History Is Still Being Written in the Ugly Battle Over Public Education in Jefferson County
Photo by Jim Narcy
In November 2013, three new school-board members were elected in Jefferson County. Ken Witt, John Newkirk and Julie Williams — or “WNW,” as they called themselves — ran as a group of fiscal conservatives who were in favor of school choice and opposed to Amendment 66, a statewide Democrat-backed tax hike that would have funneled $950 million into Colorado schools. The proposal failed, and Witt, Newkirk and Williams won.
The three now hold the majority on the school district’s five-member board. Depending on whom you ask, that’s either a victory or a crisis. Their opponents say they’re Tea Partiers bent on busting the teachers’ union. They fear the majority will privatize public education by siphoning money from traditional neighborhood schools to feed a growing charter movement that could one day include schools run by for-profit corporations. They’ve accused them of ignoring parent input, wasting money on a lawyer, driving out a dedicated superintendent and passing surprise motions that erode public trust and threaten to ruin the stellar track record of Jeffco schools.
“It’s a whole bunch of different pieces,” says Jonna Levine, a parent who’s been involved in the schools for fifteen years. “But you put it together, and it’s not the same Jeffco.”
Meanwhile, their supporters say WNW are doing yeoman’s work to improve a district that for too long coasted by on its successes while ignoring its challenges. They say the board majority is boldly rejecting the status quo by taking a close and critical look at what’s working in Jeffco and what isn’t. It’s too bad, they say, that the majority’s work is being distorted by a teachers’ union more concerned with protecting its members than with educating kids.
“For many, many, many years, the majority on the board were the union-backed school-board candidates,” says former boardmember Laura Boggs, who herself was not a union favorite. But in the last election, she says, “their candidates didn’t win. They don’t feel like they know what they’re going to get with a Julie Williams-Ken Witt-John Newkirk majority.
“People need to breathe,” she adds, “and say, ‘What have these people done differently?’”
A quick rundown of the actions that have ignited the most ire:
• In December 2013, the board majority voted to hire Colorado Springs attorney Brad Miller to represent the school board at a cost of up to $90,000 per year. Two days before the vote, Witt, who is the board president, e-mailed the other four members about possibly hiring Miller or another attorney. The two minority members, Jill Fellman and Lesley Dahlkemper, did not get a chance to interview Miller before the meeting; the three majority members did. When Fellman and Dahlkemper questioned why the board needed its own attorney and why it was moving so quickly to hire one, Witt pointed to the pending retirement of an attorney who worked for the district. The minority members argued that it had not been the retiring attorney’s job solely to represent the board, but the majority voted to hire Miller anyway.
• In January 2014, Dahlkemper asked if the board could schedule some time to discuss what Miller would be doing. Witt cut her off. Although he said that he appreciated her request, his response was, “I don’t want to waste any more board time with it. The decision was made.”
• In February 2014, Jefferson County Schools superintendent Cindy Stevenson quit. She’d previously announced that she’d be leaving at the end of the school year, but said she changed her mind because the board majority was making her job impossible. “I can’t lead and manage, because I am not trusted or respected by this board of education,” she said tearfully at a board meeting. In May, the board voted 3-2 to hire as her replacement Dan McMinimee, an administrator from conservative Douglas County, where the school board backs vouchers.
Jeffco school-board members John Newkirk (from left), Julie Williams, Ken Witt, Lesley Dahlkemper and Jill Fellman don’t always agree.
• In June 2014, the board majority approved a budget that included $5.5 million to equalize funding for charter-school students but did not include a recommended $600,000 to expand free full-day kindergarten for schools that met a certain low-income threshold. A survey of more than 13,000 parents, teachers and Jeffco residents had shown that 71 percent supported investing in kindergarten, while only 22 percent supported expanding charters.
• In August 2014, after rejecting a tentative salary agreement between the district and the union, Witt unveiled a pay-for-performance plan that increases teachers’ base pay and gives raises to “highly effective” and “effective” teachers but not “partially effective” ones. Witt’s plan went against a fact-finder’s recommendation that teachers deemed “partially effective” also get raises. The fact-finder had determined that the district’s evaluation system was not reliable enough to be used to calculate pay.
