompting Hult to tell a Boulder Daily Camera reporter that "the woman is sick." By the end of the meeting, emotions became so tense that Don Shonkwiler--one of Hult's allies--accused fellow boardmember Sally Kingdom of being a "goddamn liar."

While the board's antics have a certain dark humor--at district headquarters, Hult is reportedly nicknamed "Agent Orange," a reference to both her corrosive style and her flamboyant helmet of red hair--those involved say the situation is anything but funny. Hult's opponents claim that her penchant for combat has fostered a crisis in the Boulder Valley schools.

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