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Marianne GoodlandMarianne GoodlandSeptember 14, 201710min5670

What a different two years makes.

The first forum for the five candidates vying for three seats on the Jefferson County Board of Education took place Wednesday night. Everyone was polite and civil and agreed more than they disagreed. But the lines were clearly drawn on several issues, most notably transparency around the district’s budget, school choice and accountability for charter schools.

One of the candidates, Matt Van Gieson, who lives in Arvada and is challenging incumbent Brad Rupert, pointed out that he had brought two of his children to watch the event, something he said he would not have done two years ago. Van Gieson was referring to the previous Jeffco board that was sharply divided between conservative education reformers and pro-teacher members, and prior to the 2015 election those board meetings sometimes turned into shouting matches among board members and between board members and the public.

A coalition of parent and teacher groups, backed with funding from local, state and national teachers’ unions,  launched a recall of the three conservatives. With the other two members choosing not to run for re-election, it meant the five-member board had five new members after the November 2015 election to run the state’s second largest school district.

The three who replaced the recalled board members are now running for their first full four-year terms. That includes board President Ron Mitchell, who is running unopposed. Incumbent Susan Harmon is running against Erica Shields. Even though candidates represent specific areas, the election is district-wide, meaning voters will vote for candidates for all three seats. Both Van Gieson and Shields got into the race at the last possible moment, filing candidacy paperwork on September 1.

Van Gieson and Shields both said they are running to provide balance to the board and to be the voice for those who they said are not being heard. Harmon, Rupert and Mitchell pointed to the transition of the board from one that is “drama-riven” to a more civil group, hiring a new superintendent and improving teacher compensation that they said cut back on the hemorrhaging of teachers to districts where they were better paid.

The Wednesday night forum, held at Wheat Ridge High School, allowed candidates to express their views on everything from post-high school career pathways, the budget, policies to prevent suicide and bullying, personal definitions of school choice, and whether the candidates support the Dreamers, undocumented minors who are facing deportation under the Trump administration’s decision to cancel the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program instituted by the Obama administration in 2012. All five said they supported DACA students.

There was much to agree on, according to the candidates, including the importance of arts and humanities education in the public schools and the need for as much community engagement as possible.

Where they were most divided is on the issue of school choice. Van Gieson is affiliated with the Golden View Classical Academy, which he didn’t mention during the evening. Academy teachers receive training from Hillsdale College, a conservative Christian college in Michigan that has ties to billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who visited Denver earlier in the day.

Among the questions: how do you define school choice? Van Gieson referred to the Douglas County School District Choice Scholarship program, which has been declared unconstitutional by the Colorado Supreme Court. However, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered another review of that decision, which is pending in the trial court. Van Gieson said Jeffco students have many choices, such as STEM schools, Montessori and “core knowledge” schools, and that he didn’t support vouchers because they have been declared unconstitutional. Shields echoed Van Gieson’s views on vouchers, saying that Colorado voters had rejected them and she supported the voters. But “parents know what’s best for their children. I advocate for school choice because it gives opportunities for all children.”

The incumbents responded that they did not support privatization of public schools or vouchers. “We live in a ‘choice’ district” that allows parents to choose which schools their children attend, said Harmon. “School choice is making sure the choices out there are sustainable and providing a quality education for all students.”

“I’m absolutely opposed to vouchers,” said Mitchell, which he called a “tax break for the wealthy.” He added that recent studies have shown that school choice doesn’t necessarily equal quality. “I’m more interested in making sure the choices we have are quality choices,” he said.

Another question touched on the topic of charter schools and the waivers they obtain from the state board of education and the district, and whether the candidates supported accountability for all schools.

Van Gieson didn’t address the accountability question, saying only that waivers are available for both traditional public and charter schools, and that “we should be okay” if that’s what the parents and community want for their schools. Last year, The Colorado Independent reported on a lack of oversight by both school districts and the State Board of Education on charter school waivers; Golden View Classical was among the examples cited.

Shields said that all charter schools should be held accountable, and that those that are not high performing shouldn’t be funded. Rupert added that parents are not the only stakeholders when it comes to charter schools, that charters should be accountable to the entire community, including businesses and taxpayers. “We need to treat them more like public schools,” he added.

Waivers granted by the state are “unfortunate because I believe in local control,” added Mitchell. It is the board’s responsibility to make sure all schools are accountable, and if charter schools receive equal funding they should provide equal services.

The Colorado General Assembly in May approved a bill, signed into law by Gov. John Hickenlooper, that would equalize funding for charter schools around the state, ensuring for the first time in some districts that charters receive a share of property tax revenues.

