Political and religious influences amplify in some Colorado school board races, as focus shifts away from students

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Jenny Brundin/CPR News
The past year the school board room of the Elizabeth School District, south of Parker and bordering Douglas County, has been filled with residents inaccurately claiming schools were focusing on LGBTQ and other agendas. The turmoil and some board members criticisms of teachers caused a principal, school district leaders and three board members to resign.

Jessica Capsel fills her days milking dairy goats, feeding the cows hay, volunteering at her children’s schools and listening to school board meetings.

That last one is not something she particularly wants to do, but as a mom with a child in Elizabeth School District — she feels she has to.

The small district on the outskirts of metro Denver had a good reputation. Academically, it’s been recovering from the pandemic much faster than other districts. But this spring, amid discord and tension, school board members, teachers and several district leaders all left. 

It wasn’t always like this. Traditionally, school board races are nonpartisan and political parties steer clear. Certainly, many Colorado school districts races this year are still focused on things like academic achievement gaps and budgets. But in more districts than ever, efforts to restrict lessons on race, racism, and LGBTQ issues, anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and religious declarations have dominated school board race forums. 

Similar patterns of tension and discord — turbulent school board meetings, rapid policy changes sometimes skirting rules and law, and teachers afraid to speak up — played out in board turnovers in 2021 in Douglas County, Woodland Park, Pueblo 70, several El Paso County districts, Garfield County and Mesa Valley 51. 

This election cycle, dozens of other school boards — Adams 12, Brighton 27J, Greeley-Evans 6, Pueblo 60, Thompson, Buena Vista, Cañon City, among others — have candidates who say parents don’t have enough control in schools, harbor suspicions about what’s taught, and who’ve made their opinions known about topics like transgender youth in a voter guide sent to Colorado churches to help citizens “vote according to biblical values.”

The stakes are high, say parents who oppose the focus on what they call “distractions” from the real issues facing public education. With voter turnout for school boards traditionally low, they worry high levels of disinformation could lead to drastically altered school districts. They’re fighting back.

Upheaval in 'small, stable' Elizabeth

Capsel started paying attention in the 2021 school board campaign. Sure, people disagreed on the masking issue during the pandemic, but she said they respected each other. There was one candidate, Heather Booth, who Caspel contends was using charged language that “sounded very similar to the language coming out of Washington, D.C.” Capsel said it began dividing the town. Booth was elected.

 “I knew I had to tune in at that point,” she said, sitting in her country home surrounded by fields dotted with pine trees, cowboy hats decorating the walls.

Jenny Brundin/CPR News
Jessica Capsel fills her days milking dairy goats, feeding the cows, volunteering at her children’s schools and tracking school board meetings. She hopes to help elect two challengers who want to return the focus of board meetings to more traditional school issues like budgets and teacher retention.

The board became very divisive, a new phenomenon in a town whose website describes it as "small and stable," with a population of just more than 2,000.

Teachers and other staff became targets.

“These long tenured teachers who were loved by their families at their individual schools or administrators at the individual schools ... just being targeted for what appeared to be no reason,” she said.

At a January board meeting, elementary school principal Robin Hunt told board members she was a Christian and a Republican who voted for Donald Trump twice. She accused two of them, Rhonda Olsen and Heather Booth, of spreading lies and rumors about her staff and treating her in a “shameful and disrespectful way.” She recalled how the two board members said at a meeting that they were looking for conservative school leaders who could protect the community’s values.

“Why would any other conservative want to work in this district knowing how they may be ostracized and made to be a villain?” asked Hunt, who resigned at the end of the 2022 school year. “These board members have chosen to lead with fear and manipulation.”

At a February board meeting, the district’s high school principal said continual false allegations about LGBTQ agendas and critical race theory, or CRT, in schools were hampering schools’ missions.

“Please stop chasing ghosts,” he said, addressing Olsen and Booth.

Booth said that she’s proud of the conservative stand she’s taken “to safeguard our kids and our parents and even if it’s (CRT) not here as some say, we need to put safeguards in place to make sure it doesn’t come here.”

Conservatives with deep roots in Elizabeth were shocked at the new board's opinions

Elizabeth is conservative through and through. The majority of active voters in Elbert County are Republican. But some say the issues that the newcomer school board members were seizing on were so extreme — one parent called the board members "radical" — even conservatives with deep roots in the community were shocked.

