Readin', Writin' and Rabble-Rousin'
Stephanie Hult, 1960s feminist and anti-war activist, says she's misunderstood.
Her numerous enemies portray Hult, now the president of the Boulder Valley school board, as the spiteful leader of a band of right-wing elitists who want to destroy the Boulder Valley school system. But Hult says she's every bit the social radical she once was. She's still fighting the status quo, she insists, and she's still on the front lines of change, challenging the establishment at every turn.
"I am a revolutionary," says Hult, smoothing her fiery red hair with a hand that sports a large diamond ring and a gold watch. "In college I helped organize a strike in support of Kent State. I remember going to rallies. I was always considered the women's-libber in my sorority. My mother wanted me to be a librarian, but I was always bold and aggressive."
But many of the people she once considered comrades are now her most vehement foes, and Hult says they're engaged in a campaign of character assassination the likes of which Boulder hasn't seen in years. Her opponents like to point out, for instance, that many of her ideas have been endorsed by groups like Focus on the Family, but Hult says that's a way to smear her in a liberal college town. "Now some people think I'm a fundamentalist Christian," she says. "Calling me religious right is a way to demean me in this community." Her vote not to recognize homosexuality as one of the "diversities" valued by the district led to more attacks. "I'm also called homophobic, even though I have a gay brother," adds Hult.
The daughter of a University of Colorado history professor, Hult is a registered Democrat who grew up hearing stories of her parent's struggles during the Great Depression. But in the 1990s Hult has a new enemy: the liberal establishment that she accuses of "dumbing down" the Boulder Valley schools. As the president of the school board and head of a five-person back-to-basics majority that has stirred up one controversy after another since taking power in 1995, Hult describes herself as the most notorious woman in Boulder.
She may also be the most hated. Whether she's endorsing vouchers for private schools or questioning the presence of handicapped children in school classrooms, Hult has a way of infuriating many of her constituents. But nobody has ever questioned her willingness to stand up to critics. "When I get in a fight, I just get tougher," Hult says. "That's what drives people crazy."
Hult has held her ground as hundreds of parents and teachers have crowded school-board meetings and lined up for the opportunity to attack her. With a take-no-prisoners style, she's stared down pickets outside her office and made it clear that she and her board colleagues plan to call the shots.
In the past year the board majority has turned the district upside down, firing the superintendent, forcing out a popular high-school principal, and revamping everything from graduation requirements to teachers' planning time. The board is now working on top-to-bottom changes in the Boulder Valley curriculum that will include a new emphasis on phonics, grammar, memorization and old-fashioned math drills. "There is an educational revolution going on in this community," says Hult.
Her sparring skills honed by years of work as a medical-malpractice attorney, Hult views herself as part of a crusade, an educational jihad against legions of "educrats" who have ruined the public schools and turned out a generation of students who can't read or write, much less understand calculus. In Boulder, she vows, all that is about to end.
Hult and the board majority--once dubbed the "gang of four"--are spearheading an ambitious effort to undo the changes made in education over the past thirty years. Their attempt to go back to the future and install methods of education they remember from their own school days in the 1960s has their opponents seething. Hult has already survived an abortive recall drive that didn't garner enough signatures to force an election but still drew the support of more than 8,000 Boulder Valley residents.
The split in the community is mirrored in the board, whose members have cursed at one another, diagnosed each other as mentally ill and accused each other of harboring delusions of grandeur. The low point in board animosity may have come in December, when former school-board member Susan Marine, who resigned in disgust last August, joined a picket line outside Hult's private law office to protest the ouster of Boulder High School principal Jean Bonelli. A few days later a school-board meeting took on the atmosphere of a high-school food fight as more than 200 of Bonelli's supporters showed up to boo the boardmembers.
Boardmember Linda Shoemaker outraged her colleagues by breaking confidentiality rules and revealing details of an executive session where Bonelli's removal was discussed, prompting Hult to tell a Boulder Daily Camera reporter that "the woman is sick." By the end of the meeting, emotions became so tense that Don Shonkwiler--one of Hult's allies--accused fellow boardmember Sally Kingdom of being a "goddamn liar."
While the board's antics have a certain dark humor--at district headquarters, Hult is reportedly nicknamed "Agent Orange," a reference to both her corrosive style and her flamboyant helmet of red hair--those involved say the situation is anything but funny. Hult's opponents claim that her penchant for combat has fostered a crisis in the Boulder Valley schools.
