School & District Management

In Colorado School Board Recall, Money and Politics Drive Ouster

By Denisa R. Superville — November 06, 2015 3 min read
Supporters of the Jefferson County school board recall vote celebrate as results are announced on Nov. 3 in Lakewood, Colo. Voters in the suburban Denver community ousted three conservative school board members who changed the way teachers are paid and briefly considered reviewing a U.S. history curriculum to promote patriotism.
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Three conservative school board members in Jefferson County, Colo., who pushed forward a performance-based teacher-compensation system and equalized charter school funding, lost their seats last week in a hard-fought recall election that drew national attention and money.

Although the election themes in Jefferson County, a Denver suburb, mirrored those that often play out on the national stage in debates about public education, political watchers cautioned not to read too much into the results in which three Republican-backed board members were ousted by overwhelming margins. John Straayer, a professor of political science at Colorado State University, said the outcome in Jefferson County was largely the result of local factors.

Performance-based pay for teachers, charter school expansion, and curriculum changes, while controversial, have been part of debates about improving K-12 for some time and have been adopted in districts without the backlash they inspired in Jefferson County, he said.

The difference, he noted, was the pace and process of instituting changes, with board members quickly pushing through the initiatives. As a result, their actions were not “seen as an effort to press toward school improvement,” Straayer said, but more like a “takeover.”

School board members in three other districts were also recalled last week. In Selma, Calif.; Golden Plains, Calif.; and Caldwell, Idaho, eight school trustees lost their seats in recalls.

Joshua Spivak, a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College in New York City, who tracks recall elections nationally, said the outcomes were not surprising. Unlike regular elections, which favor incumbents, the opposite is true in recalls: There is a more than 50 percent chance incumbents will lose.

Other Recalls

Since 2012, 307 school board recalls have been attempted, he said. Among those that made it to the ballot, 24 officials lost their seats, 21 resigned, and 13 survived.

Local school board races, even recalls, are normally low-key affairs, he said. But the Jefferson County race attracted extra attention because of the political undertones—including Colorado’s role as a swing state—and a controversy involving the district last year centered on the Advanced Placement U.S. History curriculum.

Spivak said it’s possible that grassroots organizations of all political types could take cues from Jefferson County and mount similar campaigns against board members who back unpopular policies.

The ousted board members—John Newkirk, Julie Williams, and Ken Witt—were elected to the Jefferson County board in 2013 after defeating candidates backed by the Jefferson County Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association. On a five-member board, they became the new majority.

They pushed through a new teacher-compensation system that tied pay to evaluations and gave stipends to teachers who were rated effective or highly effective. They adopted student-based budgeting and allocated the same amount of funds for charter schools as regular district schools.

Last year, Williams forced the district of about 86,000 students into the national spotlight when she proposed a “review” of the AP U.S. History curriculum, with the goal of emphasizing patriotism and downplaying civil disobedience and strife. That move led to days of student walkouts, teacher sick-outs, and community mobilization.

Eye-Popping Cash

Unhappy with those policies, a coalition of residents launched Jeffco United For Action, which called for the trio’s ouster. Recall organizers accused the three members of holding secret meetings and engaging in wasteful spending, including paying new superintendent Daniel McMinimee more than his predecessor and hiring a separate attorney and a separate communications firm for the board. Critics have also argued that the new members presided over a period of high teacher turnover in the district. The board members have denied the charges.

The money spent on the recall election—on both sides—is estimated to be $1 million. The local teachers’ union was a major supporter of the recall effort, while conservative groups like Americans for Prosperity, the advocacy group founded by the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, threw its financial muscle behind the incumbents.

With the contest over, McMinimee, the superintendent, sought to move past the discord. The school board will be composed of five new members.

“We hope that our Jeffco community can heal its rifts and reunite to focus on ensuring that every Jeffco student is well-equipped and prepared to excel in his or her college life or career,” McMinimee said in a statement.

A version of this article appeared in the November 11, 2015 edition of Education Week as In Colorado School Board Recall, Politics and Money Drive Ouster

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