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Chalked board 

The lines are drawn in the District 11 recall but will it stop infighting among the directors?

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Kevin Marshall says the "dog and pony show" on the District 11 Board of Education floated doubts in his mind. But the Mann Middle School math teacher kept his focus on the questions that most would agree should decide the recall campaigns against board members Eric Christen and Sandy Shakes.

Marshall says he asked himself, "Is what they are doing beneficial for the children? Has it helped for them to stir it up as much as they have?"

Marshall had been undecided about supporting a recall talk of one has buzzed throughout the district during the past three years because Christen and Shakes, as well as fellow "reform" board members Craig Cox and Willie Breazell, will have to defend their seats come next November's election. But when the recall effort was launched six months ago by community members and not teachers, he changed his mind.

"I hope it sends a message to them," he says, "that we need some civility and some cooperation and some communication."

The recall will wind up in a scant three weeks, when voters turn in their ballots by the Dec. 12 deadline. Thousands hope that apart from anything policy-related, it will bring a semblance of civility to a body criticized and ridiculed for its bickering and name-calling.

But no one's sure that will happen.

"I don't think [the infighting] is going to go away completely," says Irma Valerio, president of the Colorado Springs Education Association. "I think it will get better to an extent, but I don't think it will go away."

Picking the fight

The CSEA, which is the district's teachers union, at first declined to endorse the recall, because in Valerio's words, "we tend to get blamed by the likes of Eric Christen and Craig Cox."

But a recent and still ongoing poll put to union members shows hundreds of teachers are in favor of the effort, which could mean big changes for their schools; the tally moved the CSEA to support the recall. Seventy-eight percent, or around 2,000 of the district's teachers, belong to the union. Six hundred of them have answered the online poll, which is strikingly decisive. When asked about ousting Christen, 95.3 percent said yes, while 82.1 percent were in favor of recalling Shakes.

Comments added to the poll were equally strong. "If we don't recall, we might as well throw in the towel," wrote one teacher. "They love drama, not kids," penned another.

"It's going forward, and I think people are anxious for it to be over," says Valerio. "If it is not successful, it will have empowered [Christen and Shakes] more, and that could be disconcerting."

The recall effort, dubbed End the D11 Chaos, was launched in June just after the board's 4-3 vote to fire former superintendent Sharon Thomas. Initiated by community activist Ann Oatman-Gardner, along with former D-11 board members Mary Ellen McNally and Norvell Simpson, the campaign garnered 500 volunteers, over $22,000 and nearly 35,000 signatures to put a recall to the district's voters.

"We launched our effort on Sandy's irresponsible decision-making," says Oatman-Gardner, referring specifically to Shakes' votes to hire Thomas, then fire her a year later. "We said, "Fine, if we are going to do a recall, Eric's time is up.' He is a roadblock. But he is also pro-voucher, and we didn't like that."

The school voucher debate which centers on allowing parents to use public school dollars for private school tuition has roiled through District 11 since 2003, when Christen, Shakes, Cox and Breazell were elected with the massive financial backing of local developer and voucher proponent Steve Schuck. Christen, Cox and Breazell never accomplished the reforms that they say would give parents more choice. (Shakes has shifted allegiances between the pro-voucher and pro-public-school factions on the board.) In the 2005 school board election, a strong counter-campaign ushered more traditionally minded candidates John Gudvangen, Sandra Mann and Tami Hasling to fill three vacant seats.

While the End the Chaos ranks include passionate public school proponents, Oatman-Gardner insists that the recall has less to do with politics than it does the need for concord on the board.

"It's about good governance, healthy dialogue and consensus," she says, adding that if the recall was an anti-voucher statement, her group would have gone for Cox instead of Shakes.

"I'm not sure the conversation about vouchers is over," says Oatman-Gardner. "But it is over for this election."