In March, the three conventional board members abruptly resigned. Board president Cary Karcher wrote that the board had lost its way by shifting from discussing student success, staff retention, safety and spending, to talking about “radical left-wing ideologies … that do not exist in our district.”

He accused them of micro-managing instead of governing, changing agenda items on whims and presiding over chaotic board meetings where members of the public talk erroneously about educators indoctrinating children and teaching CRT.

Another board member wrote in his resignation later that he witnessed a total disregard for board policy, core values, confidentiality agreements and Colorado law. He described personal attacks and constant emails as taking a toll. The third board member said her days were consumed with constant lies.

By April, the remaining board members appointed like-minded members for a full slate.

Capsel said she is one of the few people who can speak up because she doesn’t work in the district or own a local business. She said teachers are terrified to defend themselves.

“They're speechless,” she said. “They can't say anything because they will be targeted, and I don't blame them.”

So Capsel rolled up her sleeves and got to work.

‘Extreme’ issues shift slightly from 2021 school board races

In the past two years, national conservative parent groups have found focusing on school boards to be a valuable recruiting and organizing tool, and national money has followed.  

The groups’ issues have evolved from CRT and anti-masking to include book bans, erroneous allegations that teachers are causing gender confusion and a zealous anti-teacher-union stances. In some districts, mental health professionals and other social and emotional support programs, as well as equity efforts, have come under attack.

Some conservative parent groups active in the 2021 election have faded, while others have stayed or are new: Moms For Liberty operates in several Colorado districts and CPAN (Colorado Parents Action Network) and Turning Point USA have galvanized some residents to advocate for book bans and other issues.

New conservative, religious parents groups formed such as Advocates for D20 Kids, but in some cases, parents advocating for traditional public education have formed to counter them, such as Progressive Parents of Academy District 20.

Jenny Brundin/CPR News
Campaign signs line the country roads in Elbert County. Though the county is conservative, the views of some school board members were too extreme for three traditionally conservative school board members who resigned this spring, throwing the district into further turmoil.

Dismayed by the rise in what they perceive as conspiracy theories, a network of parents formed, tracking the conservative parent groups, comparing notes and noticing that similar tactics and issues kept cropping up in their districts — such as passing resolutions opposing a Colorado bill establishing mental health screenings at schools.

Research on civic engagement at any political level shows no more than 20 percent to 30 percent of the population attends a civic meeting at least once a year, said Jonathan Collins, assistant professor of education and political science at Brown University.

“There’s a silent 75 percent,” he said.

Collins, who studies civic engagement and the politicization of school boards, said that 75 percent tend to not be interested in hyper-partisan political issues, want to hear more about what the board is doing rather than making demands of it, and are more interested in solving idiosyncratic problems, such as getting a heating unit into a middle school that doesn’t have one.

Lindsey Lee, new to the Colorado Springs area, began attending school board meetings in the Falcon 49 district at the beginning of the 2021-22 school year — and thought she couldn’t be the only concerned parent about attempts to eliminate social and emotional support programs for students. She reached out to parents in other districts “and realized, we were all at any given time, whacking a different mole, if you will, but it’s all the same flavor.” Her group, Neighbors for Education, spent nine months trying to preserve social and emotional support programs for students.

One common factor in many of the school districts that have latched onto national culture issues is attorney Brad Miller, who advises them. In a recording of Miller at a Freedom Foundation-sponsored event in Denver obtained by the Colorado Times Recorder, the attorney described his ties to national conservative groups. He outlined his strategy for when conservative boards take control and explained the advantages to operating in Colorado, where local boards have tremendous power with little oversight.

“It has made it very easy for these people to move in and make changes without anyone watching or without anyone having jurisdiction over what is happening,” said Capsel. “And if you don't get involved, they can just blow through your school district and change it.”

Choosing a school board candidate 'according to biblical values'

A group called Transform Colorado calls itself “a movement that unites Christian leaders to restore biblical values in the public square.” The faith-in-politics group has distributed what it calls a “nonpartisan” voter guide in churches across Colorado that highlights candidate positions to “help citizens make informed decisions as they seek to vote according to biblical values.”

The individual flyers for 30 school districts are paid for by the Truth & Liberty Coalition, the Woodland Park-based nonprofit, which has called for Christians to reclaim the “Seven Mountains” of societal influence — one of them being education. Its website states: “We seek to restore biblical truth and Godly morality into our country’s failing educational system.”

