What happens when an ineligible candidate wins an election with two-thirds of the vote?
That's the situation Amy Speers finds herself in. A candidate for the Adams 12 Five Star school board, Speers was declared ineligible a week before election day when district officials realized she didn't live in the area she was seeking to represent -- an honest mistake on Speers's part. But she refused to withdraw from the race, which led to intervention by state officials and, soon thereafter, a lawsuit.
On November 18, a judge ruled that the state intervention, which resulted in Speers's votes not being counted, was wrong. The judge ordered Adams and Broomfield counties, which comprise the Adams 12 Five Star school district, to tally Speers' votes even though she can't take office.
Both counties have now done that, though Broomfield's results won't be certified until Friday. Still, the tallies show that Speers won the most votes. In Adams County, she received 64 percent of the total and in Broomfield County, she won 62 percent. Her opponent, incumbent Rico Figueroa, garnered 36 percent of the vote in Adams County and 38 percent in Broomfield County. But in essence, Speers' victory means that nobody won -- and the school board will be tasked with appointing someone to fill the seat.
Confused? Let's start at the beginning.
Speers is a public health nurse who works with special needs children through the Tri-County Health Department. She has one son, Alec, who graduated from Thornton High School and is now a sophomore at the University of Northern Colorado. Speers has always been an involved parent, and she was an active supporter of the music and theater programs her son participated in while he attended Adams 12 schools. Some of his friends still call her "Mama Speers," she says.
In late 2011, a seat on the five-person Adams 12 school board came up for grabs when then-board member Heidi Williams was elected mayor of Thornton. Williams had represented District 4, an L-shaped area of more than 40,000 residents that today encompasses chunks of Northglenn and Thornton. Because Williams was in the middle of her term, it fell to the school board to appoint someone to replace her. The board put out a call for candidates -- and Speers was among those who answered. She didn't like that the school district had cut some full-time art, music and physical education teachers.
"I thought it was important to have those things in the schools," Speers says.
But the board members didn't choose her. Instead, they appointed Rico Figueroa, the vice president of the Center for Relationship Education, which teaches abstinence education to teenagers and hosts relationship workshops for couples.
Over the next two years, the district came under fire for its budgeting processes, which resulted in millions of dollars being put into reserves at the same time that cuts were being made to teaching staff and programs, such as sports. The district also entered into an increasingly contentious battle with the teachers union over pension contributions.
So with Figueroa's term expiring this fall, Speers signed up to run against him. The union supported her. "Her background as a school nurse, advocating for children with special needs and being an ardent supporter of the arts made her very attractive to teachers and parents in this community," says Dorian De Long, president of the District Twelve Educators Association. The union contributed more than $30,000 in money and manpower to Speers' campaign, though De Long notes that she was no puppet candidate.
"This is a strong, independent, intelligent, rational woman and despite what her opponents would say, by no means was she a union stooge," he says. "I thought it was so insulting that she was portrayed that way."
She was also portrayed as someone who wanted to teach children the language of Klingon from the Star Trek series. A few local blogs dug up old news stories about how Speers's husband d'Armond, who is a linguist, spoke exclusively in Klingon to their son Alec until the boy was three years old. It wasn't because the Speerses are big Star Trek fans; rather, it was an academic exploration. Speers spoke to Alec exclusively in English.
"If Amy Speers would allow someone to experiment on her own child, what would she allow for the children of Adams 12?" a post on the conservative Colorado Peak Politics asked. The blog Tony's Rants, written by a self-described "conservative" and "rather opinionated" guy, ran a photoshopped picture of Speers with a Klingon forehead.
De Long calls the criticism "absolutely ludicrous and incredibly mean-spirited." Speers says she was most disappointed by suggestions that speaking in Klingon to Alec made him a social outcast. "If you know my child, you've never met such a social creature in your life," she says. She also says that while she was the subject of several attacks, she didn't strike back: "My campaign was very positive. I always spoke on what I could do and what I could bring and not what I didn't like in my opponent."
