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Right-Wing Takeover of School Board Roils Colorado Community

Right-Wing Takeover of School Board Roils Colorado Community

Woodland Park staffers at work

Even some conservatives say the Woodland Park board has gone too far.

Right-wing members of a school board in Colorado are transforming the district to the point they’ve alienated some fellow conservatives.

A slate of four ultraconservative candidates won election to the five-member Woodland Park School District board in November 2021, and three of them are still on the board, along with two allies who were appointed to fill the posts of members who resigned.

Their tenure has included adopting a far-right social studies standard called American Birthright, hiring a new superintendent who has advocated for lessons that would “promote positive aspects of the United States,” and making major decisions without notifying the public that the actions were under consideration, NBC News reports.

The board in the town of about 8,000 near Colorado Springs has also ordered employees not to discuss the district on social media and forced some staffers out of jobs. Four of the district’s highest-ranking administrators have quit, and 40 percent of the professional staff at the high school will leave at the end of the school year, according to NBC.

Woodland Park is conservative — it heavily favored Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election — but leading up to the school board election in 2021, the board hadn’t seen complaints about critical race theory, LGBTQ+ issues, or other subjects that arouse the right wing’s ire.

“It was a culture of collaboration,” Chris Austin, the only board member who didn’t have to run for reelection in 2021, told NBC. “You had freedom to bring forward your thoughts and evidential data, people listened, we did not even know each other’s political affiliations. That’s the way I experienced it for the first nearly two and a half years. Then it shifted abruptly with the first meeting with the new board.” Austin resigned in 2022 because of the board’s new direction, and he was replaced by Mick Bates, an ally of the conservative slate who’d once chaired the Teller County Republican Party.

David Illingworth, a member of the right-wing slate, made his vision for the district clear in an email to another board member in December 2021 in an email that was obtained by NBC. “This is the flood the zone tactic, and the idea is if you advance on many fronts at the same time, then the enemy cannot fortify, defend, effectively counter-attack at any one front,” he wrote. “Divide, scatter, conquer. Trump was great at this in his first 100 days.”

Another of the conservatives, David Rusterholtz, said at a meeting this January that the district was experiencing a “a clash of worldviews.” He went on to offer a prayer, saying, “May the Lord bless us and keep us, may His face shine upon us and be gracious to us.”

One of the board’s first actions that alienated some teachers and parents was voting in January 2022 to approve the district’s first charter school, Merit Academy, without having listed the matter on the meeting’s agenda. The teachers’ union accused the board of being “underhanded,” and one parent sued, alleging violation of open meetings law. The judge in the case “did not rule on the legality of the board’s actions but ordered the board to list agenda items ‘clearly, honestly and forthrightly,’” NBC reports.

Illingworth claimed the teachers’ union was attempting a coup and urged Superintendent Mathew Neal to create “a list of positions in which a change in personnel would be beneficial to our kids” and “help the union see the wisdom in cooperation rather than conflict.”

Illingworth had harsh words for the union in an email to NBC. “I wasn’t elected to please the teacher’s union and their psycho agenda against academic rigor, family values, and even capitalism itself,” he wrote. “I was elected to bring a parent’s voice and a little common sense to the school district, and voters in Woodland Park can see I’ve kept my promises.”

Neal ended up resigning as superintendent last July. The board replaced him with Ken Witt, who as a school board president in a neighboring community “supported a plan in 2014 to ensure the district’s curricula would promote patriotism and not encourage ‘social strife,’” NBC reports. He said students who objected to the plan were being manipulated by the teachers’ union. He and two other board members were recalled by voters over the issue.

The Woodland Park board was accused of being secretive in hiring Witt, holding only one public interview with him and a private one that again brought allegations of violating open meetings law. Sara Lee, a high school teacher who’d encouraged her students to research Witt’s record was transferred to an elementary school, which she saw as punishment, and she left the district.

In January of this year, with Witt newly installed as superintendent, the board adopted the American Birthright standard for social studies. It was the first school board in the nation to do so, and it did not consult any social studies teachers beforehand.

“American Birthright materials emphasize patriotism, argue that the federal government should have no authority over public schools and say teachers should not encourage civic engagement, such as registering to vote or petitioning local lawmakers on issues students care about,” NBC reports. The National Association of Scholars created the standard with help from such far-right groups as the Family Research Council and Moms for Liberty.

“They’re trying to push a certain agenda down to these kids,” Amy Schommer, a mother in Woodland Park, told NBC after the board adopted American Birthright. “I’m a conservative, but I’m not against my kids learning something they disagree with. They’re trying to fix problems that don’t exist here.”

Also, shortly after American Birthright was OK’d, the teacher of an elective high school class on protest movements was the subject of complaints that he’d used Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book Between the World and Me, which deals with being Black in the U.S., as an “indoctrination tool.” Witt told the teacher, David Graf, not to use the book anymore. Graf decided to resign.

Those who object to the board’s actions are hoping change comes with the election this November, when three of the members are up for reelection. “This is an active case study on what will happen if we allow extremist policies to start to take over our public education system,” Graf told the outlet. “And the scariest part about it, they knew that this community would bite on it.”

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