Off-year elections have a reputation for being less-than-exciting. But you can't say that about the school board recalls in Jefferson County. Voters there sent three conservative members packing and ushered in five new members.
People were stunned the vote was so decisive so early Tuesday evening to oust board members Ken Witt, Julie Williams and John Newkirk.
“We didn’t just win this, we slammed ‘em!” said Ron Mitchell, a retired JeffCo teacher and principal who beat board president Witt Tuesday night.
Recall elections are hard to pull off. In this case there were 13 names on the ballot for five positions. All five winners - Mitchell, Brad Rupert, Susan Harmon, Amanda Stevens and Ali Lasell -- won by at least two-thirds majorities.
“We, the people of Jefferson County, stood up. We pushed back against big money. We pushed back against an agenda that wasn’t good for our schools,” Mitchell told a crowd of supporters.
The pro-recall side relied on 1,200 volunteers to walk door-to-door and to make phone calls. They didn't spend money on TV ads and instead sent mailers and hammered in yard signs.
Money for the incumbents flowed in from Americans for Prosperity, founded by the billionaire Koch brothers. That money paid for TV ads, mailers and more.
New board member Ali Lasell drew applause when she said, “They might have the money, but they do not have the people. And it is the people who matter.”
Rupert echoed that sentiment, saying, "Our schools are not for sale."
No Apologies From Recalled Board President
Witt, who served as board president, said he’s proud of what the board has accomplished in the last two years. They equalized funding between traditional schools and charter schools. They set up a system that lets principals have more latitude over how their schools spend money. Witt says the board has nothing to apologize for in a recall election that drew an estimated $1 million in campaign contributions.
“Sometimes being the leader in reform is a difficult position,” said Witt. “There is a continued commitment to maintain some of these reforms. So I’m proud to say we’re going to have a lasting impact on education in Jefferson County.”
Some of the newly elected board support a new way to pay teachers based on their performance. That was something the old board implemented but it spurred teacher walkouts. All the new board members say they don’t believe the pay plan was fairly implemented and needs changes.
And they have new priorities. New board member Rupert says top among them is to restore respect and transparency in the boardroom.
“But then we really have to get down to work and retain the teachers that we’ve got,” said Rupert. “We’re losing teachers we have at a terrible pace. We’ve also got to do some really hard decisions about construction of schools in the growing areas, and really get the politics out of the board room.”
Relief, Grief At Ouster
Politics has defined the board majority since Witt, Williams and Newkirk came into power in 2013 and began to propose changes. Williams wanted to change the history curriculum. That led to hundreds of students protesting in the streets.
Teachers complained they weren’t involved in developing the new pay scale -- and many began to leave the district. That’s when parents began to push for a recall. Tuesday night, parent Katie VanGuilder said she was relieved with the outcome.
“I’m relieved for our own children and I’m relieved for our teachers in our county, and I’m relieved for the whole community,” she said.
Julie Williams, who was voted out, thinks Tuesday’s decision moved beyond a local push to oust the board.
“I think this is about the union bosses and the liberal agenda,” she said Tuesday night. “This is about power and control over the hearts and minds of our children.”
It’s not clear yet what voters were reacting to – board policies or some of the headline-grabbing controversies -- or both. But voters did turn out; Jefferson County had one of the highest rates of turnout in Colorado. The new board is expected to take office within a few weeks.