• In September 2014, Williams introduced a motion to form a committee to review the Advanced Placement U.S. History curriculum. The motion stated that materials should promote “patriotism” and “positive aspects of the United States” and not encourage “civil disorder” or “social strife.”
• In March 2015, Newkirk moved to consider shuffling the locations of several schools in Wheat Ridge and Golden. He made the motion despite the fact that district staff had previously dismissed the plan as unworkable.
Whether these actions are unforgivable sins or good ideas that have been twisted to look bad is a matter of vigorous debate. But the one thing everyone seems to agree on is that for the past year and a half, public-education policy in Jeffco hasn’t been pretty.
There have been teacher sickouts, student walkouts, and national media attention focused on the AP U.S. History proposal. Students have protested at meetings and been escorted out by security guards. Teachers have shouted down the board. Disheartened parents have formed watchdog groups. Anonymous Twitter accounts have popped up during meetings skewering the board majority with snarky 140-character missives and mean-spirited memes.
Meanwhile, WNW supporters are fighting back by publishing their own newspaper, The Jeffco Observer. The paper is mailed to households all over Jefferson County, a diverse slice of Colorado that’s home to wealthy mountain-town residents, middle-class suburbanites and low-income working families. One recent article, published on the eve of teacher-contract negotiations, highlighted “seven of the most absurd provisions” in the current contract.
The tension extends to the boardmembers themselves and is regularly on display during meetings, which can stretch past midnight. Although Witt, Newkirk and Williams have the majority on the board, it often seems that the audience comprises more foes than fans.
Boggs, who generally counts herself among those fans, says that’s to be expected: “If you’re happy with the decisions the board is making, you’re making dinner and taking your kids to soccer. You’re not showing up to the board meeting.”
So who are the students, parents and teachers in those folding chairs?
Senior Ashlyn Maher started Jeffco Students for Change after last fall’s walkouts.
Ashlyn Maher is a seventeen-year-old high-school senior with freckles and long red hair. A straight-A student, she’s younger than most of her peers because she skipped a grade. But for as long as she can remember, adults have been telling her she has an old soul.
Maher is the founder of Jeffco Students for Change, a group that is firmly in the anti-WNW camp. She began paying attention to the school board shortly after the 2013 election, when a former teacher pointed out the goals of the new majority. Maher didn’t like what she saw, and she was happy when other students began to take notice during teacher sickouts that started the day after the board passed Witt’s pay-for-performance plan.
At that same meeting, Williams floated her proposal to review the AP U.S. History curriculum with an eye toward downplaying “social strife.” Her suggestion backfired. Students staged walkouts that were widely covered in the press, including the New York Times. The hashtag #JeffcoSchoolBoardHistory trended on Twitter. (Sample tweet: “Young men in the 1960’s burned their draft cards to celebrate joining the Army. #JeffcoSchoolBoardHistory.”)
Maher, too, was incensed. She’d always considered herself a history buff; as a kid, she’d memorized the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence and dreamed of becoming an Egyptologist. She’d taken AP U.S. History in her sophomore year, and she didn’t like the idea that one person could propose an idea that could alter what an entire district would learn. She also didn’t like that Witt had called the protesting students union “pawns” in the press.
So she took to Facebook to help organize a walkout at her own school, Chatfield Senior High. Maher drew inspiration from one of her heroes, Star Trek captain Kathryn Janeway. The fictional commander of the stranded USS Voyager must guide her crew on a long and perilous journey home. According to Maher, Janeway is a cool-headed yet sassy leader.
As for her own mission, she says, “We wanted to do something they couldn’t miss, that they couldn’t ignore.”
At 8:10 a.m. on September 24, hundreds of Chatfield students left their classrooms. They converged with kids from Dakota Ridge High at a busy intersection, holding signs that read, “Don’t Make History a Mystery” and “Education Without Limitation.” Afterward, Maher felt so inspired that she contacted student organizers at other high schools and proposed forming a group to keep the momentum going. Thus, Jeffco Students for Change was born.
Since then, the group has put on a few events, including a rally at which they collected contact information for people willing to help if an effort to recall Witt, Newkirk and Williams came to pass. They also hosted a forum, to which they invited McMinimee and the entire school board. (None of the three board majority members were able to make it.) But the group’s most visible actions have been a pair of protests staged during board meetings. Says Maher: “I went Janeway on them.”
