Total Recall

6 candidates, including longtime critic, in running to replace Jeffco school board recall targets

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
School board recall candidates Matthew Dhieux and Susan Harmon chat with incumbent John Newkirk after a candidate forum.

Six Jefferson County residents have collected enough signatures to be considered for the school board if an effort to recall three of its current members is successful, the clerk’s office said.

The final candidate to file paperwork before Monday’s deadline was Jefferson County parent Regan Benson, a special education advocate and longtime rabble-rouser in the district. She joins Paula Noonan and Ron Mitchell in the race to replace school board president Ken Witt in the southern part of the county that includes most of Littleton.

Benson’s candidacy adds a new wrinkle to the charged election: The board members facing recall have been criticized for taking right-wing stances on charter schools and the district’s budget, but Benson, who has ties to the Tea Party, might be even more conservative.

Benson made headlines in 2012 when her son was arrested for wearing an anti-Obama shirt to school on a day when First Lady Michelle Obama was visiting. Authorities eventually dropped the charges and, in a settlement brokered by the American Civil Liberties Union, the district agreed to pay the Benson family $4,000. Benson’s subsequent clashes with school administrators and with former superintendent Cindy Stevenson at one point led her to be banned from her son’s high school.

Since then she has gone on to create the Every Student Matters Project, a nonprofit that advocates for students with special needs.

The other five candidates to replace school board members who are facing recall had already filed their paperwork.

If the voters choose to recall John Newkirk, they’ll be asked to choose between Matt Dhieux and Susan Harmon. Brad Rupert is the lone candidate running to replace school board member Julie Williams.

In the recall election, voters will decide whether to recall each of the three school board members individually and then pick a replacement. Rupert, Harmon, and Mitchell are running as a joint slate backed by prominent Jefferson County Democrats including U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter.

The organization that spurred the recall claims that Witt, Williams, and Newkirk have wasted taxpayer dollars, disrespected the community, and met illegally in private. The recall targets counter that they’ve authorized building a school without increasing the district’s debt, given teachers raises, and opened access to school board meetings by streaming them live on the Internet.

In addition to the hotly contested recall effort, four candidates are also running for two open seats on the board. Ali Lasell and Kim Johnson are running to represent the northwest corner of the county that includes most of Arvada. Tori Merritts and Amanda Stevens are running to represent the central portion of the county that includes most of Lakewood.

Under state law, Monday was the deadline to file paperwork to be a candidate in the recall election. No other resident has an outstanding petition, a spokeswoman for the clerk’s office said.

But a conflict between state law and the constitution could still disrupt the election and potentially add more candidates to the ballot.

That’s because the Colorado Constitution allows residents to petition onto the ballot until 15 days prior to the day of an election — or Oct. 19 for this election. But state law set Monday as the deadline to declare an intention to run.

The secretary of state pointed to this conflict in a letter to both the Jefferson County and Broomfield County clerks, but ultimately, the secretary’s office approved election plans for both counties.

Still, someone who wants to join the ballot in the next few weeks would have grounds for a legal challenge. Such a challenge prevented mail-in ballots — which tend to be for Democratic candidates — from being used in the 2013 election to recall two Democratic lawmakers who helped pass gun-control legislation.

task force

Jeffco takes collaborative approach as it considers later school start times

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

The Jeffco school district is weighing pushing back start times at its middle and high schools, and the community task force set up to offer recommendations is asking for public input.

Nearby school districts, such as those in Cherry Creek and Greeley, have rolled out later start times, and Jeffco — the second largest school district in Colorado — in December announced its decision to study the issue.

Thompson and Brighton’s 27J school districts are pushing back start times at their secondary schools this fall.

The 50-person Jeffco task force has until January to present their recommendations to the district.

Supporters of the idea to start the school day later cite research showing that teenagers benefit from sleeping in and often do better in school as a result.

Jeffco is considering changing start times after parents and community members began pressing superintendent Jason Glass to look at the issue. Middle and high schools in the Jeffco district currently start at around 7:30 a.m.

The task force is inviting community members to offer their feedback this summer on the group’s website, its Facebook page, or the district’s form, and to come to its meetings in the fall.

Katie Winner, a Jeffco parent of two and one of three chairs of the start times task force, said she’s excited about how collaborative the work is this year.

“It’s a little shocking,” Winner said. “It’s really hard to convey to people that Jeffco schools wants your feedback. But I can say [definitively], I don’t believe this is a waste of time.”

The task force is currently split into three committees focusing on reviewing research on school start times, considering outcomes in other districts that have changed start times, and gathering community input. The group as a whole will also consider how schedule changes could affect transportation, sports and other after school activities, student employment, and district budgets.

Members of the task force are not appointed by the district, as has been typical in district decision-making in years past. Instead, as a way to try to generate the most community engagement, everyone who expressed interest was accepted into the group. Meetings are open to the public, and people can still join the task force.

