How To Oust a Right-Wing School Board

Jefferson County recall

Jefferson County election workers count and stamp recall petitions collected by parents and educators to remove anti-public education school board members. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, File)

Let’s rewind two years to Election Day 2013, in Jefferson County, Colorado, when it became quite clear that educators, parents, and students had lost — and lost big in a school board race that ushered in a three-person majority with an extreme anti-public education agenda.

“When those results came in, I would say we were completely deflated. There is no other word for it. We had hit rock bottom,” said John Ford, Jefferson County Education Association (JCEA) president.

Fast forward to Election Day 2015: “At 7 p.m., there was a collective gasp in the [hotel] ballroom that we could hear from the lobby. As the results came in, people just started screaming with joy,” said Jefferson County teacher Paula Reed, also a JCEA board of directors’ member.

The three right-wing board members—despite their deep-pocketed backing by Koch Brothers’ affiliated political organizations—had lost overwhelmingly in the community-led recall election.

The turnaround begs the question: What happened here between November 2013 and 2015? The answer is nothing short of an organizing marvel.

Over just 17 days this summer, the parents, students, teachers and education support professionals (ESPs) of Jefferson County gathered more than 110,000 signatures on petitions to hold a recall election. Then, in six weeks this fall, they knocked on more than 175,000 doors across 778 square miles, from the mountainous towns of the county’s south to the sprawling suburbs of the north, in an all-out effort to get voters to the polls.

“My members talked to their neighbors, and to their families, because this is where they live. They talked to the people at their bowling league, at their church, at their kids’ sporting events. At my grocery store, they just called me ‘Ms. Recall,’” said Nancy McCanless, president of the county’s Classified School Employees Association (CSEA).

“And we told everybody, ‘this is about what is best for our 81,000 kids and 12,000 employees, and the health and economy of the community where we live,” said McCanless.

“It’s about students, and it’s about public education.”

Before it Got Better, It Got Worse

If we start the story in 2013, when the “reformers” took office, we will miss the collective work and sacrifice that characterized the JeffCo school community for years. In 2012, the two NEA-affiliated unions joined with parents and administrators to pass a bond and mill levy to fund education. The same year they accepted a pay cut to help preserve class sizes, and celebrated graduation rates that ranked at the top of urban districts in the nation.

But the election of 2013 was a wake-up call. The new school board majority quickly characterized itself as unwilling to listen to parents, students, or educators. “The level of disrespect I’ve witnessed is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. The three board members have disrespected our community pretty much from the moment they were elected,” said Tina Gurdikian, the mother of two JeffCo students, to NEA Education Votes.

Early on, it was clear to JCEA’s John Ford that teachers had just a few options. With contract negotiations on the horizon, and the majority of the board willfully ignoring the importance of high-quality teachers in the classroom, a strike looked imminent. A recall election looked less likely.

Either way, they needed to get organized, and they needed to build support for and awareness of public education’s value in Jefferson County. Ford, who was elected in the spring of 2014, helped build a new JCEA board that was poised for action. They all read How to Jump-Start Your Union, an organizing manual from the Chicago Teachers’ Union, and they kick-started their community organizing efforts with food-pantry drives and a literacy initiative that put a new book in the hands of every needy JeffCo third grader.

Jefferson CountyThey also sat down with community members to watch Education, Inc., a documentary film about the intersection of private profits and public education. “We would show this film to people, show them what’s going on and why it’s going on, and they’d say, ‘oh this really isn’t about kids at all…’” Reed said.

In the spring of 2014, JCEA leaders began hosting house parties in an attempt to wake up the community— and their own membership. “We talked about the fact that the community has to stand up and say, this is enough! And we told people who hadn’t joined the union that they’re not joining the union weakens us, and that our strength helps us to protect kids. Our contract protects kids,” said Reed, who hosted or facilitated dozens of parties.

But, even as teachers were doing all this visibility work, the school board was showing its true colors—and showing them on national TV. Their efforts to politicize the Advanced Placement U.S. History curriculum led thousands of JeffCo students to walk out of several schools in September and October 2014, and instigated national headlines. Meanwhile, the board majority also forced out a popular superintendent, hired a combative private attorney with taxpayer’s money, and limited public debate at school board meetings.

Parents were fed up. In 2014, and again in 2015, they flocked over and again to Wadsworth Boulevard, an 18-mile thoroughfare running from JeffCo’s top to its bottom. During rush hour, every intersection was packed with dozens of teachers, ESPs, parents, and students holding signs that said #StandUp4Kids. The same Twitter hashtag trended during every school board meeting.

Meanwhile, parents couldn’t help but notice that the teachers that they loved and respected were leaving the classroom in record numbers—about 50 percent more in 2014 than 2013, the Denver Post found.

In the end, it was parents who really couldn’t take it anymore, and who filed the papers for a recall election. “We said all along that we weren’t going to pursue a recall. But if the community did, we would be all in,” Ford said.

And they did. And they were.

Boots on the Ground

In July 2015, when parents kicked off their petition drive for a recall election, more than 2,000 community members packed their rally. At that point, teachers and ESPs, already more than a year into their new organizing efforts, were ready to help in any way possible.

More than 25 percent of JCEA’s membership walked the streets, knocking on doors, introducing themselves as teachers and inviting questions about the recall. That rate of engagement climbs to nearly a third when folks who manned phone banks are figured in, said Ford.

And that means they talked to everyone—not just the people mostly likely to agree with them. “There is a Presbyterian retired minister, he’s in his 70s and he’s maybe a person you would think would not be partial to us—but he was one of our biggest advocates because he cared about public education,” said Ford. “If you live in that world of stereotyping people, you’re going to be in trouble. We’d talk to anybody who would listen to us. We’d go to anybody!”

And once teachers and ESPs started making those community connections, they didn’t have to carry all the water. Community members started making those speeches to the Kiwanis Club. “Parents were having conversations everywhere, and then you started seeing the bumper stickers, and people painting up their cars. It was incredible,” said Ford.

Their unifying message was “transparency, accountability, and respect,” and not very surprisingly, it resonated strongly with Jefferson County voters. “There were a lot of paid people from Americans for Prosperity working for the other side,” recalled the ESP president McCanless. “And they would just be reading off a script. When we came to the door, people would say, ‘can we just talk to you about what’s going on here?’

“And we’d say yes, ‘let’s just talk.’”

In the end, all of those face-to-face conversations had impact: The parents, students, and educators of Jefferson County won. An entirely new school board was swept into office by a vote margin of 2-to-1. Those five members—Susan Harmon, Ali Lasell, Ron Mitchell, Brad Rupert, and Amanda Stevens—were sworn into office Nov. 19.

But the JeffCo community members hardly feel like now is the time to sit back. It is obvious to them that their public schools have become a flash point in the battle between those who would privatize education for personal profit and those who would invest in children.

“We know that in two more years we could be in the same position. We need to be vigilant. We can’t be complacent,” said McCanless. “We need to keep talking to people.”