"She sees herself as a big, powerful woman," says Marine. "She's one of the most angry, controlling women I've ever met."
Marine and others say an atmosphere of paranoia and fear has overtaken the district, as administrators, principals and teachers wonder who will incur Hult's wrath next. "I hear, on a regular basis, of people being called up by Stephanie Hult and intimidated," says Marine. "A person who makes a statement at a rally might get a call from Hult."
Rumors of a "hit list" of teachers disliked by the board are widespread. Shoemaker accuses Hult of using Nixonian tactics to threaten district employees. "If a teacher writes a letter to the editor that's critical of the school board, the principal of the school will get a call from Stephanie Hult telling them to 'get that teacher,'" she says.
None of those stories is true, says Hult. She insists she has never called a principal to complain about a teacher who wrote to a newspaper. "I'd be on the telephone all the time if that were the case," she adds. Hult describes the rumors of a hit list as "total baloney," adding that not a single teacher has been dismissed or transferred for criticizing the board--not even one Boulder High School teacher who Hult claims publicly threatened to "beat me up" after Bonelli was told she would be moved to another job in the middle of the school year.
But Hult wants her opponents to know there will be no let-up in the war for the Boulder Valley schools. "I've weathered incredible assaults," she says. "It's a real battle. For me, the recall was very painful and embarrassing. What bothers some people is that I don't buckle."
Hult recalls that when Boulder mayor Leslie Durgin was unable to muster a city council majority in 1995 for a new term as mayor, she called a meeting at City Hall at which she openly wept. A wellspring of sympathy helped her win re-election. Hult and several other back-to-basics boardmembers will be up for re-election in November. But don't expect Stephanie Hult to shed tears anytime soon.
"Maybe if I cried at board meetings when people are screaming at me, people would like me more," she says. "I have too much pride to do that."
Military metaphors come easily to Hult as she talks about her school-board tenure. There's the all-out battle with entrenched administrators, the unassailable fortress of the teachers' union, the bulwark of the state department of education, the reams of propaganda coming out of CU's school of education. Listening to Hult, it's clear she views herself as a gladiator, taking on the barbarians who have pillaged public education.
Hult traces her passionate beliefs about the role of education to her childhood. Her late father, Daniel Smith, taught history for years at CU. Her father and mother both suffered during the Depression and were the first in their families to graduate from college. They believed education had allowed them to make their way into the middle class. "My father came from a dirt-poor Southern family," says Hult. "It was college that saved him."
After Daniel Smith finished graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley, the family moved to Boulder. At age seven, Hult began her education in the Boulder Valley schools. She received a traditional education that she credits with laying the groundwork for her eventual success as an attorney.
"We had Spanish in second grade, and violin lessons," she recalls. "I was taught reading through phonics. The desks were all in a row. Classes were more disciplined, and less was tolerated. There was much more emphasis on facts."
At an early age, Hult became known for her feistiness. When a ninth-grade civics instructor asked her what she wanted to be, she said, "an agent for the FBI." "My teacher said they don't let women do that, and I said, 'They will when I get there,'" she recalls.
After graduating from CU with a liberal-arts degree in the early 1970s, Hult pushed her husband, Jim, to enter law school. A few years later she enrolled in the law program at the University of Denver. She and Jim now have their own legal firm, based in downtown Boulder.
Practicing law seems to suit Hult's personality. "I represent injured persons," she says. "I fight insurance companies. I like fighting the system. I have a lot of energy, and I need a lot of things to do. I've been trained in zealous advocacy." She's even thinking of writing a book based on her experiences on the board, which she's tentatively titled "An Owner's Guide to Taking Back Public Schools."
It was a plan to get rid of junior high schools in Boulder that catapulted Hult into the education wars. In 1992 Boulder Valley began a transition from traditional junior high schools to middle schools. Besides reconfiguring the grades contained in the schools to include sixth through eighth grades, Boulder also embraced a national reform movement known as "middle-school philosophy."
Followers of this movement, including former Boulder superintendent Dean Damon, argue that traditional junior highs serve that age group poorly. They believe the problems that lead students to drop out of high school usually begin in the middle-school grades. The middle-school philosophy calls for an emphasis on students' social and emotional needs as well as academics.
