Secret recording reveals out-of-state interest in Garfield County school board member recall efforts

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Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The Garfield County Courthouse in Glenwood Springs, Friday, June 25, 2021.

A woman from Ohio flickers in and out on a fuzzy Zoom call. But her instructions to a handful of Garfield County residents are crystal clear.

“We need to make them look like the villains that they are, the radical left-wing, grooming — call them everything they are, guys. Don’t hold back.”

The “them” Kelly Kohls is talking about are residents in a community-led effort to recall Tony May, a school board member in a small rural district east of Glenwood Springs.

Kohls, who once was a school board member in Ohio, instructs them to hire someone to write PR statements. Then she lays out the scenario.

“We’re gonna make Tony look like a victim. We’re gonna have to clearly point out the bullies … and then we need the heroes. The heroes are the people who are going to rescue this horrific procedure (the recall) that's going on … by an angry mob and they're lying to citizens. And what a shame that is.”

The call recording provided to CPR News was organized by a Texas resident who worked for Lauren Boebert’s campaign when she lived in Garfield County, Sherronna Bishop. The recording is filled with anti-LGBTQ rhetoric (Gov. Jared Polis is called an “insane pedophile”), attacks on a local Latino advocacy group and a support group for parents of LGBTQ children —  but also strategy for keeping May in his seat.

It’s an example of how social studies standards and a national movement waging an anti-LGBTQ culture war is fanning the flames of politics in a rural district in Colorado. It raises questions about why outsiders, who have deepened the divide between May’s supporters and opponents, are so interested in a recall election in a tiny school district.

Garfield County’s school board has been anything but sleepy

The chaos started last year when then-school board president Tony May tried to bring in new social studies standards written by a national conservative group

Teacher and parent Leanne Richel hadn’t been paying attention, but she went back and watched a clip from a school board meeting, where May pulled the social studies vote from the agenda.

“I was just taken aback by the behavior of Mr. May to not only the other board members but friends of mine who work in this school district,” she said. “It was like this guy is not listening and is not respecting the other voices on this board.”

Board meetings were packed mostly with people who didn’t want the standards. Richel, who later sat on a committee that did a deep dive into what the best standards were for the community, found the American Birthright standards superficial and propaganda-like.

“I cannot let my kids, my kids, be educated by this. I refuse.”

Eventually, the board rejected the standards, with May as the lone vote for it.  But that controversy, according to many community members, showed May to be bullying and marginalizing — and now there is a petition to recall him.

Garfield School District Re-2
Then Garfield County School District RE-2 board president Tony May at a meeting over the district's social studies standards. May is still a school board member facing recall.

“His tactic was just to force everyone to be on board with him, so you were either with him or you were against him ... kind of like a king drunk with power,” said Willow Brotzman, mother of two young children who grew up in the district and is and one of the leaders in the recall effort, the Coalition for Responsible Education in RE-2.

Community members also allege that May’s partisanship jeopardizes district operations.  They’re worried that May is following the script from Woodland Park, where a new school board adopted the American Birthright standards, expelled teachers who spoke out and eliminated many mental health counselor positions. The coalition obtained correspondence between May and former Woodland Park board member David Illingworth, who was ousted by voters last November, and other documents

May didn’t respond to interview requests from CPR News.

The recall effort collected more than 2,800 signatures and enough were deemed sufficient for the election to go forward.

“We took a stand and we’ve been validated with a lot of community support,” said Brotzman.

In a statement shared with the Post Independent, May called the recall “politically motivated” and an “unwarranted distraction.” 

He said he has listened to the community and educators.  And in March, May shot back, alleging the signatures weren’t gathered in the proper amount of time. At a hearing, his claim was denied.

It’s now pending an appeal in district court.

Courtesy of Willow Brotzman
Leanne Richel, Willow Brotzman, and Denise Orozco with the Coalition for Responsible Education in Re-2 turn in petitions with signatures to recall school board member Tony May. After the signatures were validated, May protested. His protest was declared not valid and May has appealed that decision.