The first protest took place in early November, when the outrage over Williams’s curriculum proposal was still fresh. Ten students interrupted the board meeting, taking turns reading passages aloud from AP U.S. History books on subjects including Rosa Parks and Malcolm X. As each student was led out by security guards, another popped up and started reading. Maher was planning to give a short speech during the public-comment portion of the meeting, but Witt cut her off when he realized she was attempting to take the slot of a student who’d already been escorted out. Maher, too, was told to leave, and she says she and the other booted students gathered on the lawn outside. As they stood there, the sprinklers came on.
“I was in a dress,” she says. “I was mad and I was cold.”
When she got home, she recorded herself reading her speech and uploaded it to YouTube. “You are the board of education,” she read. “How can you sleep at night knowing you are trying to manipulate the futures of at least 85,000 students in Jeffco right now? ... We are those students, and we have confronted you and your deception. Checkmate.”
Even though the protest was cut short, the students considered it a success. So did the adults who oppose the board majority. And so the teenagers planned another one. This time, Maher wanted to make sure they followed the rules so that they wouldn’t be kicked out. At a board meeting in February, fifteen students signed up for public comment. When it was their turn, they walked together to the podium with duct tape over their mouths. Maher was the only one who spoke: “My name is Ashlyn Maher, and we are the Jeffco Students for Change,” she said. “We stand before you today because we want you to know that the students you represent are still listening, still watching.”
She said students had been attending budget forums and were concerned about several funding proposals, including those related to teacher salaries. “We would tell you more if we thought that you would listen, but you have shown that you will not,” she said. “So we now choose to spend the rest of our public-comment time silently reminding the board to listen.”
For four minutes, they stood facing the board. Maher had invited anyone who was in solidarity with them to stand, and she was annoyed when Witt, Newkirk and Williams rose out of their seats. “It was like, ‘You guys realize you’re standing in solidarity against yourselves?’” she says. But she stayed silent. Then, with a few seconds to spare, she spoke again.
“This is the only way that we thought you could see how many people stand with us,” Maher said, “and what your decisions truly do to a once-united community.”
Maher plans to attend college in the fall, but she says she’s committed to staying involved in Jeffco. She has a younger sister and brother, and she wants to make sure they get a good education. “It’s not just about me,” she says. “It never really was.”
Shawna Fritzler does not supports many of the board majority’s reforms, and helped start a group to spread that word.
Shawna Fritzler is a suburban mom who speaks quickly and is never far from her iPhone and a cup of Starbucks coffee. After her now-ten-year-old daughter was born, she retired from a career in commercial real-estate development to focus on PTA meetings, school fundraisers and Girl Scout cookie sales. In January 2012, she attended a meeting about proposed cuts to the district budget. A TV reporter interviewed her there, and she cried on camera as she spoke about how her daughter’s school might lose its beloved librarian.
Jonna Levine saw that interview and immediately set about finding Fritzler. A longtime Jeffco parent, Levine had campaigned for school-related tax increases and bond measures in 2004 and 2008. She and fellow parent Kelly Johnson were gearing up to push for another mill levy and bond issue to offset the budget cuts in 2012, and they were looking for volunteers. Although Fritzler was on the opposite end of the political spectrum — Levine is a liberal Democrat, Fritzler is a lifelong Republican — she agreed to help.
The mill levy and bond issue, dubbed 3A and 3B, respectively, passed. Afterward, Levine approached Fritzler with the idea of starting an organization to keep in touch with supporters so they’d have a network the next time a mill and bond were on the ballot. Fritzler thought it was a worthy project, but they hadn’t gotten it off the ground yet when the 2013 school-board election rolled around.
Six candidates were running for three open seats. Three of the candidates were backed by the teachers’ union. Three others — Witt, Newkirk and Williams — were not. Instead, their supporters included the Jefferson County GOP and an organization called Jeffco Students First that touts pay-for-performance, school choice and “funding that follows the student.” Newkirk had donated money to the organization; tax records show that his family’s nonprofit, the Snow Valley Foundation, contributed $2,000 in 2012 and another $4,400 in 2013.
