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Know Your Boardmembers

INCOMING

Evie Hudak: As a teacher with about two decades of experience, Hudak, a Democrat from Arvada who will fill the seat vacated by Patti Johnson, has spent plenty of time in the educational trenches -- and rather than getting away from this subject during her off hours, she's regularly come back for more, attending virtually every state board meeting for the past six years. She hasn't always liked what she's seen: About the "In God we trust" resolution, she says, "It's inappropriate to even suggest to schools that they post something with the word 'God' in it in that way." She's pro-standards, but in some cases, she questions how they're being enforced. She believes the stigma that poor school assessments may impose is often misdirected: "I don't think the staffs at most [supposedly failing] schools are doing a bad job." Hudak declares herself eager to help the state board "take more of a leadership role and work more closely with the legislature. We're supposed to be the experts, and when you implement rules based on laws, you really see how the rubber is hitting the road."

Jared Polis: Although Polis, a Boulder Democrat elected as Colorado's at-large boardmember, is new to politics, he already knows a thing or two about staying on-message. He sticks to well-tested campaign rhetoric and shows no interest in joking about either his campaign expenditures or his Twiggy-thin margin of victory over incumbent Ben Alexander; he won by a grand total of 90 votes out of more than 1.5 million cast. At 25, he sees his youth as an asset and plans to push for the addition to the board of a non-voting student member "to remind all of us what we're there for." Like Hudak, he's not a fan of some recent board resolutions, promoting instead "a pragmatic approach where we do our work efficiently and without trying to draw attention by spectacular fireworks" -- a rebuff to those who feel that his own high profile is a form of showboating. He's also eager for the board to get more involved in the legislative arena. Maybe the state board can't technically allot money to get more textbooks into the hands of Colorado students (one of his primary platforms), "but we can and should play a role in crafting a bill along with the legislature. It's our role to figure out recommendations about how we can spend money, and then report those recommendations to the other two branches."

OUTGOING

Ben Alexander: In contrast to Polis, Alexander, a former Republican state senator from Montrose, seems to relish joshing about the recent election. He is proud of having put up a good fight against the Polis juggernaut despite spending only around $11,000 in his campaign, and he chuckles about a remark made by a tenant in a rental property he owns: "If you would've spent another $7, you would have won in a landslide!" In fact, Alexander was never elected to the board; after boardmember John Evans went to the Colorado Senate in 1998, Alexander was appointed to fill the rest of his term. Now that he's on the outside looking in, Alexander fears that the increased media attention Polis's presence will bring could have harmful consequences: "Before, we didn't have the light of the press shining on us all the time, which allowed us to discuss things without polarizing people." Polis, he implies, doesn't seem to understand what the board can and cannot do ("Virtually everything he's promoted has been on the policy side, which isn't really the board's role") and fears that the board will hurt itself by concentrating too heavily on lobbying: "The legislature wants people to know that they're the ones who make policy, and if the minority members of the board come on too strong, I think it could damage the credibility the board has established." Alexander doesn't rule out running for elected office again in the future, but first, he says, "I'm having some hanging chads removed."

Patti Johnson: For Johnson, a Broomfield Republican, her one-woman jihad against what she sees as questionable educational methods began with her dissatisfaction over how her son, now 22, was being taught spelling. "When I learned that they didn't do spelling tests or correct spelling or teach phonics, I went into the school and questioned them, and I was kind of brushed off. They were like, 'We're the experts. Are you a teacher?'" She became even more incensed a few years later, when she heard about the teaching of a "lifeboat scenario": Johnson says students were told to imagine a boat occupied by "a doctor, a pregnant woman, someone who was crippled, someone who was elderly and sickly," and then asked to choose who would live or die. To her, that's the kind of thing that warps tender minds -- she declared as much in "The Real Killers at Columbine: A Curricula Gone Bad," a contentious speech she delivered in Ohio just prior to the anniversary of the Columbine shootings -- and she set out to do something about it. When the opportunity to run for the state board of education arose in 1994, she took a leave of absence from her job as a flight attendant, ringing virtually every doorbell in her district to present her case to voters, and when she won, she quit her job ("five years short of free flights for life," she notes) in order to dedicate herself heart and soul to her crusade. Six years later she decided against running for re-election for reasons she prefers not to detail, but she disputes any implication that her most public stands might have turned her constituents against her: After the Ritalin resolution, she says, "I received a thousand letters in a two-week period telling me I was right, and only fourteen saying I was wrong." Among her proudest achievements is arguing alongside John Evans for the hiring of education commissioner William Moloney, and she hopes he'll help the board stay "on the right track." Does she fear that Hudak and Polis will derail things? In a rare instance of reticence, she says, "I'll reserve comment on that."

