Jeffco School Board: Recall Supporters to Begin Gathering Signatures

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Update: The Jeffco parents who are trying to recall controversial school board members Ken Witt, John Newkirk and Julie Williams will hold a kick-off event this evening — Wednesday, July 8.

The event will be the first time voters can sign petitions in support of a recall election. Organizers hope to gather enough signatures to get the questions of whether to recall Witt, Newkirk and Williams on the November ballot.

"This is our only way to hold them accountable to the community," says Wendy McCord, the parent of three Jeffco students. "And that’s what we’re going to do."

McCord is one of three parents who submitted the proposed recall petitions — one for Witt, one for Newkirk and one for Williams — to the Jefferson County clerk's office. The clerk approved the petitions on Tuesday, which means that recall supporters have sixty days to gather 45,000 signatures, or 15,000 signatures for each of the three members they're trying to recall.

McCord is frustrated with Witt, Newkirk and Williams for many of the same reasons explained in our recent cover story, "Class Warfare." But she says it was something that happened at the very end of the May 7 board meeting that drove her to participate in the recall. Board member Jill Fellman proposed that the board meet with a student group called Jeffco Students for Change. The group has been critical of Witt, Newkirk and Williams and has staged demonstrations and protests at board meetings.

But Witt said he would have "not have any association with that group."

"Ms. Fellman, are you aware that the leader of Jeffco Students for Change was favoriting — on Facebook — on social media — was favoriting racial epithets at district leaders?" he asked.

Witt then instructed a district staff member to display an image on the big projection screen. Although it's hard to see in the video of the meeting (on view below), McCord says it appeared to be a screenshot showing that the student had favorited a tweet from the Twitter account @notlisapinto. Lisa Pinto is the Jeffco Public Schools chief communications officer, and @notlisapinto is one of several anonymous accounts that skewer board members and district staff. Opponents of Witt, Newkirk and Williams have also been critical of Pinto, who was hired after the former communications chief resigned. 

The tweet in question was sent during a board meeting back in February. It said that if there were "a burrito guy" at the meeting, he would make a killing. "#sohungry I'll hire a burrito guy on contract!" the tweet says.

Pinto's supporters, including the libertarian Independence Institute, say the tweet was meant to bully Pinto, who is Hispanic. Witt took issue with the student favoriting it.

But McCord and others say Witt was wrong to call the student out at a public meeting. McCord is especially upset that Witt identified the student by name by displaying the screenshot for everyone to see. "For me, that was the nail in the coffin," she says. "That behavior is completely unacceptable, and I won't tolerate anyone treating anyone’s child like that."

McCord believes the recall campaign will succeed. "I think there is a great amount of support — a groundswell," she says. "Now that there is an action to get behind, I think we’ll see even more support."

Recall supporters have until September 4 to turn in the 45,000 signatures.

Wednesday's kick-off rally will be held at the Jeffco Fairgrounds Event Center at 6 p.m.

Original post 1:17 p.m., June 29: The battle over public education policy in Jeffco is getting uglier.

An effort is underway to recall three school board members: Ken Witt, John Newkirk and Julie Williams, otherwise known as "WNW." As explained in our recent cover story, "Class Warfare," Witt, Newkirk and Williams ran for the board as a group of fiscal conservatives who were in favor of school choice and opposed to a statewide school-funding tax hike. They were elected in November 2013, claiming the majority on the five-member school board. Since the very beginning, their actions have inspired a vocal opposition of parents, teachers and community members to stage walkouts and protests, form watchdog groups and launch anti-WNW websites.

And now, the recall effort. On Friday, three parents submitted a proposed recall petition to the Jefferson County clerk's office. Here's an excerpt:

Jeffco School Board President Ken Witt and the School Board Majority have failed Jeffco taxpayers, parents and students. A recall now will:

Restore ACCOUNTABILITY: The Board Majority wasted millions of taxpayer dollars, including hiring a novice Superintendent for $280,000 — $80,000 more a year than the previous nationally recognized Superintendent of 12 years — and hiding $90,000 each year in legal expenses from the public.

Restore TRANSPARENCY: They have repeatedly violated Colorado open meeting laws by secretly making major decisions behind closed doors. They have severely limited public comment at board meetings, bullied students and parents, and released a minor student’s private information in violation of state law.

Restore RESPECT: They attempted to censor US History classes, leading thousands of students to walk out of class in protest. Their unprofessional actions have pushed over 700 educators this past year to leave Jeffco schools, most to teach in other districts, because the educators believe the Board Majority’s policies hurt their ability to educate our students.

In the interest of our children, community and schools, we need to send the message that our kids’ education and fiscal responsibility come before politics.

The recall petition gives a glimpse into the proponents' complaints. Our cover story delves even deeper. In reporting that story, we spoke to two of the three parents who have now filed the recall petition. One of them, Tina Gurdikian, is a mother of two. She helped start a website called Jeffco Exodus that tracks teachers, staff members and families who've left the school district since the board majority was elected. This past spring, Gurdikian told us why she decided to push back.

"From the outset, they have made it clear that they are not about collaboration," she said of Witt, Newkirk and Williams. "They are not about listening to the community."

At the time, Gurdikian and others told us that a recall effort would be too expensive and daunting. They haven't explained what made them change their minds. The recall announcement was sent by a group called Jeffco United for Action. The Colorado Secretary of State's website shows that the group was registered as a nonprofit earlier this month. In announcing the news, the group noted that the parents who filed the petition wouldn't be giving interviews until after the petition is approved. 

The Jeffco clerk has seven business days to reject or accept the proposed petition language. Once it's approved, recall proponents have sixty days to gather 15,000 signatures for each of the three board members they're seeking to recall.

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