Four months ago, School District 11 firebrand Eric Christen declared Harrison School District 2 ripe for ideological takeover.
"Your district is targeted," he threatened board members during a May meeting.
He wasn't kidding.
D-2, the city's most racially and economically diverse district, in southeast Colorado Springs, is poised to join the city's largest school district, D -11, as a national proving ground for vouchers, union-busting and charter schools.
Two years ago, the focus of the "school choice" movement confined itself to D-11, where more than $80,000 in funds propelled four pro-voucher candidates to victory. Now, school boards across the city, including D-11, D-2 and Falcon District 49, face similar takeovers.
National advocates of privatizing public schools, backed by well-oiled political machines, have parachuted in, spreading what may amount to tens of thousands of dollars to select candidates in hopes of tipping the ballot box Nov. 1. Their tactics this year include, at least in D-11, claiming to be the "true Republicans" in what are supposed to be nonpartisan races.
"This, by all appearances, is an attempt by big money to swamp the political process," says Pete Maysmith, executive director for Colorado Common Cause, an election watchdog group.
In District 2, candidates Cindee Will and Deborah Hendrix are running against six other candidates. They hope to join existing board member Steve Hester to form a majority on the five-member board. All support vouchers and charter schools.
"I've always been pro-voucher," Hester says. "I don't think any changes will be sudden. If we decide changes are best, it's our obligation to go out to the public [to ensure support]."
Fraught with infighting
Since the Colorado Supreme Court declared statewide vouchers unconstitutional last year, activists have turned their efforts to engineering local programs that might pass constitutional muster.
Two years ago, Colorado Springs developer and voucher advocate Steve Schuck, joined by a group of wealthy outside investors, funneled tens of thousands of dollars into the highly organized campaign machine that resulted in the election of Eric Christen, Craig Cox, Willie Breazell and Sandy Shakes. Plans to install a voucher program in D-11 were foiled when Shakes defected from the group, and the board since has been fraught with bitter infighting. Christen often has taken the lead and has threatened to fire superintendents, along with other administrators and teachers.
Such conduct has some, including D-2 candidate Richard Price, fearing for the survival of public education.
"We're a public school system, and we've got to stay a public school system," says the now-retired district middle school principal.
Price's rivals spoke candidly about their values a week ago, at a candidate forum.
"I certainly support choice," Hendrix said. "I support working with the private sector."
Said Will: "I'm a proponent of school choice."
But, at least for now, it is unclear who is financially backing the two candidates, both of whom are distributing expensive brochures to potential voters. Last month, Schuck's secretary indicated he would not comment on this year's school board elections.
Candidates are not required to file their financial reports with the county's Office of the Clerk & Recorder until Oct. 11.
In the meantime, Will has declined to answer specific questions about her backers. However, she and Hester appear closely linked to Schuck, as indicated in a Sept. 11 e-mail exchange obtained by the Independent.
The e-mails, some of which were sent by Schuck, center on a conflict in which a D-2 administrator allegedly declined to let Schuck's Parents Challenge, a nonprofit that offers free tutoring to kids, provide help to evacuees from Hurricane Katrina.
In an e-mail sent to Schuck, Will proposed taking up his cause at a D-2 board meeting. Roughly an hour after that, she rescinded her idea.
"Oops!" she wrote. "For the past half hour I have thought about my proposal and I want to withdraw it. Upon reflection, I think it is a lousy idea [to speak at the meeting]. Therefore, I need to step back and let one of you in a position of leadership step forward. It is out of order for me to do so at this time."
The recipients to which Will deferred included the following "leaders": Schuck, Hester and Keith King, a Republican legislator from Colorado Springs who will be term-limited out of office next year and is widely rumored as wanting to become superintendent of either D-11 or D-2.
Will did not return phone calls seeking further clarification about the e-mails.
Trotting in the elephant
The chain of command in the local school choice movement extends well beyond the city.
Last month, Parents Targeting Achievement, a shadowy nonprofit group with a Denver address, began distributing campaign literature in both D-2 and D-11. Tom Van Gilder of Response Technologies Inc. in Denver, which printed the fliers, confirmed he mailed tens of thousands of fliers to voters living in both districts.
One glossy brochure promotes three specific D-11 candidates -- Carla Albers, Bob Lathen and Reginald Perry -- describing them as "our Republican team."
The return address for the flyer is 710 S. Tejon St., that of El Paso County Republican Party headquarters.
Terry Kunkel, chairwoman of the party, said the candidates asked to use the party headquarters address and that the party let them because they are Republicans -- as is at least one other candidate, Sandra Mann.
But Kunkel appeared stunned to hear that the fliers -- promoting candidates in what is supposed to be a nonpartisan election -- feature the Republican Party's official red, white and blue elephant logo.
"I haven't seen the flier, so I'm not sure if they should have used it," she said.
State election law requires that candidates obtain permission from a party's executive committee to use such symbols, says Maysmith of Common Cause. "Based on what the party chair says, it's not clear they had permission to use it."
Scott Shires is listed as Parents Targeting Achievement's agent in nonprofit incorporation papers filed with the state of Colorado. He declined to comment on his involvement in local races -- he lives in Denver -- and refused to reveal his group's chief organizers.
Parents Targeting Achievement sent out roughly 2,000 fliers to would-be voters in D-2 that are identical in design to ones filling mailboxes in D-11. The return address for the fliers is a Denver-based group called All Children Matter.
The fliers encourage voters to apply for an absentee ballot and remind them that "the stakes have never been higher ..."
Dan Wilcock and Michael de Yoanna