by Félix Pérez; image courtesy of Jeffco Stand Up
Jefferson County, Col., parents and community members accomplished what few thought they could: they reclaimed their school board from an ultraconservative majority supported by the Koch brothers. In one of the most closely watched elections in the nation Tuesday, the community voted overwhelmingly to recall the school board president, the first vice president and the secretary.
The candidates who beat the recalled members will serve the remainder of their four-year terms. With the two other incumbents deciding not to run, an entirely new board will take office Nov. 17.
The ousted Jefferson County board members angered constituents since their election two years ago. They forced out a popular superintendent, met in secret, limited public comment at meetings, and tried to censor the Advanced Placement U.S. history curriculum, prompting a series of school walkouts by thousands of students that made national news. Also drawing the ire of the community was how the majority hired a hand-picked, first-time superintendent at a salary $80,000 higher than his predecessor. All the while, teachers, weary of being scapegoated and the corrosive atmosphere created by the board, were leaving the district, the state’s second largest, in record numbers.
The Koch brothers-financed group Americans for Prosperity was heavily involved in the race. It spent more than $500,000 into the election on behalf of the conservative members.
Ron Mitchell, who won an election bid against one of the controversial board members, said it was time to turn the page.
“You collectively, every single one you, have given every teacher in this district hope. Some time this next week, see the teacher across the street who is your neighbor, see one in your school and let them know you appreciate the work they have been doing. We have actually shown disrespect and demonized our teachers for two years and I am tired of it.”
The two other recall election winners are Ali Lasell and Brad Rupert. Each of the three recalled candidates lost 36 percent-64 percent.
Two years ago, when the three extremist board members were elected, voter turnout was low and the Koch brothers-financed Americans for Prosperity poured money into what had been low-profile races. This year parents, organized by newly created Jeffco United for Action, were determined not to get caught flat footed and to counteract the Koch brothers’ money with the passion and energy of a small army of community residents — Democratic, Republican and Independent.
Jefferson County high school social studies teacher Kerrie Dallman hailed the community-led recall effort. President of the Colorado Education Association, Dallman said:
Tonight’s results show what can happen when parents and communities work with teachers and other educators. School boards that make decisions behind closed doors and spend money on attorneys and public relations consultants instead of in the classroom, where it benefits students, are concerns shared by all Coloradans. When more than 1,000 educators leave a school district — which accounts for double the percentage from the previous year — something is wrong. When school boards take opportunities away from students, something is wrong. Parents, teachers and communities made their voices heard today.
Thirteen-hundred miles east, community members and educators in Reynoldsburg, Ohio, also won in their mission to wrest control of their school board from radical members. The actions of the board in the central Ohio community led to a teacher strike last year for nearly three weeks. At issue were class sizes that in some cases had ballooned to 40, a merit pay proposal that would have evaluated teachers on the basis of standardized tests, and a teacher exodus fueled by disrespect from the board and the superintendent.
First-time candidates Debbie Dunlap, Rob Truex and Neal Whitman, all recommended by the local teachers’ association, won. The trio pledges transparency about board actions and promises to rebuild trust among the board, educators and the community. Dunlap and Whitman cited last year’s teachers strike as their reason for running.
The same kind of community involvement led to a good election night in St. Paul, Minn. A coalition of parents, neighborhood leaders and educators were successful in electing their slate of candidates to the school board.
Paul Mueller, a high school career and technical community-based programming teacher, credited the victory to the community banding together. Said Mueller, vice president of Education Minnesota:
The coalition of parents, neighborhood leaders and educators in St. Paul had a great night; all four of their candidates won. It shows what can happen when people inside and outside the schools work together for the benefit of their community’s children.
In other election news:
- Kentucky Gubernatorial Race: Educator-recommended Attorney General Jack Conway lost to businessman and Tea Party member Matt Bevin 52 percent to 44 percent. Educators were hoping to continue the education advances made under outgoing Gov. Steve Beshear, including reinforcing early childhood education programs such as Head Start, First Steps, and the Early Learning Leadership Networks. Conway had pledged to encourage even greater growth of the existing programs, including Head Start. Bevin claims that early childhood education has no redeemable value. Educators also opposed Bevin’s plan to close the Teacher Pension Fund to new hires and have them invest instead in 401Ks.
- Mississippi Education Funding Ballot Measure: DEFEATED Initiative 42 was placed on the ballot to enforce a 1997 education formula funding law and force lawmakers to fully fund public schools after nearly 18 years of underfunding. The initiative lost 46 percent-54 percent.
- Manchester, New Hampshire, Mayor: UNDECIDED Local educators sought to unseat popular Mayor Ted Gatsas for vetoing a teacher contract supported unanimously by the school board and 11 of the 14 city councilors. The candidate recommended by educators, Joyce Craig, is trailing Gatsas by 85 votes out of 20,000 cast. Craig has yet to decide if she will ask for a recount.