To Fritzler and Levine, it seemed as though Witt, Newkirk and Williams had come out of nowhere. Witt is an information-technology specialist and businessman who has four kids, the youngest of whom attends Columbine High School. Newkirk is a Jeffco grad with three daughters; during his campaign, all three attended public schools. His family established its foundation with profits from the sale of a medical-device company that he and his father started. Williams, who campaigned as “The Conservative Choice!,” is also a Jeffco graduate. She manages an orthodontists’ office and has two children in school, including a son with special needs.
Fritzler and Levine each attended several candidate forums and became concerned by the trio’s answers to questions about vouchers and arming teachers. (Williams’s family has connections to Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, Colorado’s controversial “no-compromise” gun-rights group.) They were also troubled by how most voters seemed to be paying little attention. Instead, the deciding factor for many people appeared to be whether the candidates supported Amendment 66, the proposed tax hike.
“A lot of people told me they wouldn’t vote for people who supported 66,” Levine says.
So perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when WNW cleaned up at the polls. But Fritzler and Levine were unprepared for what the three did once they were sworn in.
“They came in like a bull in a china shop,” Levine says.
“All of a sudden, they wanted our superintendent gone,” Fritzler adds.
She and Levine felt they needed to sound the alarm. They rushed to set up their organization, which they decided to call Support Jeffco Kids. They were still working on launching a website when Stevenson made her emotional announcement that she’d be leaving early. “We had to go live that day,” Fritzler says. “And we didn’t sleep for a few weeks afterward.”
Fritzler still doesn’t get much sleep. Her life is consumed by Jeffco schools. One look around her dining room confirms it. The space has been taken over by Support Jeffco Kids yard signs, which she sells for $10 each in order to raise funds for the group, and blue T-shirts that say “Stand Up for All Students,” which go for $8 apiece. The phrase, coined by the teachers’ union, has become the opposition’s battle cry. Fritzler says she’s not affiliated with the union, though she received its “Friend of Education” award last year. (Levine has also won the award.)
A night owl, Fritzler spends her evenings updating the Support Jeffco Kids website with letters from unhappy parents and calls to action. She and Levine scour the online meeting agendas for background information on agenda items, and they liberally quote from news stories and editorials that criticize the majority. They’ve posted documents obtained through open-records requests, including invoices showing how much the district is paying the board’s attorney. And they link to a YouTube page called “Transparency Jeffco.” From December 2013 to June 2014, an anonymous video wiz took raw footage from board meetings and edited together short videos that could be called a “greatest hits” of the decisions most unpopular with the anti-WNW crowd. The last video is a context-free clip of Williams at a board meeting: “I keep hearing about the community not having a chance to speak,” she snaps. “But they did at the election.” The video is titled “Accountable to No One.”
Fritzler is also a prolific tweeter who attends board meetings with a portable charger for her iPhone. With just 140 characters at her disposal, she doesn’t mince words.
“Newkirk claims to have listened to community for last two weeks but I can see his nose growing #standup4kids,” she tweeted last month.
In addition to their online presence, Fritzler and Levine give presentations for school PTAs, man booths at local festivals and pay $10 a pop to set up information tables at parent-teacher conferences. They’re always armed with handouts that list the board majority’s alleged misdeeds, including giving $650,000 in loans to two charter schools with less-than-stellar financial histories and approving a new classical academy with ties to a college that the National Review dubbed “the conservative Harvard.” Support Jeffco Kids has also paid for newspaper and television ads, in addition to a robocall about how the board majority has declined to sign off on building new schools in the booming northeastern part of the county.
They considered mounting a recall effort, but dismissed the idea as too costly. So for now, they’re relegated to fighting back with blog posts, lawn signs and T-shirts. They figure that if enough people get outraged, something will have to change.
Fritzler still gets emotional when she talks about it. “I wanted to make sure my daughter had the best of everything,” she says. “We chose Jefferson County for the schools.”
Now, she says, she doesn’t trust that those schools will remain the best. “I don’t care if you hate our schools,” Fritzler says, “but don’t hurt the kids. Don’t hurt my kid.”
Paula Reed never expected to be a union advocate.
