Hundreds of people packed onto the dirt rodeo floor of the Jefferson County Fairgrounds’ Event Center for a kick-off rally Wednesday night to recall three conservative school board members in Jefferson County, Colorado’s second largest district.
The recall petitions criticize board chair Ken Witt, members John Newkirk and Julie Williams for attempts last fall to censor U.S. history classes. The controversy sent thousands of high school students into the streets.
- Feb. 15: School board won't review AP US history proposal
- Nov. 2014: Students practice civil disobedience
- Sept. 2014: What's behind the JeffCo curriculum protests
The petitions also allege the three are violating open meetings laws and have "wasted millions of taxpayer dollars," referring to new superintendent Dan McMinimee’s salary and legal expenses.
So with rain coming down outside, parents, grandparents and teachers came to sign petitions and learn the basics for gathering thousands more signatures. For each board member that they want to recall, 15,000 signatures must be collected.
Supporters of the effort were directed to tables representing various cities in the county to register and take home stacks of petition forms.
Budget, politics, religion issues drive protest
“We must send the message that our kids’ education and fiscal responsibility of the district come before politics,” said Wendy McCord, a mother of two district students and one of the organizers of JeffCo United for Action, a parents-group that organized the rally.
Many at the rally said they’re concerned the three board members are pushing a political agenda that hurts teachers and supports setting up out-of-state religious charter schools.
Parent Darla Gurry says she’s concerned the school board majority represents a national movement whose intent is to defund public schools and send the dollars to out-of-state for profit-charter schools that don’t support all children.
“I think our neighborhood schools are the heartbeat of our communities and they’re there to serve every child on every street of that neighborhood, regardless of socio-economics, regardless of academic ability, that’s the role of our neighborhood schools,” she said.
Chaos 'has overtaken our school board'
Others were angry about board decisions on budgets, curriculum and teacher pay.
“I felt it was time to stand up and put an end to the chaos that has overtaken our school board,” said Michael Blanton, a father of two Jefferson County students.
Board chair Ken Witt, in a statement issued when the recall effort was announced, said he’s proud of the work the board has done, including opening meetings to the public, giving principals greater control in their schools, and bringing free full day kindergarten to every child eligible for free and reduced lunch.
“I recognize that change is difficult, but our students deserve a great education,” he said. “In the last election, our community loudly demanded a focus on improving academic achievement, fairly funding all public students, and expanding [school] choice.”
But parent organizer Tina Gurdikian says the community wanted a scaled system of providing full-day Kindergarten, much like Denver’s where full day Kindergarten would be provided to children based on a family’s ability to pay.
Gurdikian says in a school that has 35 percent of children qualifying for free and reduced lunch, it’s likely that much of the population around the school may be struggling. She says full-day kindergarten should be offered to the whole school.
“By doing what the school board majority has done, anybody else who can’t afford $300 a month has no access to free full-day Kindergarten,” she said. “I fully disagree with they’re touting that they are providing free full-day Kindergarten for the most needy because they are absolutely not.”
Board member Julie Williams said in a statement under the current board, all public schools both charter and traditional will receive equal funding.
“Not all students learn the same so we have expanded our student choice programs like STEM, Classical, and Core Knowledge,” she said, referring to special academic leanings in new charter schools.“I am highly enthusiastic regarding our accomplishments and promise to continue this commitment to our students, district, and community,” she said.
But parent Tina Gurdikian says teachers are demoralized by a board majority they believe is working against them. She says 10 teachers left her daughter’s school this year.
“It’s devastating,” she says. “It’s devastating to my kids’ education. I cannot wait two more years to vote them out in 2017, it’s got to be now.”
Gurdikian said she’s confident that volunteers will get the required 15,000 signatures.
“I almost feel like we could do it in a week, that’s how confident I am,” she says. If the recall effort makes it to the ballot, she’s more cautious about the election.
“My biggest concern is about reaching the 70 percent of voters who aren’t attached to schools, who don’t have kids in the schools, who don’t have grandkids in the schools, who don’t work in the schools, making it real for them and helping them to understand why this is critical for them, not just for us.”
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Golden View Classical Academy as an out of state religious charter school.