DENVER – Suburban Denver voters on Tuesday ousted three conservative school board members who changed the way teachers are paid and briefly considered reviewing a U.S. history curriculum to promote patriotism.
The high-profile political battle attracted a huge influx of cash from inside Jefferson County and from outside groups with an interest in what education reforms should look like.
By overwhelming margins, voters agreed to recall Ken Witt, Julie Williams and John Newkirk, who were elected into office in 2013 and made up the majority in the five-member board of the second-largest school district in the state. Voters also picked their replacements Tuesday, and two other school board members were also selected.
The new board is now comprised of officials who were against the old majority.
Those up for recall and the people who wanted them out of office each had the backing of heavy hitters who donated hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The trio had cruised to victory two years ago and their arrival immediately drew the scorn of liberal groups and some parents in the district. They began implementing the reforms they campaigned on, including giving more money to charter schools and tying teacher pay increases to performance rather than seniority.
Witt, the board president, said he was disappointed by the result but not surprised.
“Sometimes it’s difficult being the tip of the spear enacting change,” he said.
The discord in the school district garnered national attention when the board majority considered reviewing new Advanced Placement U.S. history curriculum to emphasize patriotism.
Students protested the curriculum idea by walking out of school last year. The district claimed teachers staged sick-outs.
Ultimately, the board didn’t do anything with the 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.
Board members insisted the outcry had more to do with union displeasure over the new teacher pay system.
Parents and educators formed a group called Jeffco United for Action and collected signatures to force the recall election. They cited the fracas over the curriculum and teacher pay. The group also accused the conservative members of meeting privately before scheduled meetings – a charge the three have denied.
Parents who supported the recalls said the elections were about accountability.
“Unfortunately a school board is only accountable to the community so this was our only option because after two years they wouldn’t listen to us,” said Shawna Fritzler, a supporter of the recalls.
The results Tuesday were a dramatic reversal from when the board members who were recalled took power in 2013. Back then, they won by overwhelming margins.
Money spent and 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.
Individuals and groups supporting the recall, including teacher unions, have spent $277,076, according to Ethics Watch.