The four new, pro-voucher school board members who seized control of Colorado Springs School District 11 last November have fueled fears among many local public-education advocates. They have promised a "revolution" in how the district is run, warned that district employees will be fired, and already are moving toward privatizing education.
But of the four, no one else has rubbed as many people the wrong way as has board member Eric Christen.
The new board's critics have already started whispering of recall, and they are usually talking specifically about Christen -- though no one has yet publicly advocated a recall election.
Christen -- who did not respond to calls from the Independent seeking comment -- has frightened district employees with blunt threats, such as this one, quoted in the Nov. 6, 2003 Gazette: "Those who can justify their jobs will remain. Those who can't will be moved or removed. This is not an employment agency."
The 1,600 members of the District 11 teachers union, in particular, may have reason to be concerned. Prior to moving to Colorado Springs in 2002, Christen worked as an anti-union lobbyist for the construction industry in California. He once referred to certain union contracts as a "cancer," and in 1998, he was a field director for an anti-union "paycheck protection" initiative in California.
During one of his first meetings on the school board last December, the newly elected Christen reportedly antagonized district residents who came to express concerns about the board's direction. A week later, he apologized for his behavior.
"I would like to apologize from the bottom of my heart for acting in anything other than a professional manner," Christen said at the time. "... When I have a conversation with somebody, sometimes I can get fairly impassioned."
However, his apparent contrition hasn't won over all of his critics. Some who have since approached Christen with district-related concerns say he has continued to berate and belittle them.
"His responses are like verbal abuse," said John Gudvangen, a District 11 resident who formerly served on the Colorado Springs District 2 school board.
"It's been a long while since I've been around a public official who's as rude as Eric Christen," said Mark Townsend, president of the Colorado Parent Teacher Association, who also lives in District 11.
A conservative alternative
Though largely unknown in Colorado Springs prior to last November's election, Christen has a history as a controversial figure with a tendency to lose his temper.
He made his first run for public office in his home state of Oregon in 1996 by mounting a primary challenge against incumbent Republican state Rep. Tom Brian, who represented suburban Washington County, outside Portland. Christen, then 30, positioned himself as a conservative alternative to the popular, moderate Brian.
Christen's campaign drew accusations that he had made false statements in an official voters' pamphlet issued by the state of Oregon. In the pamphlet, Christen listed his occupation as "teacher," and claimed he had worked as a teacher at two local high schools, in the towns of Tigard and Woodburn.
His former boss, the superintendent of the Tigard-Tualatin School District, filed a complaint with the state claiming Christen was lying because he had only been a substitute teacher while at Tigard High School from 1992 to 1994.
Moreover, while Christen was claiming to be a teacher, his teaching license had actually expired a year earlier.
Lying in the voters' pamphlet is a felony under Oregon law. However, election officials ruled that Christen's statements didn't meet the law's definition of outright falsehood.
Another incident made public during Christen's 1996 campaign further hurt his chances. Brian discovered that Christen, who in his voters' pamphlet decried "the increase in violent, senseless acts of crime" and advocated "tougher crime measures," was in fact a convicted criminal.
As it turned out, Christen had been arrested by police following a road-rage incident shortly before Christmas the previous year.
According to the police report, Christen was driving his car in the parking lot of a local mall when another driver, who was going the wrong way down a one-way parking lane, came toward him and blocked his path.
The other driver, a 17-year-old named Joe Forster, told police that Christen "got out of his vehicle and was yelling at him." Christen tried to open Forster's car door and pounded on the car's windows, demanding that Forster get out. When Forster refused, Christen kicked the door of the vehicle, creating a dent.
In a letter attached to the report, Christen admitted kicking Forster's car. "I see that I used poor judgment in this case and wish it to be known that I never intended any harm," Christen wrote.
Christen was convicted of criminal mischief in Washington County Court, after pleading no contest. He received a three-year deferred sentence with bench probation.
"While he was running for state representative, he was actually on probation for a crime," Brian told the Independent.
Brian, who easily won the primary, said Christen came across as a "hothead" throughout the campaign.
"He was just an angry guy," Brian said.
-- Terje Langeland