This spring, the coalition hosted free training sessions for prospective Colorado school board candidates for this November’s election. The list of preferred qualities for candidates was “fear of God, [love] truth, hating covetousness (Exodus 18:21).”

“Can you imagine the positive long-term impact that biblically minded Christians could have as members of 178 school boards in this state,” an announcement read.

In the voter guide, candidates in 30 districts answered questions on what pronouns teachers should use when addressing students; transgender students competing in girls’ sports; parent notification for mental and physical health treatment (Colorado law allows students 12 and older to access mental health support without parental permission); and whether they agree with a statement that the United States is not systemically and fundamentally racist. Many candidates did not respond to the questions or refused to answer.

Other issues that are common in many of the websites of the candidates who participated in the survey are that test scores are not high enough, districts aren’t transparent enough, and school boards are not good stewards of taxpayer dollars. But a principal focus is often on gender identity, “wokism” and a deep suspicion of what is taught in classrooms.

Postcards at the dining room table

A group of women sit around the dining table at Jessica Capsel’s house one evening. They’re handwriting postcards to their neighbors asking them to vote for Roxanne Aviles, an Elizabeth resident, a mother of six children and a teacher in Aurora. She’s running for one of Elizabeth school board’s four open seats.

Four incumbents are running for their seats plus two challengers, Aviles and Daniel Dahring. There weren’t more candidates because some were too afraid of being attacked. Even traditional Republicans are afraid of backlash if they speak up publicly, said Capsel. But Aviles couldn’t sit by and watch as the district “crumbled.”

“I feel like it's my duty to the community,” she said. “It's my duty to the world of education. And also as a parent, I feel like if I stand by and do nothing, then I'm also not standing up for my children. So I am in it for the long haul.”

Jenny Brundin/CPR News
A few neighbors gather at Jessica Capsel’s house to write hand-written postcards to elect candidate Roxanne Aviles. Tensions are so high in the small district that some residents don’t want to be public about who they are supporting.

Aviles knows even if she’s the sole person on the board with traditional views about public education, she said it’s valuable to be part of the closed-door sessions, to make sure the board is transparent, and to try to help educate board members on what really goes on in schools, she said. One example might be explaining what so-called social and emotional skills are, something that has come under attack by more extreme conservatives.

As a K-5 reading interventionist, Aviles sometimes weaves in those skills. She’d explain to her board colleagues that it means teaching children “how to raise a hand quietly, how to maintain focus, how to ignore destructive behaviors, how to make friends and read emotions on people to understand how they're feeling,” which ultimately helps children academically.

Jenny Brundin/CPR News
Roxanne Aviles, a teacher and mother of six, was one of only two people to run for four open seats in the Elizabeth School District. “I feel like if I stand by and do nothing, then I'm also not standing up for my children.”

“My goal is just to bridge this community. I know that we live in a wonderful community. I want to bridge the community back together, close that divide, and really put our kids back into focus.”

One of the new incumbents, Jonathan Waller, a retired police officer, said he’s still learning all the issues that face school boards. Asked to name the issue that he most wanted to tackle on the board, he said he’s concerned about the hidden agenda or ‘experiment’ happening in schools.

“I believe it's the parents that have the rights and that kids should be protected and they shouldn't be used as an experiment,” he said, explaining he was referring to confusion over sexuality.

Some large Colorado districts have guidelines or support plans for students who are transgender to maintain a safe environment. But there is no evidence of such plans in Elizabeth.  

As for hidden agendas and transparency issues, Capsel said that's the opposite of her experience.

Is this the new normal for school board politics?

Whether the politicization of school boards is a permanent phenomenon is unclear.

Rob Rogers, a parent active in being a watchdog for the Academy 20 district, said it’s exhausting.

“Because if you give them an inch, they will take a mile,” he said. “It is consistently resisting and not taking your foot off the gas because they're not taking their foot off the gas. It's calling it out, it's resisting it.”

He said he wishes that more people understood that school boards are being targeted by an organized national effort.

“It is not a coincidence that all of these things are happening all at the same time, all around Colorado and all around the United States. This is a very, very organized effort that would take similar organization to resist.”

And for school board candidates, elections even in rural areas are no longer invigorating, fun, or simply a way to give back to the community.

“It’s intense and I'm terrified,” said one rural candidate. “This is the most stressful thing I've ever done in my life. It’s hard but it's critical.”