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.

It could be especially serious given Hult's apparent flip-flop on the issue. Steve Armitage of the Boulder teachers' union says that when Hult was running for office, she told his group she was opposed to vouchers. Asked exactly where she stands, Hult admits favoring vouchers but says she won't push the issue; the creation of publicly supported charter schools, she suggests, will likely provide an "antidote" to vouchers, anyway.

But though she may be backing away from her comments in Vail, Hult still speaks with the fervor of a revolutionary. Whereas she once thought reforming the schools was simply a matter of changing the people at the top, she now believes the entire educational establishment must be overturned.

"It's the teachers' union and entrenched administrators and the school of education at CU that grind out this pap in education," she says. "Their number-one priority is to ensure the continuation of their own jobs. We come smack up against this bureaucracy of educrats. The teachers' union gets the teachers worked up, and they do the same with the students."

Boulder is now heading for the most divisive--and expensive--school-board election in its history. Four seats will be open in November, including Hult's and Saporito's, and Boulder voters will have a strikingly clear choice of educational philosophies. A coalition already has been formed to oppose the board majority and is expected to field a slate of candidates for every open seat. The coalition is planning to raise $100,000 to back four candidates--a figure once unheard of for a Boulder Valley school-board election.

The experience of a former back-to-basics school-board majority in Littleton would seem to indicate that the odds are against Hult and her allies. In 1993 a back-to-basics slate took charge of that city's school board after the previous board had endorsed high-school graduation requirements that many believed were based more on promoting self-esteem than on academics. After firing superintendent Cile Chavez, the new board majority got into a series of fights with parents and teachers. In 1995 Littleton voters rejected a slate of back-to-basics candidates by a two-to-one margin and gave control of the board to moderates.

But revolutionaries have to take risks, and Hult is a risk-taker. "This is a district on the cutting edge," she says. "This is the most reform-minded board in Colorado, and probably in the western United States."

Hult's background as an attorney has shaped her approach to leading the school board and may account for at least some of the polarization that's taken place in Boulder. She says her habit of speaking her mind has spurred the controversy. "Someone told me the sorts of things that got Newt Gingrich where he is are now biting me in the back," she adds. "That worries me, because I don't like Newt Gingrich. Maybe I'm more like Hillary Clinton."

Many of Hult's most prominent critics are women, something that has not escaped her notice. As a woman who feels like she's blazed trails for others, this gender gap troubles her. "During the recall, it was the men who would come up to me and say 'Give 'em hell,'" she says. "I think there's a gender issue. It bothers me as an old '60s feminist."

For the daughter of a dyed-in-the-wool liberal professor, going to war with schoolteachers and education Ph.D.s is a bit disconcerting. "My mother, who is an old New Deal Democrat, says these are the most illiberal liberals she's ever seen," muses Hult. "It's very odd to be battling my own people."

But war is war, and no one ever accused Stephanie Hult of being a draft dodger.

"The liberal Democrats want the status quo," she says. "It's the Republicans and Independents who want change. I have a real passion for this--it involves me on an emotional and intellectual level. If I were a political animal, I'd be more judicious. That's not how I am. I say what I think."

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