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Conservatives take control of Jeffco school board

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District already seeing changes after sweep of all three races

By Daniel Laverty

Three conservative candidates were victorious over a slate of three progressives in the race for open seats on the Jeffco school board, dramatically changing the board’s political orientation.

Fallout from the results in the Nov. 5 mail-in election was swift: The existing school board voted to scrap plans for the controversial inBloom data-storage system. Meanwhile, district Superintendent Cindy Stevenson announced her retirement effective in June 2014.

In final, unofficial results, with about 174,373 ballots counted:

• In District 1, Julie Williams defeated Tonya Aultman-Bettridge, 61 percent to 39 percent.

• In District 2, John Newkirk had 54 percent of the vote to 46 percent for Jeff Lamontagne.

• In District 5, Ken Witt thumped Gordon Van de Water, 58 percent to 42 percent.

The winners’ circle

“There’s quite a buzz right now,” said Witt, who was with fellow candidates Williams and Newkirk at Malone’s Grill in Arvada on election night. “We’re feeling good but cautious. We are excited and we may be seeing Jeffco giving us a clear sign that they want to see change in leadership.”

Malone’s was packed with supporters of the three winning candidates, who decided to host a joint post-election party. The candidates received encouraging hugs and handshakes as results came in.

“From the first results, it’s been pretty positive,” Newkirk said. “Right now, it looks like Jeffco likes the message we were sending — eliminating wait lists at choice schools and more parent involvement at school board meetings. People want more accountability on the school board.”

The successful candidates were in high spirits after the 10 p.m. results were reported.

“Thanks to everyone,” Williams said. “The voters have spoken.”

Disappointed by defeat

Candidates Aultman-Bettridge, Lamontagne and Van de Water had gathered at Lakeview Wellness and Event Center in Lakewood on election night to monitor the results.

“They ran a good race,” Lamontagne said at 11 p.m.

Lamontagne described the mood as “disappointing.”

“Obviously the electorate really cares about education and wants to see change … significant change,” he said.

In other returns, Jeffco residents were decidedly opposed to Amendment 66, the statewide measure to raise $1 billion for K-12 education with an increase in Colorado's income tax. Some 67 percent of Jeffco voters rejected the measure, and 33 percent were in favor.

The Jeffco numbers reflected how the rest of Colorado felt about the tax hike, with 66 percent of state voters opposing the measure and only 34 approving it.

New look for school board

The Jeffco school board has five members who represent five districts. Board members are not paid and serve four-year terms. The terms of incumbent board President Lesley Dahlkemper and board member Jill Fellman end in November 2015.

Incumbent Paula Noonan announced in May that she would not run again for the District 5 seat. Laura Boggs, who had been the board’s lone conservative, decided not to seek re-election in District 2. The District 1 seat had been held by Robin Johnson until she moved out of the county.

That left all three seats open and up for grabs in the election, and several issues divided the six candidates. After nearly a dozen debates, the candidates separated themselves on several important issues: Amendment 66, inBloom and education vouchers.

Aultman-Bettridge, Lamontagne and Van de Water all took pledges to not support education vouchers and voiced their approval of Amendment 66.

During debates, Williams, Newkirk and Witt did not take a definite stance on vouchers, leaving the issue open. The three candidates felt Amendment 66 was the wrong choice.

All candidates voiced their concerns over the district’s plan to pilot inBloom, the “cloud”-based storage system for student data. The existing school board voted to scrap plans for inBloom at a meeting two days after the election, after Stevenson announced her retirement.

Aultman-Bettridge, Lamontagne and Van de Water were all endorsed by the Jefferson County Education Association, Jeffco’s teacher union.

Newly elected board members Williams, Newkirk and Witt are expected to be sworn in at the board’s next study session on Nov. 22.

“I called each of them on Wednesday morning (after the election) and spoke with Mr. Newkirk and Mr. Witt,” Dahlkemper said. “I congratulated them and told them that I was looking forward to collaborating with them on keeping the best interests of kids front and center.”

Faced with a difficult challenge immediately, the new board is tasked with finding a new superintendent for Colorado’s second largest school district.

“It’s a huge decision,” Dahlkemper said. “My hope is that the new board would begin talking about the process fairly soon. We’ll want to make sure that we have plenty of time to look at highly qualified candidates.”

“I’m looking forward to working with Ken, Julie and the rest of the board,” Newkirk said.

Jeffco Public Schools is the second largest district in the state and has more than 150 schools with nearly 86,000 students and approximately 13,000 employees. The annual budget of Jeffco schools is just under $1 billion.

Contact Daniel Laverty at Daniel@evergreenco.comor at 303-350-1042. Follow him on Twitter at @LavertyReports.