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Colorado School District Immersed In Political Turmoil Amid Recall

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 2/11/2015 Rebecca Klein
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DENVER (AP) -- Angry parents and educators in a Colorado battleground county are trying to recall three conservative school board members Tuesday, citing several complaints, including a change in how teachers get pay raises and talk of reviewing the history curriculum to promote patriotism.

The idea prompted students to walk out of class and protest in the streets last year. Teachers staged sick-outs, the Jefferson County district claimed.

The board members facing recalls cruised to victory in 2013, but their arrival quickly caused a stir. The superintendent of the school district, Cindy Stevenson, left days after their election, saying she felt disrespected by them and couldn't do her job anymore.

Then came a decision to tie teacher pay increases to performance rather than seniority, and accusations that the three conservatives on the five-member board were meeting privately before scheduled meetings. Ken Witt, Julie Williams and John Newkirk have repeatedly denied holding secret meetings.

While school-board spats typically are confined locally, these recall efforts have attracted spending from special-interest groups in a battle over what education reform should look like. It's no surprise the setting for that question is Jefferson County, a politically diverse swing district where rural, mountain, and urban communities mingle.

"I think we are a harbinger of education reform, what can persist and succeed and what cannot," said Witt, the board's president.

Jefferson County, which has Colorado's second largest school district, drew national attention when the conservative-led majority considered reviewing a new Advanced Placement U.S. history curriculum to emphasize patriotism.

Ultimately, the board didn't do anything with the AP history class, an elective course that has been criticized by the Republican National Committee and the Texas State Board of Education. The course gives greater attention to the history of North America and its native people before colonization and their clashes with Europeans.

But the board members insist it's their duty to periodically look at curriculum, and that the scuffle had more to do with union displeasure over the new teacher pay system.

Recall supporters also highlight the salary of the superintendent hired to replace Stevenson.

Stevenson's salary had been $205,000, but for her replacement, Dan McMinimee, the board approved a base salary of $220,000, with up to $40,000 in additional merit pay. Board members facing the recall vote say that's comparable to what superintendents make in similar-sized districts. They've also disputed ballot language that claims McMinimee is being paid $280,000.

The recall effort is happening during an otherwise sleepy election year, making it hard to predict turnout and outcome. It's not unusual for some Jefferson County voters to not be completely familiar with what's going on this year, said Wendy McCord, a parent who helped organize the recalls with the group Jeffco United for Action, which also includes educators.

"I think when you actually have a chance to talk to people about what's going on, they are convincible," McCord said. "It's really anybody's guess what's going to happen."

The conservative group Americans For Prosperity has bought television ads in support of the school board.

Because Americans For Prosperity doesn't directly endorse any board member but simply urges voters to call and thank them for the changes they've implemented, it doesn't have to disclose all of its spending. The Denver-based Independence Institute, which backs the conservative board members, has also aired ads and doesn't have to disclose financial information.

Money spent that has been disclosed by groups and individuals opposing the recalls total $186,399, including a $70,116 ad buy from Americans For Prosperity, according to figures and documents compiled by Colorado Ethics Watch, an open government group.

Recall supporters also have big financial backing. Individuals and groups, including teacher unions, have spent $277,076, according to Ethics Watch.

And then there are the three candidates running to replace the board members up for recall. Including contributions from unions, the candidates - Ron Mitchell, Susan Harmon, and Brad Rupert - have received $144,299 combined.

All this to compete for board positions that are unpaid. By comparison, some state legislative races never reach six-figure fundraising.

If Jefferson County voters oust a board member facing recall, they'll have to take the additional step on their ballots of selecting one of the listed candidates for the seats.

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