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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.

But Saporito insists that such criticisms are simply the price the board has paid for trying to change the system. "The people screaming the loudest are the ones who've been ousted," she says. "If you try to turn things around, you take a lot of heat. The rumors around this district are unbelievable. The teachers who support us tell us in private. There's a horrible peer-pressure thing--the teachers feel they have to go along with the union."

The two factions on the school board are now so far apart and so deeply antagonistic that there seems little chance of compromise. For both sides, the issue has grown from a tug-of-war over middle schools to a fight over core values.

The board majority points out that 12 percent of children in the district attend private schools--a number exceeded only in Denver--and cites this as evidence of widespread dissatisfaction with the Boulder Valley schools. But Shoemaker says the prevailing opinion on the board that education was better thirty years ago is simply wrong. "I don't want to go back to the '50s," she says. "I have a lot of respect for our teachers and teaching methods. I think the education in Boulder is better now than it was then."

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Both Marine and Shoemaker acknowledge that the previous school board made a mistake by eliminating most honors classes at the middle-school level. But they say the new board has destroyed many positive aspects of the middle-school philosophy in its rush to return to yesteryear.

"Now we've thrown the baby out with the bathwater and gone back to a junior-high system," says Shoemaker. "My child is in sixth grade. She's not ready for seven different teachers every day. She doesn't even have a homeroom. There's no teacher who really knows her."

Astray comment Hult made to a Boulder Daily Camera reporter last March helped launch an effort to boot her out of office.

In an interview, Hult rejected the idea that all children should receive the same type of education. She talked about visiting her daughter's middle-school English class and being troubled by the presence of a student with Down's syndrome. "I think those children are wonderful, but don't tell me it's a good mix," she told the newspaper.

The result was an emotional meeting where Hult was confronted by forty parents of students with disabilities. The father of a fourteen-year-old girl with Down's syndrome wept as he talked about his hopes for his daughter. Hult apologized to the group and admitted she hadn't realized that the student she saw in her daughter's class was following a separate lesson plan and that the teacher did not have to alter class lessons to accommodate her.

But the damage was done, and Hult's opponents began the difficult task of gathering 15,000 signatures to recall her. That process revealed just how polarized the community had become over the school board. A woman with a "Halt Hult" sign in her car filed a complaint with police alleging that Hult flipped her off at an intersection, then followed her into a school parking lot and repeated the gesture. Hult said the accusation was a lie, part of a dirty-tricks campaign by recall forces.

Hult was greatly offended by the unsuccessful recall but says it may have had a silver lining. "The recall campaign gave me name recognition I couldn't have bought with $100,000," she says. "I don't think they thought about that."

However, the organizers of the recall insist it was a worthwhile effort to alert the public to the harm being done by the school-board majority.

"Who are they designing this education system for?" asks Don Wharton, a Boulder lawyer and father who helped organize the recall. "They're designing it for the elite, for their own children. They only care about kids going to college."

Recall organizers had sixty days to collect 15,000 signatures and managed to get only about 8,500. But Wharton says his group discovered a widespread antipathy toward Hult, even though many people said they wanted to wait until the general election and wouldn't sign the recall petition. "Hult has manufactured the crisis here," he says. "She's making up this notion that there's a crisis in education."

The Boulder Valley school district might seem an unlikely place for gloomy talk about the decline of the schools. More than 25,000 students from Lafayette to Nederland attend district schools, and they score well above the national average on most standardized tests. But while Boulder is often viewed as an island of smug yuppies, the school district is surprisingly diverse. There are schools with large numbers of poor students who receive free lunches, and hundreds of district students speak little English. The Hispanic dropout rate at Boulder High is 24 percent.

Her detractors accuse Hult of caring only for high-achieving students like her daughter, but Hult insists that a return to the educational models of thirty years ago will help the roughly one third of students who have trouble in school. "I think all of us are very concerned about the bottom third," she says. "If you raise the bar up, I think the lower third will rise to the occasion."

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