LITTLETON — Kim Gilmartin worries that if three conservative Jefferson County school board members are recalled this fall, her children’s charter school will lose equal funding.
So this mother of three volunteered a few hours Saturday to canvass a neighborhood in suburban Denver with the free market advocacy organization Americans For Prosperity-Colorado.
“I want to make sure there is choice and innovation in our schools,” Gilmartin said. “I don’t want that taken away from me.”
A few hours later in a nearby neighborhood, another mother of three Jeffco Public Schools students, Annie Bitsie, knocked on doors and explained to voters why she supports the recall of Ken Witt, Julie Williams and John Newkirk.
Bitsie is worried the school board’s policies siphon off resources from district-run neighborhood schools and drive away the school system’s best teachers. The quality of schools, she reminded voters, is linked to property values.
Gilmartin and Bitsie are among hundreds of volunteers playing a central role in this high-stakes recall election. Despite all the headlines around the recall, organizers for both sides are finding an electorate that is largely uninformed, making the ground game all the more important in this politically diverse 800-square mile county stretching from the edge of Denver to the mountains.
“My biggest fear is waking up Nov. 4 and thinking, ‘If I had only done one more thing,’” Bitsie said.
Bitsie has good reason to worry. School board recalls are usually ineffective, said Daniel Anderson, an editor at Ballotpedia.org, an election tracking website.
In 2014, less than 10 percent of school board recall targets were removed from office, according to data from Ballotpedia. In 2013, that number was 11 percent. And in 2012, only 7 percent of recall efforts were effective.
“A significant majority of school board recall efforts do not make the ballot, and the majority of those who do make the ballot are not successful,” Anderson said.
A variety of reasons contribute to this trend. But for the most part, incumbents in all political races have an advantage and school board contests, no matter how controversial, are seen as low stakes to voters, Anderson said.
“The challenge you have is to make a public case for your position,” he said.
Enter Jeffco United and AFP-CO. Both organizations want to connect with as many voters as possible between now and Election Day to share their views on the board’s track record.
“A face-to-face conversation has the biggest response,” said Michael Fields, AFP-CO’s executive director. “There’s so much social media saturation.”
Jeffco United is explicitly advocating for the recall of Ken Witt, Julie Williams and John Newkirk, and supporting a slate of five candidates. AFP-CO’s voter outreach is centered on two causes: expanding school choice and linking teacher pay to evaluations.
Bitsie does not share Fields’s opinion on charter schools and pay-for-performance, but she does echo his concern about talking to voters in person.
“Voters have heard the rumblings,” Bitsie said. “But they don’t know why this election is so important.”
Volunteers for Jeffco United and AFP on Saturday spoke to voters such as Patrick Hamm, who remembers the two weeks of student protests over a proposed curriculum review committee but hasn’t paid much attention to the school board since.
“I don’t really have the time to dig into these things,” he said. “I don’t really go seeking the information. I’m more, let it come to me in the news.”
Volunteers also spoke to voters such as Kellie Monhahan, who moved to the county for the district’s reputation but lost focus of the school board years ago after her children graduated.
“I’d like to know their track record,” Monahan said of the recall targets. “I’ve heard about them on talk radio. … But I don’t know what information is right and wrong.”
Update: This story has been updated to clarify that parent Kim Gilmartin is worried that her children’s charter school would lose equal funding compared to district-run schools, not all of its funding. At a school board candidate forum after this story was originally published, all Jefferson County school board candidates who attended the forum pledged to maintain equal funding for charter schools.