The budget, and a claim that the budget process is not as transparent as it should be, also came up. Van Gieson said the district should have a line item budget so that everyone can see how the money is spent. Shields compared the district budget to her own family’s budget, stating that her husband wants to know line by line how the money is being spent. “As taxpayers, it’s not that different. Don’t you want to know exactly where [the money] is going?”

Rupert pointed out that the board has tried for the past two years to engage the public as much as possible, with public forums, call-ins and questionnaires. But the budget is very complicated, he said. Presenting it as a line item is “unrealistic.” Mitchell noted the budget book is about two inches thick, and that 80 percent of the district’s funding goes to personnel. How those dollars are allocated once it reaches a school is a school’s decision, he added.

“The transparency is there,” said Harmon. “The difference is communication and you can never communicate enough so that people know we are being transparent.” She pledged to work with the district’s new superintendent, Jason Glass, to do a better job.

The forum was sponsored by the pro-teacher Support Jeffco Kids and Arvadans for Progressive Action.  


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Dan NjegomirDan NjegomirAugust 28, 20173min375

Upscale and conservative Douglas County’s public schools have set the pace for education reform in recent years, developing a homegrown school-voucher program (stalled by an ongoing court challenge) and ending collective bargaining with the local teachers union.

Reform of course is in the eye of the beholder, and the changes haven’t sat well with a contingent of parents, educators and others — the unions, too, of course — who have been challenging the DougCo school district for years. That includes in school board races, and the upcoming fall election promises to be another contentious one. Things are heating up already.

Complete Colorado’s Sherrie Peif reports that a group of parents critical of the reforms and supportive of a slate of teachers union-backed school board candidates was placing leaflets on parents’ cars at a back-to-school night at elementary schools. That led to standoff with school officials:

According to Douglas County School District (DCSD) representatives, principals at two elementary schools had to call police after the political activist committee, Douglas County Parents, refused to leave the property.

The group supports the local teachers union-backed slate of Board of Education candidates.

In at least one instance, parents became hostile with the principal, officials said.

Peif notes:

School policies prohibit the distribution of non-school sponsored material without permission of the building administrator during school hours (which includes 30 minutes before and 30 minutes after start and end times) and school-sponsored events, such as back-to-school nights.

District officials said the group did not seek approval to put fliers out during the events.

The parents’ group later shot back via social media. Peif writes that one district critic posted on the Facebook page of the group Speak for DCSD:

“Principals at Sage Canyon and Flagstone called the police on parents flyering (sic) cars and exercising their constitutional rights when no educational activities were taking place and in the evening. Flyers (sic) from “both sides” have been put on cars this week at various schools with no hassle or problems. If you think Reformers are just on the board of education, think again. Some principals also support the reform agenda and will do all they can to silence parents.”

Supporters of the current board’s policies, meanwhile, have fielded their own slate of candidates. We reported on that in July.


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Peter MarcusPeter MarcusJuly 19, 20174min493
Several hundred protesters rally against ‘school choice’ policies pushed by the conservative ALEC organization ahead of ALEC’s meeting in Denver on Wednesday July 19, 2017. (Peter Marcus/ColoradoPolitics.com)

A few hundred protesters gathered at the Capitol on Wednesday to protest school choice policies pushed by the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council.

Standing on the west steps of the Capitol, activists – led by teachers’ unions – held signs that read, “Vouchers = Theft,” with anti-U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos photos on them.

Some also held large cutout headshots of Republican state lawmakers who support charter schools and voucher programs, despite some pieces of legislation in the Colorado legislature this year around equal funding for charter schools being bipartisan efforts.

The rally came ahead of an annual ALEC meeting in Denver, where DeVos is scheduled to speak along with other conservative leaders, including Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. DeVos and Zinke are scheduled for Thursday.

“Why would you take money from the less affluent to give to those who can already afford to buy their education in their positions,” said JoZi Martinez, a Denver Public Schools teacher and local activist. “Leave public education to the experts, we the teachers and the administrators.

“This is not a monarchy and you clearly are not a queen, Ms. DeVos.”

Several state Democratic elected officials also spoke at the rally, including those who are running for higher office. State Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton, who is running for attorney general, has become a well-known figure in the activist community.

“Once it’s taken from you, then you no longer have power, and that is what’s happening here,” Salazar said, suggesting that there is a push to deny public education to low-income and minority communities.

“What you need to do is not just resit but become the opposition to what is happening,” Salazar continued. “Don’t just rally – vote!”

