Two years ago, thanks to lots of out-of-state campaign money, three new members were elected to the Jefferson County, CO school board. This system, with 84,000 students, is the second largest in the state.
Since it is a five-member board, the new members held the majority and immediately began making changes that many public school supporters did not agree with. They passed a merit-pay system for teachers that uses a controversial evaluation system and increased funding for charter schools. Opponents say they also violated open-meetings laws, spent way too much on legal fees and hired a new superintendent at a higher salary than his more experienced predecessor.
Unlike Alabama, Colorado has recall legislation that allows voters to call for new elections when they are unhappy with elected officials.
(Someone must file for a recall with a statement explaining why the recall should take place. Once this is approved, recall supporters have 60 days to gather signatures equal to at least 25 percent of the vote cast in the last election for this seat. If the petition is determined to meet requirements, it goes to the governor who sets a date for the recall election. Voters supporting recall must also vote for a candidate to replace the one being removed from office.)
Tina Gurdikian is a mother with two children in the Jefferson County system who helped get the recall effort rolling. She feels that what happened in Colorado was as much about the national debate of what should happen to public education as it was about what was going on in her school system. “This is really part of a national agenda by special interest groups like Americans for Prosperity to privatize public education,” she says.
I asked Tina for a description of what happened the last two years leading up to the Nov. 3, 2015 election. Here is her report:
We had at least six different parent and citizen groups, who emerged pretty quickly after the board majority was elected and started implementing their agenda, who worked really hard to get the word out to the community. One group, Support Jeffco Kids, reported on what the board was doing and gathered emails for a distribution list.
Jefferson County School Board Watch was a blog about the board majority that quickly had a distribution list of thousands. We had Jeffco Exodus that tracked staff leaving the system and their stories of why. Both SJK and Jeffco Exodus got volunteers at schools who would develop their own distribution lists and host tables at back-to-school nights, concerts, parent/teacher conferences, etc,
Citizens for Responsible Education was a citizen group started by Michael Clark who voted for two of the three board majority members and quickly realized they were not fulfilling their campaign promises. He, like others, developed a website and facebook page and shared information. We had Transparency Jeffco that filmed every board meeting and created videos so people could actually see and hear what was taking place.
We even had a Radio Jeffco, which was podcasts by parents on different issues. There were also several “Boots on the Boulevard” events where we had parents, teachers, students, community members out along Wadsworth Blvd, which runs north to south through our county, with signs to get out the message.
News coverage helped, of course, especially with some of the more outrageous things board members did, but I truly believe it was the regular and thorough reporting that parents and community members did through these groups that alerted parents that something was wrong – more and more parents started to pay attention – students did too, which definitely got the attention of parents.
Certainly the teacher exodus was felt close to home and by all, which alarmed parents and caused them to engage. You have to make it personal for people – they have to see, hear and feel what’s going on – you have to work really hard to get the word out to your community. But organized and hopeful people beat big corporate money!
One estimate was that as many as 2,000 volunteers supported the recall move.
The result of all of this work was the recall of the three targeted board members and the election of three new members in their place, as well as the election of two new members to take the place of the two incumbents who did not run for re-election.
With nearly a 40 percent voter turnout, the vote was 64 percent to 36 percent in favor of recall.
Given the continuing assault on public education in Alabama, we need to pay attention to what happened in Colorado.