The same well-organized and well-financed "school choice" movement that briefly seized control of the board of directors of the city's largest school district in 2003 aims to expand its influence across El Paso County in November's election.
Several candidates vying for seats in Colorado Springs District 11 and Falcon District 49 seek to establish school board majorities that favor privately run charter schools and vouchers that funnel funds out of the public school system. Races in D-11, D-49 and Harrison District 2 have lured 24 total candidates who are competing for nine seats, three on each board.
"What's at stake here is getting the chance to push forward with the things we thought we'd be able to do," says Willie Breazell, one of four D-11 board members elected in 2003 with the backing of a small group of wealthy financiers. They promised "revolution" at the time, but that fell apart last year, when board president Sandy Shakes abandoned the school choice script.
For months, Breazell and fellow pro-voucher board members Eric Christen and Craig Cox have vowed revenge in November, when three of D-11's seven seats go up for grabs.
The group needs to fill just one seat to push its agenda, which includes firing newly hired Superintendent Sharon Thomas.
In their corner is political operative Chuck Broerman, a one-time El Paso County Republican Party chairman and state GOP vice chair. He's publicly backing several candidates, including Bob Lathen, Carla Albers and Reginald Perry in D-11, and Anna Bartha, Amy McClelland and Lawrence Stanley in D-49.
Broerman did not return calls seeking comment.
Bartha has published fliers claiming endorsements from a long list of Republican luminaries, including state school board member Peggy Littleton, who also is treasurer for Albers' campaign, and U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez, who is running for governor. Bartha also is serving as treasurer for Lathen's campaign. Neither Lathen nor Bartha returned calls.
Bartha's campaign literature seeks to rally Republicans -- in what are supposed to be nonpartisan races -- in the same way that fliers featuring Gov. Bill Owens did for D-11 pro-voucher candidates two years ago.
Sandra Mann, a candidate in D-11 who doesn't support vouchers, says some candidates want to make the race appear partisan and capitalize on the sheer number of Republican voters in the county.
"Voucher supporters are a very small minority in the [local] Republican Party," says Mann, herself a registered Republican and a GOP precinct leader who campaigned for George W. Bush. Mann says that in her evening walks through D-11 neighborhoods, she's heard little support for vouchers. Instead, she's encountered public distaste for the disruptive fights the issue has brought to the district's board meetings.
"We're fighting against people who want to destroy the district," says John Gudvangen, another D-11 candidate who opposes the "arrogance and spitefulness" of pro-voucher politicians.
Million dollar baby
Some, including Gudvangen's campaign supporters, expect the races to be big-money battles. So far, all but eight of the candidates have created campaign committees, according to records at the El Paso County Clerk and Recorder's Office, and are preparing to raise funds.
Chuck Theobald, Gudvangen's treasurer, notes that in 2003 a group of wealthy, pro-voucher businessmen -- most of whom do not live in Colorado Springs but are linked to national school choice campaigns -- became kingmakers in D-11. They pumped at least $83,000 into the campaigns of Shakes, Cox, Breazell and Christen. The closest rival, who lost, raised just $5,900.
"We feel compelled to raise as much money as we can because we know that some candidates may tap some historical sources of money from a small group of individuals," Theobald says.
The backers in 2003 included Colorado Springs developer Steve Schuck and Denver businessmen Alex Cranberg, John Saeman and Ed McVaney. Cranberg, in an e-mail, says he isn't sure whether he would invest again.
Several opponents fear that Schuck, who declined comment for this story, will make good on a promise to spend up to $1 million in supporting candidates who favor vouchers.
Theobald admits that if such investors ante up, Gudvangen won't be able to compete in terms of campaign mailings, billboards, signs and commercials. He says Gudvangen is raising money from numerous sources, such as parents and teachers, but their contributions are relatively small.
Yet Theobald adds that Gudvangen has met many, many people, and that grassroots campaigns can inspire droves of voters.
'Your district is targeted'
The first campaign filings are due Oct. 11. They will provide the first glimpse of how much the candidates have raised and who is backing them.
Jennifer DeVries, treasurer for D-11 candidate and voucher opponent Tami Hasling, says she hopes the race will focus on issues rather than money.
"We hope we won't be caught off-guard," DeVries says.
Judging by recent events, few will be caught off-guard by surprises from voucher advocates. Earlier this year, Christen made headlines by traveling to a D-2 board meeting and announcing, "Your district is targeted."
But instead of causing a groundswell of support for vouchers, Christen's comments appear to have backfired.
"It got a lot more people interested in running for the board," says D-2 Superintendent Vic Meyers. "They just didn't want to see that happen."
Even D-2 candidates who are open to the idea of vouchers, such as Paul Lastrella, were riled by Christen.
"It put fire into my spirit, my soul, my heart," he says. "Coming in here and saying, 'We're going to take over the district,' is plain wrong."
And the months of chaos and bitter infighting among D-11 board members have made it clear how organizers who oppose the takeover plans can compete.
"All someone needs to say is, 'Look, do you want our district to be another District 11?'" notes Kjersten Forseth of Red Rock Strategies, which is helping a bond issue campaign in D-49.
"I think the community is going to take care of it and expose them for who they are."