Also speaking at the rally was state Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, who is one of three Democrats hoping to replace U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Arvada, in the 7th Congressional District. Following the rally, Kerr marched with protesters to a hotel in downtown Denver where the ALEC conference was taking place.

“My position as a state senator is what gives me the opportunity to address you here today, but my opposition to Betsy DeVos has little to do with being a state senator, and has everything to do with being a dad and a teacher,” Kerr said, who taught social studies.

“I know that Donald Trump and Secretary DeVos are a disaster for our schools.”


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Dan NjegomirDan NjegomirJune 25, 20177min431

Ed Jones has come a long way since his childhood in Hattiesburg, Miss., in the segregated South of the 1940s. After mustering out of the Army at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs in 1963, he made the city his new home. He would go on to run for office — and win — unheard of for a black man in pre-Civil Rights Era Mississippi. And he would do it as a Republican, also unheard of back in the day in his hometown. He served two terms as an El Paso County Commissioner in the 1990s — “the first black county commissioner in the history of El Paso County,” he says — and was elected to the state Senate from central Colorado Springs in 2002. He served one term in the fiercely contested swing district and lost his 2006 re-election bid to Democrat John Morse (who would become Senate president before being recalled in 2013).

Yet for all the changes, there have been some constants that have kept Jones close to his roots. Most notably, his late mother, who eventually joined him in Colorado Springs and died there in 2008, just a week shy of her 100th birthday. It was his mother — a schoolteacher who taught in the same segregated schools Ed attended as a child — who impressed upon him the value of an education. She is the one who taught him how to survive — and ultimately escape — the overt racism that governed day-to-day life in Hattiesburg. And it was his mother who taught him to walk. Not just literally, when he was a kid, but all his life. Just like she did.

Colorado Politics: How’s you health — now that you’re 75?

Ed Jones: I’m in awesome shape. I just got back from my wellness checkup at the doctor’s this morning. They were amazed at my blood pressure. It’s like a young man’s. I love to walk. One reason I like walking is my mother always walked. She never owned a car. I still walk at least three miles a day.

CP: You were an only child, and your dad died when you were young, leaving your mom a widow. She was not only a schoolteacher but also your teacher in life. How did she teach you to deal with segregation?

EJ: She took me downtown one day when she had to pay her bills. She told me to watch this parade. It was a parade of the KKK, marching down the main street in Hattiesburg. And they weren’t wearing hoods. They wanted you to see who they were. They were the pillars of the community. My mom taught me to be careful to only drink from the “coloreds” drinking fountains. On city buses, you had to sit behind the “coloreds” sign. When I was a young person walking down the street in Hattiesburg, if a white person approached me, I had stand out of the way. But my mother also told me something else very important: She said, “Son, you don’t have to stay here. You can leave this.” Those things played such a dramatic role in my upbringing.

CP: Education was the defining issue for you throughout your time in the Senate and ever since. You are a longtime champion of school choice, including charter schools and vouchers, and you ran assorted bills involving education reform. What inspired your work on education as a policy issue?

EJ: Education was so important to me because of the fact that growing up the way I did in Mississippi, it was difficult for black folks to get a quality education. For example, we had to read out of second-hand books from the white schools. I came to believe if you could get the right kind of education in this country, you could move forward. Education moves you beyond the racial differences, too.

CP: What was your toughest political challenge in the legislature?

EJ: It was the bill I carried to get rid of affirmative action at Colorado’s colleges and universities. I never thought I had so many enemies! When I was running for re-election, they knocked on doors to defeat me. I had so many black folks who came out against me on that one. I remember the day of the vote, I went into the Senate bathroom and looked out the window and saw these buses with black folks. Sen. (Ken) Chlouber (of Leadville) happened to walk right in behind me. I said, “Sen. Chlouber, if you want to see a lynching march, look out the window at all these blacks coming here to defeat me.”

CP: What would you tell black people who would criticize you for your stand on that issue?

EJ: That what they didn’t see is they were being used — being taught you could not make it in this country unless you have white folks to help you out.

CP: Why did you become a Republican?

EJ: I grew up in the Democratic Party. My mother was a lifetime member of the NAACP. But as I grew older and then when I came out here (to Colorado) in the service, I started to realize I am not a Democrat. I don’t think like Democrats anymore. I thought I’m gonna give Republicans a shot at it. I found more people were willing to listen to me.

CP: You were a longtime activist in the El Paso County GOP. Are you involved in politics these days?

EJ: No, I’m a spectator — just sitting back and enjoying the fight.