“These groups are short-term work groups, not school board advisory committees. They are targeting some current issues that our families are interested in,” said Diana Wilson, the district’s chief communications officer. “Since the topics likely have a broad range of perspectives, gathering people that (hopefully) represent those perspectives to look at options seems like a good way to find some solutions or ideas for positive/constructive changes.”

How such a large group will reach a consensus remains to be seen. Winner knows the prospect could appear daunting, but “it’s actually a challenge to the group to say: be inclusive.”

For now the group is seeking recommendations that won’t require the district to spend more money. But Winner said the group will keep a close eye on potential tax measures that could give the district new funds after November. If some measure were to pass, it could give the group more flexibility in its recommendations.

first shot

Jeffco district giving charter school district status and district building, while letting it maintain autonomy

A 2013 image from Free Horizon Montessori Charter School in Golden. (Denver Post file).

In a rare deal, a Jeffco charter school will become a district-run school but keep much of its independence — and also secure a long-sought campus.

For its part, the Jeffco school district wins a stable school in a Golden neighborhood that lost its own elementary school last year.

Free Horizon Montessori in the Jeffco district will still be run by its own board and is requesting the same waivers from state education law that it has now. But instead of getting them by being a charter school, it will become a district-run innovation school. Innovation schools, which are popular in Denver and several other districts, can win waivers from certain state and district rules. Those waivers grant them more sovereignty than traditional district-run schools. Free Horizon will be the first school in Jeffco Public Schools to earn the status.

Jeffco Superintendent Jason Glass called it a “win-win-win.”

District officials had been considering what to do with the building that was emptied this year after the school board voted to close Pleasant View Elementary in 2017. Officials said feedback showed the community favored keeping the building as a school.

The charter school, now located about a mile away from the school building, just south of U.S. Highway 6, was looking for a new location. In its current space, configured more for an office than a school, the charter would have had to spend about $7 million for the changes it wanted.

Under the plan, the charter will get a rent-free campus at Pleasant View, which will still be owned and managed by the district. The community will again have a school in the building — one which officials believe will have more stable enrollment than the elementary school the district closed — and the plan would give Pleasant View-area students a priority at the charter school, if they choose to go there.

Finding a place to house a school is one of the most common challenges facing charter schools in the metro area, especially as market rates go up. Jeffco has no policy on how to choose to lease, give, or sell a district building to a charter school, but it has done so a few times. Last year, for instance, the school board reluctantly approved a lease for Doral Academy to temporarily move into a district building.

Glass said that after seeing how Free Horizon works out, he’d consider a more consistent way of sharing available district space with charter schools, provided they accept all Jeffco students equitably and serve the community’s interests.

“Free Horizon certainly meets the bill,” Glass said. “This is sort of our first shot at this.”

Free Horizon Montessori, a preschool through eighth grade school, has about 420 students, including 21.6 percent who qualify for subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty. Currently, about 20 students from the Pleasant View neighborhood attend Free Horizon.

Miera Nagy, the charter’s director of finance and advancement, said after the move, the school will likely shrink its preschool, which has 75 students, to be able to fit in the building.

When arguing to close Pleasant View, Jeffco officials had cited necessary and costly building repairs. Now, they say it was decreasing enrollment that was the primary reason that made the school unsustainable.

In talking about Free Horizon’s plans, Nagy said, the school building won’t allow the school space to grow much. Instead, the school wanted the Pleasant View campus for “dedicated space for our specials.” As an example she said, the school’s physical education class is located in a room without a field or things like basketball hoops.

“This expands those services and those programs,” Nagy said.

The school board approved the school’s proposed innovation plan last week and it now heads to the State Board of Education. Jeffco officials, meanwhile, are working to delineate in a new document what responsibilities their school board will have, and which ones will be left to the school’s board.

Glass is seeking to keep the school intact.

“What he asked us to do was find a way that we could do this without designing any changes to the program that Free Horizon has,” said Tim Matlick, Jeffco’s achievement director of charter schools at a board meeting last week. “Free Horizon has a very successful program.”

The charter school meets state academic growth goals and falls slightly short of standards for achievement. According to state test results from 2016-17, 41.7 percent of the charter’s third graders met or exceeded standards for language arts. That’s slightly lower than the district’s average of 45.4 percent for the same group.

As a charter school, Free Horizon hires custodial services and buys school lunches, but as a district-run innovation school, Jeffco will provide those services. In exchange, the school will get less money per student than it does now as a charter school.

“Some of those things will actually be under the district’s umbrella, allowing the team at Free Horizon to really focus on the educational process,” Matlick said

The plan will also include a way for the district or the school to terminate the agreement by allowing the school to revert to a charter school if things don’t go well.

“We know that we’re going to learn more as we continue to go down the path,” Nagy said. “We’re going to be figuring this out together.”