Paula Reed is an English teacher at Columbine High School who writes historical romance novels on the side. She’s taught at Columbine since 1986, save for some time she took off after the 1999 shootings. Before 2013, Reed says, she didn’t pay much attention to the school board. The only times she’d gone to meetings were when her students were being recognized for their achievements. She stayed for the handshakes and photos and then left.
For a long time, she didn’t pay much attention to the union, either. She joined the Jefferson County Education Association as a rookie, but quit when she saw the union protecting a colleague who she felt was a weak teacher. She rejoined after state lawmakers passed a high-stakes testing law in 2000, but she describes her involvement as “nominal.”
“If you told me five years ago that I’d be a union activist, I’d be like, ‘What are you talking about?’” Reed says. She began to get more involved in 2013, when she attended a summer leadership conference.
“Then these guys got elected,” Reed says, “and that’s when it was a full-scale attack on public education in Jeffco.” That’s a bold statement, but Reed doesn’t hold back. With just three years before she can retire with full benefits, she’s not afraid to say things that others wouldn’t dare. And what she’s saying these days is this: Jeffco needs to minimize the damage that the board majority can do and then “vote these clowns out in 2017.”
The first sign that the majority was no good, Reed says, was when they voted to hire the board attorney in a single meeting, with no input from the community or their fellow boardmembers. Then came Stevenson’s abrupt departure and the AP U.S. History proposal. But for Reed, “the absolute icing on the cake, the nail in the coffin, the thing, was negotiations.”
In March 2014, the union and the district entered into negotiations about how much money would be allocated for teacher salaries the following school year. Jeffco teachers had agreed to take a 3 percent pay cut in 2011 when the budget was especially tight. Now that the coffers were more full, the union wanted salary step increases restored.
But in April, the union declared an impasse. Leaders said they were frustrated that it seemed like the school board refused to give direction to the district’s bargaining team. The two sides entered into mediation, and in June, they signed a tentative agreement that gave step raises to all teachers rated “highly effective,” “effective” and “partially effective.” A third-party fact-finder had determined that it wasn’t fair to base teachers’ pay on their individual ratings until the evaluation system was improved to ensure uniformity from school to school.
But the board majority rejected the fact-finder’s report. At a meeting in late August, Witt offered a new proposal that gives 4.3 percent raises to “highly effective” teachers and 2.4 percent raises to “effective” ones. Teachers with more than three years of experience who are rated “partially effective” get nothing. His plan also increases teachers’ base pay from about $33,000 to $38,000, in order to make Jeffco competitive with surrounding districts.
An analysis by education news site Chalkbeat Colorado found that under Witt’s plan, the best teachers in Jeffco could earn more money sooner in their careers, but most teachers would earn less in their first ten years of teaching. Reed says she stands to earn more; as one of the district’s “highly effective” teachers, she’s eligible for the biggest raise. Even so, she was infuriated that the board majority chose to ignore the tentative agreement and the fact-finder’s report.
“Ken Witt pulls a salary schedule out of his back pocket at a board meeting, and all of a sudden, that’s how we’re getting paid,” Reed says.
She decided she had to do something, so she joined the union’s organizing action team and got trained to throw “house parties.” The idea is to recruit people who are willing to host a gathering of their friends and neighbors, then invite a trained facilitator to lead a discussion about the school board. Reed often ropes her husband into coming with her to the parties. As she puts it, he’s a middle-aged Republican small-business owner who has the credibility to tell others like him that the board majority are not the conservatives they claim to be. Spending money on a lawyer is not conservative, she points out. Promoting charters isn’t, either. After all, what’s more conservative than a traditional neighborhood school?
Reed has also knocked on doors, distributed Support Jeffco Kids lawn signs and handed out leaflets at festivals and parades. Every Thursday, she joins teachers across the district in wearing blue to school. “It’s a solidarity thing,” Reed explains. “No matter how overpowered you feel, no matter how much these guys do whatever they want, you are not alone.”
What’s more, Reed writes about the board on her personal blog. She started the blog years ago to promote her romance novels, which have titles like That Kind of Woman and Pirate of Her Heart. But as she grew increasingly angry with the board majority, she began blogging about Jeffco schools. In her first post, she vented frustration at the viewpoint that the teachers’ union is a bunch of thugs and bullies.
