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LAKEWOOD, Colo. — On a beautiful recent autumn Sunday afternoon, about 100 people are gathered in a hotel conference room in Lakewood to talk about schools.
At a summit sponsored by the Colorado chapter of Americans for Prosperity (AFP), they discussed how to increase the number of charter schools in the state, pay teachers on the basis of performance and use government money for students in private or even home schools.
And they strategized how to win school board elections in Jefferson County and other school districts around the state on Nov. 3.
Meanwhile, activist parents like Jeff Kirk are walking neighborhoods in the county — by student population, the second-largest school district in the state. They’re trying to persuade voters to recall three of the five Jefferson County school board members and elect an entirely new board.
It’s a battle over how children should be educated in this small corner of Colorado, from the issue of school choice to vouchers to curriculum disputes.
But this battle has ramifications far outside the school district, and it’s drawing attention on a national scale. It is a battle pitting heavy hitters like AFP, the small-government advocacy group founded by billionaire businessmen Charles Koch and David Koch, against teachers’ unions and their supporters.
It’s a battle being closely watched by educators and political operatives across the U.S. because JeffCo is the ultimate swing county in the key swing state of Colorado. That means success — or defeat — there could be replicated across the U.S.
“It’s for the control of our future as a country,” state Sen. Tim Neville, who is running for the Republican nomination for a U.S. Senate seat for the state, told the AFP gathering. “It’s going to be relating to the presidential election.”
Two years ago, about 33 percent of JeffCo voters turned out and elected three new school board members. The philosophy of the new board members was patterned after a 2009 school board takeover in nearby Douglas County, fueled by that county’s Republican Party.
The Douglas County board hired a new superintendent, ended bargaining with the teachers’ union and, perhaps most controversially, approved a voucher plan using public funds to help students — even those from wealthy families — attend private schools. The Colorado Supreme Court rejected the voucher program this summer, but the district is appealing that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In JeffCo, the new board majority hired its own lawyer, and when the longtime superintendent stepped down, citing friction with the board, she was replaced by a Douglas County assistant superintendent.
Then one of the new board members, Julie Williams, recommended examining the Advanced Placement U.S. history course, suggesting the course should be more patriotic. That led to an uprising in fall 2014. High schools around the district were forced to close as students staged walkouts and teachers called in sick.
Eventually Williams and the board abandoned her plan. But the friction between the new board majority and opponents continued to boil over at public meetings, during which board members clashed with each other and the public.
Grass roots against big money
Jeff Kirk of Westminster has been spending weekends canvassing, encouraging neighbors to vote for the recall.
“I believe they’re trying to systematically disassemble public education,” he said. “I’ve been out with signs and knocking on doors and doing what I can.”
Michael Blanton, an Evergreen lawyer with children in elementary and middle school, is one of the early backers of the recall.
“It’s not about any political agenda. It’s about what they’re doing to the school district where my kids go to school,” he said. “I disagree with the effort to change AP history standards. That entire effort made the JeffCo school district embarrassed at a national level.”
Petitions to recall the three board members mention a lack of fiscal responsibility and violating open meetings laws. But recall opponents are countering those allegations.
Board President Ken Witt recently called a news conference to announce that he filed an ethics complaint on the open meetings allegation — against himself. Reporters and others pointed out that the state’s ethics commission has no jurisdiction over school boards and does not deal with open meetings cases.
While some parents such as Blanton and Kirk support the recall, AFP volunteers are knocking on doors and making calls in opposition. The Independence Institute, a libertarian think tank, is also involved.
“What’s really at stake here is a movement by local boards to make the education systems more student-centric and to be less union dominated," said Jon Caldara, the institute’s executive director. “Has the board made some verbal miscues? Oh, my God, yes.”
But Caldara, who doesn’t live in the district, said the battle is between union-supported bureaucracy and what he calls “student-based budgeting” — sending money to the school of a parent’s choice, even if it’s a private or home school.
He won’t say how much the nonprofit political arm of his organization is spending on ads or where the money comes from. AFP announced last week it is spending more than $100,000 on TV ads, mailers and more in Jefferson County. The source of that money likely won’t be disclosed either.
Recall opponents say the teachers’ union is behind recall supporters, and Paul Teske, the dean of the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado at Denver, said that’s probably true. “Certainly the recall groups have worked together with the teachers’ unions,” he said. “There also does seem to be a pretty strong grass-roots effort.”
The money and effort spent by both sides to reach voters is sure to affect the outcome. “In the past, these elections are so low turnout, with little money spent,” Teske said. “When you put a lot of money in, it can have a big effect."
But not everyone is taking sides. Norma Anderson, a former state House and Senate Republican majority leader from Lakewood who now volunteers for the Jefferson County School Foundation, is staying out of the fray. “I have friends on both sides," she said. “I’m not endorsing candidates. I’m not doing anything.”
Still, she said of the recall, “I think it was a mistake to do it.”
Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of education history at New York University, notes that conservative involvement in local school board races comes in waves, notably in the early 1990s with Ralph Reed’s Christian Coalition. “There’s a lot of policy that gets made at the school board, and that’s what the Koch brothers have realized in the same way that Ralph Reed did,” Zimmerman said.
He’s fascinated by the JeffCo recall because of the county’s swing status. About 40 percent of voters there are unaffiliated. And the county gained 34,000 residents from 2013 to 2014, the second most in the nation, according to IRS statistics.
“Because it’s Jefferson County, it’s such a stew,” Zimmerman said.
Teske agreed that the JeffCo recall — and elections for two open seats, which could mean a turnover of the entire board — is worth watching.
“In many ways, Colorado has become a kind of test case for these issues. Others around the country will be watching to see if the money and the influence matters,” he said. “It’s going to be a very close election is my guess."