Back on the Zoom call, Sherronna Bishop takes to the mic

When she was a resident of Garfield County, Bishop worked hard to elect a new conservative school board following a parental uprising against COVID-19 masking. 

The playbook that was supposed to be followed was to fire the district lawyer and superintendent and replace them with people to do your bidding. Bishop is angry that hasn’t happened.

“That’s also why Tony is in this mess. You have the biggest idiot for an attorney in that district … I apologize if you guys like him I really don’t care,” she tells the group from Garfield County.

Bishop, a conservative activist with 38,000 Facebook followers with her own show “America’s Mom” on FrankSpeech,  had her home raided by the FBI last year in connection with the Mesa County election security breach. Bishop now lives in Texas but is still clearly passionate about Garfield County politics. In the recording, she calls a Western Slope Latino advocacy group a “racist, communist” organization and speaks derogatorily about the local support group for parents and friends of LGBTQ youth, PLFAG. She claims they are part of a conspiracy behind the recall effort.

“We need to fight for this community and stop handing it over to these communists … we cannot let them take this district back.”

Bishop reprimands the current board for not vigorously defending May and not doing enough.

“We need to hold them to the fire,” she tells those on the Zoom call. “They have not fulfilled their duty and they need to do it now.”

More strategy to stop the recall

Kohls tells the Zoom group she instructed one female Garfield County school board member to call a special meeting stating they will pay May for his legal fees and other expenses.

Kohls, a former board member from Ohio, trains school board and community members in partnership with Moms for America “to do the right thing.” That group has been connected to attacks on public schools and election denialism. 

She advises the May supporters in Garfield County to post continually on Facebook pages, doing things to “make yourself look a little bigger than maybe you are.”

“The propaganda machine is ours,” she said later.

When told about the recording, teacher and parent Leanne Richel doesn’t understand Bishop’s involvement.

“You moved away from Colorado after you got raided by the FBI. You moved to Texas. Why are you so invested in our school district? Why is Kelly Kohls so invested in our school district? That doesn't make sense either.”

Garfield School District Re-2
Board member Tony May (right) asks for the board to record that he considers a parent's comment during public comment period a threat. The parent said that the district's parents will recall him in an election.

Neither Bishop nor Kohls provided answers to CPR News about that question. Richel and others are disturbed by the baseless allegations made by Bishop of “sexual assaults” happening in Garfield County schools and going unreported.

“It's just this big fear tactic. If we throw out that these very, very scary, dangerous things are happening, people will come to our side. And none of it's true,” Richel said.

Petition hearing set

At the May 8 board meeting, several residents, as was outlined in the Zoom call, asked the board to pay May’s legal fees and other expenses fighting the recall. 

“I mean my gosh, you guys are already volunteers,” said resident Trish O’Grady. “To be put through this is unconscionable to me.”

But Colorado law requires that, but only if the recall effort fails. Others like Luke Snoddy also spoke in support of May.

“Tony has done exactly the job that the people of RE-2 district elected him to do,” he said.

Salomi Gonzalez, who often attends school board meetings, said May supports a pathway for student’s achievement.

“He is here to support partnership to deliver the best graduates ready to serve our community.”

She called opponents “a tyrannical mob.” Others argue that May’s presence on the board is stifling. Richler said it makes it hard for other board members to have a “fair chance” and “ask possibly great questions.”

A woman, Trish O'Grady, wearing a black longs sleeve hoodie sits at a wooden table in front of a microphone reading from a paper in her hand.
Garfield School District Re-2
Trish O'Grady, speaks during a public comment period in support of the school district paying the legal fees for school board member Tony May, who is facing a recall challenge.

Brotzman told the board it’s not the coalition’s intention to drag out the recall and distract the board.

“We would like to have our election, and we would like to move on. We, the parents that live here, will be who recall Tony May.”

May interrupts before the next speaker.

“I take that as a threat,” he said. The other board members look confused. May asks that Brotzman’s comments be recorded as a threat.

May’s petition hearing is next Monday in Garfield County Court. It’s unclear when the judge will rule on whether May’s protest is valid. If the appeal is rejected, a recall election date will be set.