The program encourages team teaching and group learning. Instead of a seventh-grade student having seven different teachers in one day, the middle-school philosophy calls for a smaller number of teachers to work together teaching a variety of topics. Advocates believe many junior-high students get lost in the shuffle, and the program calls for middle-school children to get to know at least one teacher well. The idea is that teachers will be more likely to catch budding emotional and learning problems that can lead to serious difficulties down the road.
But Boulder's middle-school advocates soon ran into a wall of opposition--mostly because of their plan to do away with seventh- and eighth-grade honors classes. Those pushing middle schools argued that children in those grades were too young to be separated by ability. But many parents bitterly resented losing the honors program.
"They were trying to make the kids feel good instead of educating them," says Kim Saporito, one of Hult's allies on the school board. "They wanted to hold the bright kids back."
Hult was outraged that her middle-school-age daughter, Caroline, was grouped with students who could not perform as well. "My daughter was bored a lot," Hult says. "I was concerned about the heterogenous grouping of kids. There was a heavy emphasis on group learning and everything being interdisciplinary. The psychosocial stuff bothered me. They had 25 minutes a day where they'd play games that had a psychological overlay."
Many parents shared Hult's concerns. The middle-school philosophy soon became a hot topic in Boulder, as hundreds of parents showed up at community meetings to protest the elimination of honors classes. Hult emerged as a leader of the middle-school critics, and in 1993 she decided to run for the school board, basing her campaign on a call for "academic excellence."
For two years Hult and Saporito served as the vocal opposition on the seven-member board. Then the 1995 election gave the back-to-basics group a majority, with Don Shonkwiler and Janusz Okolowicz joining Hult and Saporito. They soon elected Hult as board president. Susan Marine's resignation in August--she said it was futile trying to work with Hult and her supporters--allowed the board majority to appoint another fellow traveler, Dorothy Riddle.
Once she had a majority in place, Hult moved quickly to make her mark. The board negotiated a new contract with the teachers' union, giving teachers a 6 percent wage hike--the largest in a dozen years--in return for accepting cuts in teacher planning time. The loss of planning time was seen widely as a lethal blow to the middle-school philosophy, since the interdisciplinary classes that formed the heart of that program required teacher preparation.
Two of the district's top three administrators--the director of curriculum and the budget director--resigned a few months after Hult took charge. In June Hult pulled off her biggest coup, forcing out superintendent Dean Damon, her old nemesis and Boulder's most forceful advocate for middle schools. Damon agreed to take early retirement after leading the district for six years. His settlement package with the board was valued at $165,000 and included a $111,000 payment into his retirement fund.
While viewed as controversial by some parents, Damon was beloved by many teachers, who felt he respected them as professionals. "We had a good relationship with Dean Damon," says Steve Armitage, president of the Boulder Valley Education Association.
As head of the teachers' union, Armitage has dealt regularly with Hult and her colleagues on the board. Despite the generous wage increase the teachers won from the board, Armitage says Boulder Valley's teachers are treated with disdain by Hult and her allies. "There's never been a time in our district when professional educators have been held in such contempt as under the leadership of our current school-board majority," he says.
As the child of a university professor, Hult insists that she respects most teachers. "Both my parents were teachers," she says. "I value the profession."
However, the district grapevine says otherwise. Stories of boardmembers bullying teachers and principals now circulate regularly through the school system. While it's difficult to ascertain how much truth there is to the various reports--one person's intimidation is another's informational phone call--it seems clear that many teachers are afraid to publicly condemn the school board.
"We all hear about the list that supposedly exists of teachers that aren't up to par," says Linda Wood, a Boulder High French teacher with twenty years of experience. "Who knows what that means? It could mean teachers who disagree philosophically with the board. A lot of the teachers are afraid to speak up because they feel the board could make things difficult for us."
Another veteran teacher, who asked not to be named, said she got an angry phone call from Hult after writing a letter to a newspaper saying teachers felt unimportant in the eyes of the board. "If somebody that powerful feels it's important to intimidate someone with no power, she must really want power," says the teacher. "You'd look at a kid that acted like Stephanie and say, 'That's a wounded child.'"
Shoemaker says the board majority is openly antagonistic, not just toward teachers but toward anyone else who might disagree with it. "There's no respect for teachers, administrators, other boardmembers or the public," she says. "You have a group of boardmembers that think they know what is right."
