Jeffco School Board Recall Is A Microcosm Of Polarized Politics

Jul 29, 2015

Critics of three Jefferson County school board members have turned in double the amount of signatures needed to force a recall election. If the signatures are valid, voters will decide on the November 2015 ballot whether to remove the three conservative members.

Many special interest groups will be watching.

The three board members targeted by Jeffco United for Action, the organization behind the recall effort, have been criticized for meeting secretly, wasting taxpayer money and disrespecting teachers and staff.

“Supporters of the board would say that is actually the opposite, that they are making the school district more transparent by including more parents and community members on committees, that they are in fact saving taxpayer dollars by not going out and looking for loans to pay for a new school they found money in the budget to do that and that in fact they are respecting teachers more by giving them raises and rewarding the best teachers with more money,” said Chalkbeat reporter Nic Garcia, who has been covering the story.

Those supporters include the conservative grassroots organization Americans for Prosperity, who have been going door to door to highlight what they see as the board’s successes in improving the school district.

Voters will have to decide to recall each board member individually, which opens the possibility that only one or two may not stay in their role.

There have been a number of very public controversies that could affect voter’s opinions. According to Garcia’s reporting:

“...the board considered a proposal to review an advanced history class that spurred weeks worth of student protests, a board member [was] linked to an anti-gay hate group on her Facebook wall, and school administrators refused to let Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper sign an education bill at a Jeffco school, which many considered a political snub.”

The shifting demographics of the second largest school district in the state have made the county a bellwether for the state’s presidential vote. Now, Garcia thinks special interest groups are using the recall as a barometer for reform in other parts of Colorado.

"Political gridlock...has changed the focus for many special interest groups to once sleepy school board elections for a simple reason. They can get more done a lot faster."

“Jefferson County is also becoming very important as far as the education community because of how the school district is made it’s urban, suburban and rural. I think for those who are interested in education reform and policies if they can prove that their agenda, that their policies work in Jefferson County, they have a pretty good case that it can work in any school district in any part of the state or nation,” he said.  

Political gridlock on the state and federal levels has changed the focus for many special interest groups to once sleepy school board elections for a simple reason. They can get more done a lot faster.

“Whether that's the teachers union or education reformers they are looking for solutions at the local level because that’s where they can go in, galvanize the base and really make an impact with less money in a quicker way. They can go into these school districts they can find some board members that agree with their opinions, and they can just affect change in a matter of months as opposed to years,”said Garcia.

The Douglas County voucher program is one example that Garcia points to. In the 2013 election, the Koch brothers backed political group, American For Prosperity, spent $350,000 to maintain a conservative leaning school board in the county. One result of that win was the voucher program that was recently struck down by Colorado’s State Supreme Court.

“They think that they have a [U.S.] Supreme Court case, based off of one voucher program in one of the richest counties in the United States. If they can go all the way to the [U.S.] Supreme Court and win, that would open up the possibilities for voucher programs across the nation.”

So far the Jeffco recall effort is very grassroots in its funding. The majority of the money that has been raised have come from people in Colorado, with mostly small downers of $100 or less.

But Garcia doesn’t think that funding model will remain the norm.

“I will not be surprised when I write the article that says ‘large money from donors in the hundreds of thousands poured in’ because I do believe there are lots of people watching this issue across the county,” Garcia said. “I do believe the day will come where we’ll see progressive donors and the unions pour money into this issue, and large super PACS from free market conservatives pour into Jeffco.”

You can read more of Nic Garcia’s reporting on the Jeffco recall effort at Chalkbeat Colorado.