Continue for more on how Speers was deemed ineligible. Among Speers' supporters was Karen Marquez, a parent of two kids in Adams 12. Marquez was also upset by the cuts to the district's budget, and she thought Speers shared her views on how to fix things. "Amy thought there needs to be a better way to manage the money," Marquez says, "and she said she wanted to bring back sports if she was on the board. Some kids really rely on that." Marquez also liked that Speers works with children. "She has that compassion, that level of caring for the kids. I didn't feel that Rico had it."
A week before the November 5 election, the district investigated a tip it received about Speers not living in District 4 -- and found out that the tipster was right. The district had redrawn the boundaries for its school board members in May 2012 and while Speers had lived in District 4 when she sought to fill the seat vacated by Williams, she no longer did. Her address was now part of District 2, a fact the district had overlooked when it approved her as a candidate and okayed her name to be printed on the ballot.
Speers was also unaware that she no longer lived in District 4. In fact, when she was submitting her paperwork to run, she says someone at the district jokingly asked her if she'd moved in the past two years. No, she'd told them.
Speers was upset by the news. "It felt like everything everybody had done for three months was wasted," she says. But her supporters stood by her, and Speers made the decision not to withdraw from the race. Instead, she continued to encourage people to vote for her. The point? To send a message to the school board that the residents of Adams 12 supported non-conservative candidates such as herself, she says.
"I wanted the people from Adams 12 to have a voice," Speers says.
On election day, the clerks of Adams and Broomfield counties announced that they would indeed count Speers's votes. But at 5:19 p.m. that night, Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler issued an emergency rule to stop them from doing that.
The rule states that, "If the designated election official determines, after ballots are printed, that an individual whose name appears on the ballot is not qualified for office, the votes cast for that individual are invalid and must not be counted."
Andrew Cole, a spokesman for the secretary of state's office, says the rule was issued at the last minute because Gessler thought the clerks had decided not to count the votes -- a move Cole says Gessler thought was proper. When they announced on election day that they would count the votes, Gessler issued the rule, Cole says.
"It doesn't make sense to count votes for someone who's not eligible to take office," Cole says. "It was a mistake that they certified her name to the ballot; everyone acknowledges that it was a mistake. So at the end of the day, you have one person who is eligible. So if he were to get one vote, then he wins. It's like running unopposed."
But Marquez and others didn't agree with that logic. Along with seven other voters, Marquez filed a lawsuit on November 14 against Gessler, the clerks in Adams and Broomfield counties and the designated election official for Adams 12. It alleges that Gessler's emergency rule went against the law and exceeded the authority of the secretary of state's office. The clerks should count Speers's votes, it asserts, and if it's determined that she won, the District 4 seat should be declared vacant and the school board should appoint someone to fill it.
Attorney Ed Ramey, who is representing the eight voters, requested an emergency hearing in Denver District Court, where the lawsuit was filed, and was granted one on November 18. Later that same day, Judge Robert Hyatt ruled in the voters' favor.
Gessler issued a statement, vowing to appeal. "Today's ruling hurts the voters of the Adams 12 school district and undermines the democratic process," it says. "The winning candidate should be allowed to take his seat and represent the people who elected him. But instead, a Denver judge may have nullified the election because votes were not counted for an ineligible candidate. We will appeal this absurd result."
Speers didn't even know that a lawsuit had been filed until the day the judge ruled on it. Union head De Long, who was not part of the lawsuit but who was keeping tabs on its progress, called to tell her the result. "I'm glad that the community is going to be able to know, and that their voice is being heard," she says.
But even if the judge's ruling is upheld on appeal, it won't change things for Speers. She remains ineligible to fill the District 4 seat, an outcome she says she's accepted.
A swearing-in ceremony for the new board members scheduled for November 20 has been postponed. Instead, the district says it will wait. A statement on its website reads, "Depending on when the election results are certified and the status of any court proceedings, the board may have to hold a special meeting at a later date for the swearing-in ceremony." A district spokesman says that as the incumbent, Figueroa will remain in the District 4 seat "until elected or someone is appointed to fill a declared vacancy."
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More from our Education archive: "Reformers sweep DPS school board election: What does it mean for future of district?"Follow me on Twitter @MelanieAsmar or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org