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.

"She sees herself as a big, powerful woman," says Marine. "She's one of the most angry, controlling women I've ever met."

Marine and others say an atmosphere of paranoia and fear has overtaken the district, as administrators, principals and teachers wonder who will incur Hult's wrath next. "I hear, on a regular basis, of people being called up by Stephanie Hult and intimidated," says Marine. "A person who makes a statement at a rally might get a call from Hult."

Rumors of a "hit list" of teachers disliked by the board are widespread. Shoemaker accuses Hult of using Nixonian tactics to threaten district employees. "If a teacher writes a letter to the editor that's critical of the school board, the principal of the school will get a call from Stephanie Hult telling them to 'get that teacher,'" she says.

None of those stories is true, says Hult. She insists she has never called a principal to complain about a teacher who wrote to a newspaper. "I'd be on the telephone all the time if that were the case," she adds. Hult describes the rumors of a hit list as "total baloney," adding that not a single teacher has been dismissed or transferred for criticizing the board--not even one Boulder High School teacher who Hult claims publicly threatened to "beat me up" after Bonelli was told she would be moved to another job in the middle of the school year.

But Hult wants her opponents to know there will be no let-up in the war for the Boulder Valley schools. "I've weathered incredible assaults," she says. "It's a real battle. For me, the recall was very painful and embarrassing. What bothers some people is that I don't buckle."

Hult recalls that when Boulder mayor Leslie Durgin was unable to muster a city council majority in 1995 for a new term as mayor, she called a meeting at City Hall at which she openly wept. A wellspring of sympathy helped her win re-election. Hult and several other back-to-basics boardmembers will be up for re-election in November. But don't expect Stephanie Hult to shed tears anytime soon.

"Maybe if I cried at board meetings when people are screaming at me, people would like me more," she says. "I have too much pride to do that."

Military metaphors come easily to Hult as she talks about her school-board tenure. There's the all-out battle with entrenched administrators, the unassailable fortress of the teachers' union, the bulwark of the state department of education, the reams of propaganda coming out of CU's school of education. Listening to Hult, it's clear she views herself as a gladiator, taking on the barbarians who have pillaged public education.

Hult traces her passionate beliefs about the role of education to her childhood. Her late father, Daniel Smith, taught history for years at CU. Her father and mother both suffered during the Depression and were the first in their families to graduate from college. They believed education had allowed them to make their way into the middle class. "My father came from a dirt-poor Southern family," says Hult. "It was college that saved him."

After Daniel Smith finished graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley, the family moved to Boulder. At age seven, Hult began her education in the Boulder Valley schools. She received a traditional education that she credits with laying the groundwork for her eventual success as an attorney.

"We had Spanish in second grade, and violin lessons," she recalls. "I was taught reading through phonics. The desks were all in a row. Classes were more disciplined, and less was tolerated. There was much more emphasis on facts."

At an early age, Hult became known for her feistiness. When a ninth-grade civics instructor asked her what she wanted to be, she said, "an agent for the FBI." "My teacher said they don't let women do that, and I said, 'They will when I get there,'" she recalls.

After graduating from CU with a liberal-arts degree in the early 1970s, Hult pushed her husband, Jim, to enter law school. A few years later she enrolled in the law program at the University of Denver. She and Jim now have their own legal firm, based in downtown Boulder.

Practicing law seems to suit Hult's personality. "I represent injured persons," she says. "I fight insurance companies. I like fighting the system. I have a lot of energy, and I need a lot of things to do. I've been trained in zealous advocacy." She's even thinking of writing a book based on her experiences on the board, which she's tentatively titled "An Owner's Guide to Taking Back Public Schools."

It was a plan to get rid of junior high schools in Boulder that catapulted Hult into the education wars. In 1992 Boulder Valley began a transition from traditional junior high schools to middle schools. Besides reconfiguring the grades contained in the schools to include sixth through eighth grades, Boulder also embraced a national reform movement known as "middle-school philosophy."

Followers of this movement, including former Boulder superintendent Dean Damon, argue that traditional junior highs serve that age group poorly. They believe the problems that lead students to drop out of high school usually begin in the middle-school grades. The middle-school philosophy calls for an emphasis on students' social and emotional needs as well as academics.

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