“I hear the anti-teacher rhetoric going full-throttle,” she wrote in February 2014, “often not directed at individual teachers so much as ‘that teachers’ union.’ So I just thought I’d tell you that I am the teachers’ union. Chances are very good that, if you have kids in Jeffco schools, their teachers are also ‘the teachers’ union.’”
Reed says her goal is to tell as many people as will listen that this board is bad news. In her experience, there’s a small group that knows what’s going on and supports the board majority, and a bigger group that knows and is opposed. But most people, she says, have no idea.
“In the end, I’ll know that I’m part of what saved public schools in Jefferson County,” she says. “Or at least I’ll know that we didn’t lose public schools because I didn’t do anything.”
Sheila Atwell supports many of the board majority’s reforms.
Not everyone agrees with Reed’s assessment. Sheila Atwell is an Evergreen mom and the executive director of Jeffco Students First, the organization that backed WNW in the election. She says the board majority has more than its fair share of supporters; it’s just that they don’t always speak with one voice, so it’s easy for them to get drowned out by those who do.
“They’re so spread out, and everybody has a different issue,” Atwell says. The thing that unites them, she says, is somewhat amorphous: a sense that things in Jefferson County schools could be better, that the board should be taking another approach.
It was that sentiment that led a group of community members to start Jeffco Students First in 2011. That year, two school-board seats were up for grabs. The group backed a pair of reform-minded candidates, but it didn’t have much money to invest in the election, and the candidates lost. Dahlkemper and Fellman won, with 56 and 60 percent of the vote, respectively.
Atwell joined the group the following year. She, too, felt that achievement in Jefferson County could be higher, and she and others were tired of hearing excuses about the district having more low-income students and English Language Learners than before. They thought Jeffco should be more like Denver, which has several charter schools that serve at-risk kids and get high test results.
Atwell’s two children don’t go to public school, but she figured that might actually give her an advantage, because she could speak critically about the district without having to worry about retaliation.
“Nobody was asking the tough questions,” she says. “It seemed to be like, ‘Everything is fine because Jeffco is better than the state.’”
Jeffco Students First was more ready when the next election came around. In 2013, there were three seats up for grabs, which meant a real chance to shift district policy. The group spent $30,000 in the election through a committee called Believe in Better Schools. Meanwhile, Witt, Newkirk and Williams were raising their own money, though it was far less than that of their union-backed competitors. Still, the three were victorious, winning with 58, 54 and 61 percent of the vote, respectively.
When the opposition claims that the only reason WNW won was because it was an off-year, low-turnout election, supporters point out that more people showed up to the polls in 2013 than turned out to vote for Dahlkemper and Fellman in 2011. It helped, Atwell says, that the district was mired in a controversy about data security related to a system called inBloom that would have stored student information in the cloud. The board eventually rejected it, but not before the issue raised serious questions about how decisions were being made.
Almost immediately, Atwell says, the union started crying foul. The message was that there was a crisis in Jefferson County and that the board majority was all about waste, secrecy and disrespect. But Atwell doesn’t see it that way.
She doesn’t think it’s wasteful to share mill and bond money with charter schools. After all, she says, charter parents pay taxes, too, and their students should get a fair share of the pie. And she doesn’t see how giving raises to good teachers is disrespectful.
The secrecy claim irks her, too. One of the first things the board did was start streaming its meetings online, which Atwell argues is the opposite of secretive. It was the union, she says, that declared an impasse last year, something that moved open negotiations behind closed doors.
As for the accusation that the board majority pulls policies out of their back pockets and springs motions without prior warning, Atwell says she hasn’t seen it. She thinks the outrage over the hiring of the board attorney is misplaced: How can it be perceived as secretive, she asks, to hire a qualified lawyer in public?
“It’s a hard job, and I admire them for doing it,” Atwell says, especially given how they’ve been skewered by the union and its supporters, who show up in force at board meetings. “The room is packed with people not open to hearing anything different.”
Which is why Jeffco Students First began publishing The Jeffco Observer. The first issue arrived on doorsteps just before the election in October 2013. The articles had headlines such as “Wasting Money On New Data Systems: What Aren’t They Telling Us?” and “Policies ‘For the Kids’ Usually Aren’t.” That piece, written by an Evergreen soccer coach, chastised the district for using a step system to pay teachers and for what the article called “tenure.”