 

STICKING AROUND

John Burnett: Like quite a few staunch Republicans, Burnett, from Colorado Springs, started out as a staunch Democrat. In 1971, after returning from service in Vietnam, where he served in a military intelligence attachment, he headed the Young Democrats of El Paso County. But a year later, upset by the abuse that anti-war types heaped on vets, including disabled ones like himself (he gets around using a wheelchair), he did a dogma flip-flop. As an active party member, he admits that he sees the board seat as a "primarily political" position, and his opinions reflect the conservatism of his hometown. He's vigorously pro-vouchers and favored the "In God we trust" resolution because he feels that "the great majority of people believe in God and want some religious consideration back in schools." Like Patti Johnson, whom he greatly admires, he's not afraid to occasionally set the big picture aside in order to contemplate what some see as fringe concerns: Among his big causes of late is to inform Colorado's parents that they aren't required to have their children immunized: "Some of the schools are good about telling people that, but some are very bad, and they're going to get sued, I would think."

Pat Chlouber: Although she's an elementary reading teacher in Leadville, Chlouber, a Republican, certainly isn't politically unsophisticated; as the wife of Republican state senator Ken Chlouber, the most public supporter of last year's victorious Powerball referendum, she knows her way around the Capitol. But since her election in 1996, she's done her best to be "the voice of rural Colorado on the state board of education." She's overtly sympathetic to the challenges of improving test scores at schools with impoverished populations and has thus far resisted the temptation to get into the resolution sweepstakes. "I'd feel free to do it if I felt compelled," she says, "but I think we have a lot of heavy-duty business here being sure all Colorado children get an equal chance at a good education." While Chlouber would like it if scribes spilled more ink about the important duties of the board and not topics on the periphery, she understands if they don't. "When we talk about teacher licensure, well, most people aren't interested in that. But it really doesn't bother me."

Randy DeHoff: A supervisor for launch programs associated with the Missile Defense Initiative, DeHoff, a Republican elected in 1998, hasn't always had kind words for public education: In a 1999 Denver Post article, he lamented that only "shame" would result if a district lost its accreditation. But DeHoff, who home-schooled his four daughters for a time before helping to start a Jefferson County charter school, sees no reason to soften his oratory. "There are still educrats out there who believe that public education would do fine if you just gave them more money. Well, it's not doing fine, and more money isn't the only answer." DeHoff is especially dedicated to sharpening the Colorado Student Assessment Program's math standards and making sure that religion (read: Christianity) isn't banished from taxpayer-supported schools: "You can't understand American history without understanding the role that religion has played." Such statements portend potential conflict with, among others, Polis, who DeHoff believes is "extremely intelligent" but off base when it comes to his analysis of the board's past actions: "He says he wants the board to be working with and helping districts, not criticizing them, but if you talk to most representatives outside the metro area, they say, 'You guys are doing a great job.'" Yet he discounts "predictions of a radically divided board. There'll obviously be some squabbling initially, but I think it will let up when the new members figure out what we've really been doing."

 

Clair Orr: John Burnett says he's "more conservative" than Orr, a Greeley Republican just elected to his second term on the board, but that's only a matter of degree: In 1995, Orr worked hard to keep mention of evolution out of Colorado standards, and last year he pushed the "In God we trust" resolution. (He's a deeply religious man, but he swears that he was driven to promote the slogan primarily out of patriotism.) Far from evincing a doctrinaire manner, though, he's self-deprecating, joking that he had to bring a dictionary to his first few board meetings to figure out what was going on, and he uses his joviality to diffuse potentially divisive situations. He seems unthreatened by the arrival of Hudak and Polis, who he hopes will bring "fresh ideas" to the table, and, like them, he's eager to work more closely with the legislature because "with the torrent of things happening across the street, they don't always have the time to study education issues in depth the way we do." He even extends an olive branch to education associations that have often griped about the board. "We get beat up by them because they don't always see us holding hands with all the special interests. But it's just like a pearl: It's not formed unless there's some agitation."

Gully Stanford: A public affairs director for the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, Democrat Stanford was drawn into the educational fray when the initial version of 1993 House Bill 1313 omitted standards for art and music, a wrong he and others succeeded in righting. He was elected to represent the first district three years later, and since then, he's been alone in his opposition to numerous board actions, such as a letter sent out after the attack at Columbine; he wanted references to religion and faith-based interventions excised, but he was the only one. To that end, he's understandably upbeat about the election of two fellow Democrats who agree with him about the board's potential for activism. "Some of my colleagues see the board strictly as an implementer, but I see it as a catalyst and a champion of public education." In addition, he's confident that "the new board is better placed to serve as the bridge between the legislature and local districts. And in that way, I hope we'll be able to answer the question of whether we are promoting or impeding student learning across Colorado."


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