GRAND JUNCTION — For Paul Pitton, the turning point came the night a mob of irate parents disrupted a Mesa Valley School District 51 board meeting and sent Pitton and his colleagues fleeing through a back door, under police escort.
The 42-year veteran educator later resigned from the school board, rattled by the latest in a string of increasingly volatile showdowns over school coronavirus measures.
“It just got to me,” he said. “Kids, for me — and providing a good education for those kids — have always come first. These things have pulled us away from that.”
But the political rancor that drove Pitton from office has brought in a whole new crowd of candidates for Colorado school boards — backed by a flood of cash contributions and major political endorsements, and energized by the same issues that divide voters in hotly contested state and national political races.
The high interest comes as the coronavirus delta variant continues to shake up schools and disrupt learning with quarantines. More than 1,100 COVID-19 outbreaks with more than 11,400 cases have been reported in Colorado since the pandemic began in March 2020, according to state data.
While school boards are technically nonpartisan, the lines in many contests are clear.
Teachers unions, church groups and other special interests have joined the Democratic and Republican parties in endorsing candidates. Mask and vaccine mandates, critical race theory and even the 2020 election results are among topics up for debate, according to the groups’ candidate questionnaires.
And big money is flowing in. In Douglas County, a center of antimask fervor, four school board candidates are leading the state in political contributions after raking in at least $66,000 each, eight times the statewide average.
The phenomenon echoes a nationwide trend of contentious, well-funded school board contests — mired in policy disputes around the coronavirus pandemic and the social justice movement — and comes after frequently disruptive school board meetings where community members complained about mask rules and vaccine requirements. “Saturday Night Live” even parodied a raucous school board meeting in its season-opening show earlier this month. Many of those criticizing mask and vaccine rules are parents, some of whom are stepping up to run for open board seats, seeking to repeal coronavirus rules from within.
Kevin Vick, vice president of the Colorado Education Association, a labor union representing 39,000 educators across Colorado, has sensed escalating tensions surrounding local school board races this year, reflecting the vitriol spouted in nationally watched races.
“We’ve certainly seen more anger and conflict in terms of people showing up at school board meetings,” Vick said. “There seems to be more conflict involved in races this year, more confrontation.”
He has also picked up on a trend of candidates banding together to run as a slate driven by “very extremist views.”
“They’re offering a lot of instability, a lot of disruption, a lot of extremist views toward education,” Vick said, and he fears that victories of those candidates will lead to “destructive, long-lasting effects.”
Amid the unrest, as many as four school board members across the state have recently stepped down citing personal threats and the toll of managing angry dissent over pandemic precautions and other issues, according to published reports.
Coronavirus, critical race theory drive some candidates
Pitton, 65, of Grand Junction, was a high school teacher for most of his more than 40 years in education and still works as a football coach and part-time teacher. In 2015, he decided he wanted to do even more. So, he successfully ran for a seat on the Mesa Valley School District 51 Board.
He resigned from the board not long after the crowd of angry parents turned menacing at an August board meeting. The parents, aligned with local conservative groups, were angry over a board discussion about possible incentives for vaccinated staff. There were shouts for the superintendent of schools to resign or be arrested — and the crowd shouted down officers who tried to quiet them.
When the board cut off the comment period early, the audience grew even more irate. That’s when police officers had to intervene and escort board members out of the meeting.
It was a final straw for Pitton, who suspects the loudest critics haven’t been in a classroom in recent years.
“I still see really good things happening in the classrooms,” he said. “I see teachers who are amazing. I see students doing amazing things.”
The disruptions come from those trying to inject incendiary politics into education, Pitton said, blaming his side of the political divide.
“I have been a conservative my whole life, but some of the things I see that side doing, I am ashamed of it.”
In Cortez, two school board members resigned after increasingly chaotic meetings where conservative factions jeered and heckled speakers who didn’t agree with them.
“It was a real toxic environment,” said Chris Flaherty, who had been on the board less than two years when it was plunged into withering scrutiny. “All of a sudden it was like a switch was flipped. People were coming to us and barking at us about (critical race theory) and telling us we weren’t doing our jobs.”