The most recent issue, from February 2015, includes a story lauding the board for setting high academic goals and defending the majority’s decision to not expand free full-day kindergarten “after achievement data showed that more than half of the programs did not have any lasting effect.”
Atwell won’t disclose the size of the mailing list or whom it includes. But she says the organization is grateful to have enough money to distribute the paper widely. The union has easy access to teachers, parents and students, and it hasn’t been shy about sharing its views. But there’s another way to look at things.
“We hope to provide that,” she says.
Jeffco school board member Ken Witt, seen here at right in a photo from his campaign web site, denies the wild allegations against him.
This fall, the two seats held by the minority members of the Jeffco school board are up for re-election. To the anti-WNW folks, keeping “friendly” boardmembers in those seats is crucial. Currently, the board majority doesn’t have enough votes to go behind closed doors, into executive session, which is a tactic that’s been used by the conservative Douglas County board. Four votes are required, and the fear is that if even one of the Jeffco seats goes to a like-minded candidate, “everything goes underground,” Reed says.
Dahlkemper and Fellman say they haven’t decided if they’re going to run again. Being on this board hasn’t been easy, says Fellman, a retired Jeffco middle-school teacher and administrator. “As a middle-school teacher, I could anticipate where kids would struggle or stumble,” she says. “I have no idea what to predict here.”
“We have to remember that we’re a five-member board,” says Dahlkemper, a former public-radio reporter who now works in communications for the nonprofit Colorado Education Initiative. “We need to encourage having diverse views and vigorous debate, and then there needs to be a point where we say, ‘We’ve heard each other and we’re going to find a compromise.’ There have been no compromises over the past year and a half.
“Surprises have become the norm at the board table,” she adds.
Witt and Newkirk disagree. (Williams didn’t return phone calls or e-mails seeking comment for this story.)
“It is easy to say, ‘This is the first time I’ve seen this,’” Witt says. “But there’s always a first time you see something. The vote is not on the first time it’s been seen. There is opportunity for discussion. And dissatisfaction with the outcome is not, in my mind, a sufficient reason to cry surprise.” The hiring of Miller was different, Witt says, because it was urgent.
Witt has heard some of the wilder allegations against him, but he says they’re not true. He’s never seen the so-called Tea Party agenda, and he denies that he’s trying to privatize public education. “I’m not even sure what that means,” he says.
If people took the time to understand some of the majority’s more controversial votes, Witt and Newkirk say, they might not find them controversial at all. Pay-for-performance? They say the plan treats teachers like professionals and rewards the best among them. AP U.S. History? The board never voted to impanel a committee to review the curriculum to make it more patriotic, they point out. But it did take a somewhat parallel vote to add students and community members to district curriculum-review committees.
And declining to expand free full-day kindergarten? They argue that the way Jeffco was funding kindergarten was uneven and resulted in some low-income kids getting it for free while others had to pay. Plus, they say, the district’s own data showed the full day wasn’t making a difference for kids academically.
“The way it was spun is that, ‘Newkirk hates kindergarteners!’” Newkirk says. “I’m saying, ‘I’ve got a kindergartener! I don’t hate kindergarteners.’
“But if we’re going to be spending this kind of money,” he continues, “we need to see where it’s spent most effectively rather than just rubber-stamp and say, ‘Because it feels good, it’s doing good.’”
As for disrespect, Newkirk says it cuts both ways. He actually took his kids out of the public schools after someone scrawled “Newkirk is a liar” and “Newkirk is an asshole” in black marker on stop signs near his daughter’s elementary school.
Witt and Newkirk don’t believe that the vocal opposition — the ones who deface stop signs, protest at board meetings and attack them on Twitter — speaks for all voters.
“I believe there are many who are hungry for change and improvement in academic performance in Jeffco and elected us to pursue specifically the priorities of accountability, choice, genuine transparency,” Witt says. “And that’s where we’re focused.”
So how does he explain the discontent, the anger, the concern? Witt pauses before he answers.
“Change is hard,” he says.
And doesn’t Jeffco know it.