Back talking

click to enlarge End the D11 Chaos leaders Ann Oatman-Gardner, - Norvell Simpson and Mary Ellen McNally have organized - pro-recall honk and wave events at area high schools. - PHOTO BY JON KELLEY
  • Photo by Jon Kelley
  • End the D11 Chaos leaders Ann Oatman-Gardner, Norvell Simpson and Mary Ellen McNally have organized pro-recall honk and wave events at area high schools.

Despite numerous calls for their resignations from End the Chaos, Shakes and Christen have not stepped down. And they've responded to the recall threat quite differently from one another and largely in character. Christen has vociferously denounced the recall, while Shakes has shielded herself from the public eye.

Christen says he is working with longtime supporter Toby Norton and Don Schley, a candidate to replace Shakes, on an anti-recall campaign. Schley denies his involvement in the effort that will include signs and billboards, and will be largely funded by small donations.

But Christen's personal anti-recall efforts began two months ago, once End the Chaos had collected 16,443 valid signatures to put his tenure up for a vote. Christen's East Library press conference to "[pull] back the curtain" on the recall organizers pegged Oatman-Gardner as a "local left-wing Democrat activist" and detailed the movement's support from Tim Gill, a Denver philanthropist especially interested in gay rights issues. (Gill donated $3,391.47 to the recall.)

Two weeks later, Christen attempted to resign from the school board with the caveat that his replacement would have to be Carla Albers, who ran on a "reform" slate for school board unsuccessfully in 2005.

Most recently, Christen launched a Web site that includes letters of support previously printed in area publications and unattributed personal and professional attacks on people involved with the recall. A blog by Cox is featured on the site, with one of his posts warning that recall candidate and current board treasurer Janet Tanner will bring "a status-quo, "poor and minority kids can't learn anyway' attitude to the board" if elected.

Shakes, meanwhile, has been largely silent on the recall, which garnered 16,003 valid signatures to unseat her. Having missed four out of six of the last school board meetings, she could face dismissal if she skips the next one.

"Other board members have mentioned to me that [her attendance] is problematic," says board president Gudvangen. "We can't work together unless we have people there."

Shakes did not return phone calls or an e-mail from the Independent for this article.

Up and coming

Last month, End the D11 Chaos formed a group called Citizens for Quality Public Education to endorse two of the five replacement candidates who will appear on the ballot. Spearheaded by volunteer Rich Serby, CQPE has raised $7,000 so far to campaign for Tanner and longtime D-11 volunteer Charlie Bobbitt to supplant Shakes and Christen, respectively.

Though candidates will not file campaign finance reports until the end of the month, the big money and out-of-state interests typical of the 2003 and 2005 school board elections have yet to appear in the recall. Schuck, who funneled money into both elections, declined an interview with the Independent for this article.

But Christen and his proponents say they don't expect a redux of past elections.

"We are looking at each other, going, "Should we really even bother?'" says Norton, a parent advocate in Schuck's Parents Challenge, a local organization that provides private school dollars to struggling families. "Let's look toward the 2007 election and start working hard."

Norton filed four failed protests against the recall, and at one point planned to run for a slot in the recall election. She withdrew her petition when Schley stepped up as a "reform" option to replace Shakes.

Schley has also been endorsed by a new group called Keep D11 Reform Alive. Founded in part by unsuccessful '05 board candidate Bob Lathen, the group is advising voters to opt "no" on the recall. But because even "no" voters can vote for replacement candidates, Keep D11 Reform Alive also urges voters to choose Garcia and Schley to replace Christen and Shakes, respectively.

Christen, who has promised not to run for re-election next November, supports Schley.

"The key is to make sure reformers are elected," he says.

But many others, including Coronado High School student and school newspaper opinions editor Ingrid Bengtsson, say the solution lies elsewhere.

"Right now, [the board members] are more focused on themselves. They are not as worried about the students as they should be," she says.

"One thing I notice is that class sizes seem to be getting larger. And at my middle school, you had to leave books in the classroom because there were not enough for everyone to take one home. That should not be a problem in D-11.

"I think they should focus on things they can change."

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