“I was growing concerned for the safety of me and my family,” Flaherty added.
Critical race theory — which holds in part that racism is threaded through legal systems and government policies — seized the public’s attention in the wake of the social justice protests arising from the George Floyd killing. It’s become a fixture of political campaigns across the state, and a focus of conservative media, even as education experts say the theory plays a negligible role in public school lesson plans.
In Rifle, Katie Mackley resigned from the Garfield RE-2 District board during its Wednesday meeting, saying board members had been stalked and that her child had been targeted with retaliation, according to The Glenwood Springs Post Independent. Mackley also was the target of a citizens’ petition attempting to pursue a lawsuit against her.
Her resignation came after the district recently mandated mask-wearing in all schools in response to more than 350 students having to quarantine, the Glenwood Springs Post Independent reported.
Serving as a school board member has long come with challenges, but now they are compounded by sharp divisions over quarantines, school closings and COVID-19 protocols, said Cheri Wrench, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards.
But people have also come to understand the importance of a school board member’s job, Wrench said, as schools have proven to be one of the driving forces behind the economy. She suspects that’s why school board elections have garnered “renewed interest” and why more candidates are running in Colorado districts this year.
Schools “are the heart of keeping our economic prosperity going,” Wrench said.
Critics of school practices around COVID-19 say there’s nothing irrational about their criticisms of school policies, nor their interest in the upcoming races.
“People are upset because these are our children we’re talking about and people are concerned about them,” said Brandon Leuallen, a 34-year-old ice cream delivery man who has spearheaded protests about school policies, vaccines, masks and election fraud through his social-media platform, the Mesa County Liberty Report.
MORE: Read more education coverage from The Colorado Sun.
Mesa County schools are likewise being challenged by the local right-wing Stand for the Constitution and Mesa County Concerned Citizen and the national Parents Defending Education groups. The latter recently sent a warning to members: “We need your help to make a stand against this attack on parents!”
Leuallen is supporting a conservative bloc of candidates that includes a real estate agent and former charter school board member; the owner of a cosmetology school; and a coach who also works as a bouncer at a strip club. The Mesa County Republican Party and the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce have also endorsed this conservative bloc whose faces have popped up across town in large campaign signs planted along heavily used roadways.
Partisanship enters the school board contests
Despite being nonpartisan, school board races have long had a partisan tilt. But this year’s school board campaigns are shaping up to be the state’s most closely contested in a decade, said Tim Kubik, a Loveland education consultant and chairman of the Colorado Democratic Party’s education initiative, which helps train party members who want to run in school board contests.
“The last time we saw a push this hard from the GOP was around 10 years ago, right around redistricting,” Kubik said.
A couple of issues are feeding into the increase, he said.
“A lot of the folks we’re seeing run on the GOP side this time are picked because they’ve been willing to make a lot of noise about masks or critical race theory.”
That’s led various groups to take sides.
In Colorado Springs, Church Voter Guides didn’t endorse candidates, which would violate its nonprofit status, but published candidate responses to a series of questions, including queries about critical race theory, sex education and coronavirus protocols.
Conservative radio host Kim Monson published a voter guide “for ‘We the People,’” which endorsed school board candidates in 16 districts.
Democratic Party Chairwoman Morgan Carroll’s weekly email newsletter endorsed school board candidates in at least half a dozen districts. The Douglas County Republican Party endorsed a slate of four school board candidates, while the El Paso County Republican Party sent a questionnaire to board candidates in that county that included questions about critical race theory, mask and vaccine mandates, and false allegations of voter fraud in the 2020 elections.
Republican Party Chairwoman Kristi Burton Brown sent an email last week encouraging party members to help get out the vote for the Douglas County GOP slate. Other emails from Burton Brown encouraged voting for specific candidates in Aurora, Cherry Creek, Littleton and Jefferson County school board contests.
And a national conservative political group, the 1776 Project PAC, formed earlier this year to support candidates who oppose critical race theory, recently sent a fundraising email with the subject line “Resign, Recall, Replace” referring to its strategy of taking over school boards.
