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Public-education group says man spied on meetings; voucher proponents seeking political operative

A Colorado Springs group that advocates for public education has been spied on by a man who was secretly tape-recording their meetings, group members claim.

Meanwhile, local backers of school vouchers -- who are typically at odds with self-proclaimed public-education supporters -- appear to be stepping up their organizing efforts by seeking to hire a full-time "political operative" in the Springs.

Members of the Alliance for Quality Public Schools last week confronted a man who had been attending the group's meetings quietly for the past five or six weeks, said Elizabeth Palmer, the group's director. The man said he'd been tape-recording the meetings but refused to identify himself and left, Palmer said.

Open to anybody

The Alliance was formed partly in response to last fall's School District 11 elections, in which four school board candidates who support vouchers won office with the help of record-breaking campaign contributions from wealthy voucher proponents.

Alliance members have opposed past proposals to introduce vouchers in Colorado schools and say public-education money should not be funneled to private schools through vouchers or other means.

The Alliance has been meeting at 8 a.m. every Thursday at Pikes Perk, a downtown coffee shop, to hold informal discussions about public education. The meetings are open to anyone who wants to attend.

"We're not a secret society, and we don't have a secret agenda," Palmer said.

Group members had initially assumed that the man they finally confronted last week was a news reporter, but they grew increasingly suspicious, Palmer said. She said she still doesn't know the man's identity or why he was recording the meetings.

Steve Schuck, a leading local voucher supporter and a key backer of the four pro-voucher candidates who were elected last fall, said in an interview that he had no knowledge of the tape-recording.

Dan Njegomir, a spokesman for the Colorado Alliance for Reform in Education -- a statewide pro-voucher organization -- said his organization also had nothing to do with the incident.

Upping the ante

Schuck and Njegomir also said they were not behind a recent job posting on the Web site Monster.com, in which an anonymous employer sought a "Marketing Manager / Community Organizer / Political operative."

According to the listing, "the job involves organizing community members in southern Colorado Springs to advocate on behalf of education reform, and to administer scholarships to inner city children."

"Education reform" is a term frequently used as a euphemism for introducing school vouchers.

The job posting further states that the candidate "must have a keen interest in politics and the political process" and that "a military or teaching background would be a plus."

The full-time job would pay between $45,000 and $75,000.

Voucher advocates also recently formed a political action committee, titled Citizens for Student Achievement and Progress, with the proclaimed goal of raising money to support pro-"reform" school board candidates and ballot issues in El Paso County. The committee was registered by local Republican political operative Bob Gardner, who works closely with Schuck.

More recently, Schuck and his political allies recruited Linda Stahnke, a Colorado Springs homemaker, to challenge Rep. Mark Cloer for the Republican nomination to represent state House District 17. The move was motivated by Cloer's recent crucial vote against a school-voucher bill in the Colorado Legislature, which lost on a 33-32 vote.

-- Terje Langeland

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