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."
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."
The board, for example, recently voted to increase high-school graduation requirements. Many teachers say hiking those requirements will simply discourage marginal students and raise the dropout rate. "I think teachers feel burned over these graduation requirements," says New Vista High School teacher John Zola. "We have our share of troubled kids and diverse kids." The higher standards, he says, "will only help the students who were already doing well."
A committee appointed by the board is also in the process of revising the curriculum for the Boulder Valley schools. Committee member Valarie Murphy, a mother with two children in the local schools whose husband, Dick Murphy, was appointed chief financial officer for the district by the board last year, wrote a report for the board last spring that lays out the back-to-basics philosophy in detail. Her 29-page paper calls for a return to a curriculum based strictly on phonics, traditional math drills, the rigorous study of grammar, and a reading list based on literary classics.
She believes education jumped off track after the government began supporting educational research in the 1960s. "It's been one fad after another ever since the federal government started funding education," Murphy says. "I think the schools are failing a lot of kids. It's the masses of kids who are being shortchanged by the emphasis on self-esteem."
Her daughter attended middle school in Boulder, and Murphy was deeply angered by the middle-school curriculum. She says the students were given handouts to read in history class and told that if they misbehaved they'd have to read the textbook. "Her teacher was brilliant, but he'd been steeped in the education-school philosophy of letting the kids create their own knowledge," Murphy says. "To see him latch onto fads where textbooks were used as punishment was so sad."
As part of a class project, Murphy says her daughter was told to produce a video based on a TV talk show. Her daughter and several classmates then made a video based on a Ricki Lake program. "What in hell is that?" Murphy asks. "That's education? This is schoolteachers practicing psychology without a license."
In her paper, Murphy catalogues some of the more ridiculous ideas floated by American educators in the last few years--one professional group suggested that math students keep a journal to express their feelings about math--and includes several examples of the awful writing commonly found in education schools ("Efficient and effective language users practice and master their skills in the context of authentic tasks rather than in isolated activities").
The extent of Murphy's disenchantment with public education becomes clear when she speculates on educators' motives in "dumbing down" the schools. "The dumbing-down process will assure that our children are educated at a third-world level, become accustomed to living on third-world wages and competing with workers who work for third-world wages in foreign countries," she writes. Murphy goes on to quote an article former superintendent Damon wrote for a Boulder Chamber of Commerce newsletter. Damon wrote that "we must become more responsive to the challenge and opportunities of a competitive world," a passage that Murphy cites as evidence that local educators want to create an ignorant and easily manipulated workforce.
"Educators implementing these fads are not stupid people," Murphy says. "I think this whole movement is part of the whole world movement--that we want to level things out all over the world."
Murphy thinks Boulder's new school board is moving in the right direction but faces formidable opposition. "It will take ten years to fix the Boulder schools," she says. "How do you fire 3,000 people and start over? Every step of the way, the school board gets opposition from the psychobabblers."
The deep divide in the schools becomes clear when Marine is asked her opinion of Murphy. Many people in Boulder, she responds, regard Murphy as "a right-wing fruitcake."
Murphy says such name-calling is an act of desperation. "When people can't justify what they're doing, personal insults become a course of last resort," she says. "If disagreeing with Susan Marine makes me a fruitcake, so be it."
The arch-conservative Independence Institute isn't the sort of place you'd expect to find a member of the Boulder Valley school board. The institute is associated with ideas that are anathema to many public educators, including taxpayer-financed vouchers that parents can use at private schools. The president of the Golden-based institute, Tom Tancredo, has even advocated doing away with school boards entirely.
But last summer Hult spoke before a Vail symposium sponsored by Tancredo's group. During her speech, she shared her dismay with the "incredible liberal backlash" the board majority has encountered and her belief that only competition will save the public schools.
"We had thought rather naively that when we finally had a majority on the board we'd make a variety of wonderful changes sort of overnight, and things would be a lot better, and people would feel good about it," Hult told the friendly audience. "Instead, we got a recall."
Hult went on to describe her support for vouchers, adding that she knew her position could be controversial in Boulder. "Vouchers are going to inject that note of competition that we have to have," Hult told the crowd. "I'm in favor of vouchers, but don't let that leave this room, because in Boulder, that is really serious stuff."
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."
Visit www.westword.com to read related Westword stories.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.