Since August, 1776 endorsed the GOP-backed candidates in Douglas County, as well as candidates in Falcon 49 and Academy 20 in El Paso County, and District 51 in Grand Junction. It doesn’t appear the group has donated to any of the Colorado candidates, however.
Kubik said the focus on critical race theory and masks is unfortunate when school districts face major issues on finances and overall curriculum.
“There will be some really important decisions that get made in the next five years or so,” he said.
Cash pours into heated metro contests
And campaigns that steep themselves in hot-button issues are in some cases flush with cash.
Four Douglas County contests led fundraising statewide through Sept. 29, according to filings with the Secretary of State’s Office, with each raising more than $66,000. That’s compared to the average of about $8,200 for the 170-plus candidates who’ve reported receiving contributions this year.
School board candidates are allowed to take unlimited amounts of money from individual donors, after efforts to place limits on such contributions failed in the state legislature in recent years. And two major donors are helping out the conservative DougCo candidates, Mike Peterson, Christy Williams, Becky Myers and Kaylee Winegar.
Eric Garrett, a Lone Tree man who owns a real estate company, donated $25,000 each to those four candidates through Sept. 29. Garrett’s $100,000 made him the top donor to school board contests through Sept. 29. Mike Slattery, a Sedalia rancher, donated $20,000 each to the same four Douglas County candidates in September and early October, while his wife Andrea gave $10,000 through the end of September.
The opposing slate of incumbents Krista Holtzmann and Kevin Leung and candidates Juli Watkins and Ruby Martinez raised a total of $59,000 for all four candidates through the end of September.
Through midday Friday, seven outside groups spent nearly $654,000 on mailings, digital ads and more supporting or opposing candidates in 13 districts, mostly on the Front Range. About 53% of that was aimed at Denver Public Schools contests. Little is aimed at the DougCo contests.
A “wave election of parent power”
School districts are in the midst of a “parent revolution,” said Tyler Sandberg, vice president of conservative education organization Ready Colorado. He predicts that school board elections this year could result in a “wave election of parent power.”
“The spark that lit the fire was school closures,” Sandberg said, arguing the closures frustrated parents and set back women in the workplace. Mask rules, vaccines and critical race theory poured “gasoline” on the fire, he added.
Kim Langley is one parent running for a board seat in Summit School District. She’s banded together with three other women who call themselves the “4 For the Kids” slate. She describes the group — three moms and a grandmother — as grassroots and as being concerned with academics and budget issues in the mountain district. But she also said she wished politics were less evident in school.
She has concerns over how issues around social justice and gender identity are incorporated into coursework, insisting it’s “the job of the parents” to teach kids about those issues at home.
Teachers, she said, think they have the right to “almost raise our kids for us.”
A retired U.S. Air Force major, she also said she would like to see her son’s middle school library balance recommendations for books with left-leaning points of view with books from a conservative perspective.
Kyle Bentley, a parent running for an open school board seat in Greeley-Evans School District 6, said remote learning gave parents a deeper look into what their students were learning, and that many didn’t like what they saw.
“I think it was a turning point for a lot of parents,” said Bentley, who owns Bentley Welding in Greeley and has two sons who attend district schools.
Those parents feel ignored and fed up, and it’s driving the surge in school board candidates, he said. Bentley, a registered Republican, said many of those people are conservative like him.
“There’s a whole group of people who feel like their opinions or their voices aren’t being heard, their wants and wishes for their children are being ignored,” said Bentley, 35, who said the school district shouldn’t push families toward vaccines or require them to wear masks.
He’s watched school board races take on a more partisan tone this year. That partisanship took a personal toll on Bentley last week, when one of his campaign signs was stolen from a private residence in Greeley along with the signs of at least two other school board candidates.
Those politics have no place in the classroom, Bentley said.
“Kids are going to be exposed to that for the rest of their lives,” he said. “Make it a little bit more wholesome of a learning environment.”
CORRECTION: This story was updated at 11:15 a.m. on Oct. 18, 2021, to correct the description of the Colorado Education Association. CEA is a labor union representing 39,000 educators across Colorado.