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.”

  • johnsimon

    Take millions in out of state money and create a bunch of fictitious lies.

    That’s what happened in Jefferson County, Colorado.

    It just proves that there is no level teachers won’t stoop below to avoid a performance review.

    • 4sanity4all

      Nice try, troll.

  • 4sanity4all

    It is very important for people to understand how taking public money away from public schools to fund charter schools is generally a very bad idea. In most places, the charter schools have not done a better job than the public schools, and when public scrutiny begins, the charters flee, leaving public schools to accept the students they abandoned. If the funding were applied to the public schools with the same vigor that it is given to fund deluxe charter facilities, the public schools would be able to offer music, arts, sports, and all of the things that keep students engaged. I salute the hard working educators and citizens in Colorado.

  • Dan DiMaggio

    For reference, you can buy the How to Jump-Start Your Union book mentioned above here: We just printed thousands more copies because it’s been so popular with teachers’ unions – and plenty of other unions – around the country.

  • TS

    Unreal. Where are all the stories about the local socialists and communists that DOMINATE school boards nationwide?

  • ObiwanPike

    I don’t understand why it’s necessary to use such an inflammatory title for the article. School funding, teacher pay, testing and education in general has nothing to do with wether someone is a democrat or a republican. It has more to do with right and wrong.

    What is right for the children? Are we actually trying to educate them or are we trying to fill politician’s pockets along with all of the pockets that are lined with education dollars in the name “improving education”. From my perspective, the education system wasn’t broke 30 and 40 years ago. The United States was producing an amazingly talented and well educated workforce. Some of the greatest increase in wealth within the United States happened around 20 and 30 years ago. Just look at Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Donald Trump, etc. with many more hundreds and thousands of examples to varying degree. Why would you want to change an educational system that produced such success?

    The most obvious reason is money. If your track the transfer of money in the education system, you will get your answer. What has happened to the size of the federal and subsequently state education departments? How many jobs have been created so that the flow of money to education could be re-routed from the place where it produces the greatest results to a new place where it lines the pockets of politicians via corporations that use those dollars to produce vehicles or methods for more government control? If you control both the creation of the test and the interpretation of the results, then you can prove anything you want to prove. If you are motivated to keep teacher pay down (I will never understand why you wouldn’t want to pay a professional well when so much is riding on their abilities and training to ensure future societal success), then you will manipulate the tests and results to prove that teachers are not doing their jobs. In addition to making sure that students are unable to succeed, maybe you will base teacher evaluations – that are tied to their pay – on the same gage for student success that was interpreted as failure so that they are “proved” to be undeserving of a positive pay adjustment.

    Standardized testing does not prove that a child is learning or progressing. It proves they can take the standardized test. What about the large percentage of intelligent children that perform excellent in the classroom, but will repeatedly fail a computerized standard test? They are repeatedly demoralized and told they are a failure because of that test. Who wants a child to fail… certainly not a teacher who has dedicated themselves to helping children learn and succeed. A teacher that will never reap a significant financial reward for their efforts. Short sighted, mis-informed, uneducated and/or ignorant people will make sure of that.

    What is wrong for children? Isn’t continuing to make changes to a system that wasn’t broke in the first place with the same negative results, wrong for children? Isn’t allowing a government that has no experience or training in education the opportunity to continue influencing the course of education wrong for children? Government control never seems to produce positive results. Why would more government control produce more positive results?

    The people participating in government have a fiduciary responsibility to promote and grow government just like corporate participants have the same responsibility to the corporation. Why would we expect different results when we allow or ask a self-organizing, self-replicating entity to take control of something it doesn’t understand? It will implement the kind of control it does understand – control of money.

  • AZ Cowboy

    There are times, and this is one, where I truly, truly hate the NEA and all it stands for. Just had to rub the RIGHTWING into it? Had to make it partisan when school board elections aren’t supposed to be. Just can’t stop bashing the Koch brothers. Never mind the commie George Soros who backs the NEA and its trolls. This political divide has gotten so bad under Obama – the WORST president of all time – that we may never recover. I hope that someday a conservative president, conservative congress and Supreme Court get into office and eliminate the Dept. of Education, eliminate mandatory union membership and see the NEA dismantled once and for all.

  • MarineBob

    It is interesting that charter schools have waiting lists of thousands of people wanting their kids to be enrolled. There are always the arguments that charter schools do not have to work with Spec Ed etc so its easier for them (charters) to do a good job. Maybe that says something about all the effort that goes into the minority of students who need extra help. Seems to make sense that, given scarce resources, if tons of effort are poured into the special needs and non English speaking students, the average, everyday kid is going to be shortchanged. The liberal answer is throw more money at schools.
    Maybe there needs to be more accountability on the individual level with parents and students who need to put more of their effort into succeeding. Not just scream at successful capitalists who have built this nation.
    God help America if Billary or Captain Socialism ever get elected.

    • OhioTeacher

      Just look at Ohio’s charter schools: almost no accountability, lying, cheating and stealing from taxpayers:

      Columbus has 17 charter school failures in one year
      Schools closing at alarming rate, costing taxpayers and disrupting the lives of hundreds of students

      Auditor joins investigation of 19 Ohio charter schools

      Ohio Charter schools’ failed promise

      • MarineBob

        Keep an eye on Massachusetts, one state where the debate over growth caps is playing out. What makes Massachusetts’ story stand out is that the state has led the way in creating some of the strongest charter schools in the country. The rigorous authorizing process in Massachusetts allows only the best leaders to open schools. Some of the most thorough studies on charter schools have been conducted in Massachusetts and have shown that its charters outperform traditional public schools. According to a Stanford University study, charter school students in Massachusetts gain the equivalent of one-and-a-half months of learning per year in reading and two-and-a-half months in math.
        Taken from an internet article,

  • Ken Blanchard

    So let me get this straight. The only good school boards are those whose members are left-leaning, union sympathizing, politically correct, and who adhere to the philosophy that throwing more and more money at education will improve results. In Maine, the charter schools’ enrollments have a much higher percentage of special needs students than do the public schools. Your article gives no specifics on what the “Right-wing” School Board was doing that so upset the local teachers’ union. Just having a different philosophy than the liberal one is enough reason to label them as anti-education children haters.

  • Kathleen

    Please write an article about how to oust Left Wing school board members. K.G.