School & District Management

Conservative School Board Members in Jefferson Co., Colo., Ousted in Recall Vote

By Denisa R. Superville — November 03, 2015 2 min read

Three conservative members of the Jefferson County, Colo., school board lost their board seats in a hotly contested and nationally watched recall election on Tuesday.

Residents overwhelmingly voted to oust Ken Witt, the board’s president, Julie Williams, its vice president, and John Newkirk, its secretary, according to preliminary results. Voter turnout was around 40 percent.

The three, who were elected in 2013, will be replaced on the school board by Brad Rupert, Susan Harmon, and Ron Mitchell.

The five-member board in Jeffco, the state’s second-largest school district, will be made up of all new members. Ali Lasell and Amanda Stevens were also elected to the two remaining seats. (The school board’s less conservative members did not seek reelection.)

While school board recalls are not entirely uncommon—there were at least three other school board-related recalls on ballots across the country on Tuesday—this one attracted a lot of national attention and money.

The Jefferson County school district was first thrust into the national headlines last year when Williams floated a proposal to “review” the new U.S. AP history curriculum, which was already facing conservative criticism, with a view toward promoting patriotism and downplaying social strife and civil disobedience. That proposal prompted a backlash from students, with many high school students participating in walkouts. Teachers also staged sick-outs.

Williams’ proposal provided fuel to parents who were already displeased with other board actions taken after she, Witt, and Newkirk were elected. Recall organizers accused them of holding secret meetings and engaging in wasteful spending, including paying new superintendent Daniel McMinimee more than his predecessor and hiring a separate attorney for the board and a communications firm. Critics also argued that the new members have overseen a period of high teacher turnover in the district.

For their part Williams, Witt, and Newkirk have refuted the charges, arguing that McMinimee is paid what comparable superintendents are paid. They defended their school-improvement initiatives, including a performance-based teachers-pay system that gives an extra stipend to effective and highly effective teachers; the equalization of local school funding, which allocates the same amount to traditional district as to charter schools; and free full-day kindergarten for students eligible for free-and-reduced school lunches. (The number of schools offering full-day kindergarten decreased, however.)

Chalkbeat Colorado reported that the county teachers’ union provided significant financial backing to the campaign of Jeffco United for Action, the group that spearheaded the recall effort. Colorado’s Independent Action, a libertarian group, and Americans for Prosperity, the conservative group founded by billionaires Charles and David Koch, supported the incumbents.

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.