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Recipe for disaster 

The making of a morass in School District 11

click to enlarge Adversaries through most of the last three years, Eric - Christen... - PHOTO BY JON KELLEY
  • Photo by Jon Kelley
  • Adversaries through most of the last three years, Eric Christen...

They said they wanted a revolution.

In 2003, with the help of a handful of wealthy school voucher advocates, Sandy Shakes, Eric Christen, Craig Cox and Willie Breazell seized the majority of the seven-member District 11 Board of Education.

The election was, by far, the most costly in the history of the district. Glossy mailers praising the four as reformers went out by the reams even Gov. Bill Owens lent his endorsement. Other candidates were attacked as being "anti-parental rights" and "union-boss endorsed."

Altogether, an estimated $150,000 was spent getting the four elected, with $82,000 of that coming directly from the wallets of local developer and voucher advocate Steve Schuck and three wealthy Denver-area businessmen of like mind.

In the community, few at the time understood the extent of the intended "reforms." Yet shortly after the election, Christen made it clear that change would soon be underway.

"Those who can justify their jobs will remain," he was quoted in the Colorado Springs Gazette on Nov. 6, 2003, two days after being elected. "Those who can't will be moved or removed. This is not an employment agency."

The four, after secret deliberations, grabbed the board's leadership positions, with Shakes appointed president, Cox vice-president, Christen treasurer and Breazell secretary. In later interviews, Shakes would describe the goal, which she maintained only became clear to her over time: to obliterate the teachers' unions ("the bane of their existence"), a free-market approach to public education, and secret installation of a school voucher system in D-11.

"They kept saying, "Colorado Springs is in the foreground. Everyone is going to be watching what is happening here,'" Shakes said, in an Oct. 20, 2005 Independent profile, of the handlers who had worked to get them elected.

Screaming matches

But the group didn't reckon the possibility that Shakes, largely due to her claimed disgust over Christen, would defect. Almost immediately after the four were elected, she has said, she confronted him about his offensive and aggressive behavior. He tearfully threatened to quit the board.

In the year after the election, Shakes angered her onetime allies when she decided to support a new teachers' contract. She also refused to go along with the secret plan to install a voucher program.

The proposal she has described involved making D-11 a clearinghouse of sorts for "special needs" or "at risk" students all over the state. Though living outside of the geographic boundaries of D-11, they could enroll in the district; D-11 would keep 20 percent of the state's allotted per-pupil operating revenue, and give the other 80 percent directly to the students. Those students then could apply that money to another school of their choice, including religious schools, closer to home.

Soon, it became clear that Shakes had allied ideologically with the three other members of the board, placing the onetime majority into a minority.

click to enlarge ... and Sandy Shakes now together face a community-led - ouster. - FILE PHOTO
  • File Photo
  • ... and Sandy Shakes now together face a community-led ouster.

"Make no mistake. This is not about reform," Shakes said in the 2005 profile. "This is about a scam to take public funds and work it into private pockets. And what's outrageous is they are playing the heartstrings of the poor and minorities [as the chief beneficiaries].

"There's nothing wrong with what they're doing, if it's done without an agenda. It's totally appropriate to question what public schools are doing but not if you set it up so the end results are going to support what you want to happen."

In 2004 and 2005, Christen offered twice more to resign his position, the final instance when he passed a note to Shakes in the middle of a board meeting, offering to quit only if he got to name his own replacement. Shakes pointed out that Colorado law does not allow elected officials to replace themselves. On April 2, 2005, Christen responded via e-mail to his colleagues:

"It is quite apparent that Sandy does not want what's best for the district but what is best for her. My reason to step down is very simple: Sandy is not a well person and her irrational, out of control behavior both at board meetings and out in public ... is hurting the district. Seeing how I am a big part of what sets her off I have offered to step down so as to take away this excuse ... She desperately needs to seek help."

For her part, Shakes, a retired teacher, said she was appalled over Christen's anti-public education stance. He so aggressively opposes government involvement in education that he has signed a proclamation supporting ending government funding for education, sponsored by the Fresno, Calif.-based Alliance for the Separation of School & State.

"He wants to get rid of public education in any way, shape or form and privatize all education," Shakes noted last year. "And he's on the school board!"

'I'm submitting my '

As time progressed, the hostility between Shakes and Christen became the dominating theme, and board meetings dissolved into episodes of name-calling. In early 2005, Superintendent Norm Ridder resigned, and a split board replaced him with Sharon Thomas.

Last year's school board election brought two new slates of candidates one put forth by Schuck and his supporters, and another largely funded by the state teachers' union and computer software mogul Tim Gill. In all, a new-record-breaking $800,000 was spent on the campaign, the majority of which went to the teachers' union picks and eventual winners: John Gudvangen, Tami Hasling and Sandra Mann.

A year ago, on Nov. 21, the three new members were sworn in. They immediately ousted Shakes as president and replaced her with Gudvangen, a former school board member in Harrison School District 2 and a former president of the Colorado Association of School Boards. Shakes nearly quit the board that night. Just as Shakes was reading from a statement and got to the phrase "I'm submitting my " she was interrupted by outgoing member Karen Teja.

Teja urged Shakes to call a break in the meeting, and the two retired to a room away from public view for a half hour. When they returned, the meeting was called back to order, and continued as though nothing had happened, with Shakes instead making this comment:

"I've been in the district for oh, many, many years, and as I said, sometimes you start to question ... what you become focused on, and sometimes you have to become re-aligned to the focus of what this is about. This is about educating kids. It is about mentoring people, and moving forward. The last few days have been a great learning experience for me."

Pals again

Over the past year, Shakes clearly realigned with her onetime-allies-turned-foes, often voting with Christen, Cox and Breazell. In June, she united with them to fire Thomas whom Shakes had played an integral role in hiring just a year before. As part of the dismissal, Thomas was given a $400,000 golden parachute.

Community activists had seen enough. Targeting the two most polarizing board members, they launched a recall.

Now, three years after the four boldly seized the majority on the seven-member board overseeing Colorado Springs' largest school district, the counter-revolution is well underway. Editor's note: Extensive reports about the orchestrated takeover of District 11 and Shakes' initial defection from the pro-voucher crowd appeared in the Independent on Feb. 19 and Feb. 26, 2004, and Oct. 20, 2005. They can be read online at csindy.com.

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