Ken Witt knew there were a lot of questions and concerns going on inside the minds of attendees of a Nov. 21 Jefferson County school board meeting, a little more than two weeks removed from an election that swept conservatives like himself into power.
“I want to do some rumor control,” Witt said, moments after fellow board members voted him new president of the Jeffco Board of Education.
Witt then tried to assure uneasy parents and district employees that the new board had “no intention of becoming Douglas County” — referring to a school district that has received national news over controversial reform efforts put in place by conservative board members there.
Witt addressed the Douglas County elephant in the room, as well as other areas of concern that were present going into his first board meeting. And it was clear that Witt needed to, based on many of the comments that were directed at the board that evening.
“Let me say the new board scares me and most my colleagues to death,” said Jim Fernald, a teacher at Lakewood High School, who said he didn’t want Jeffco to go the way of either Douglas County or Denver Public Schools — two districts that also saw reform candidates win school board races earlier in the month.
“We all know the fantastic things that are done in our district and we are sorely afraid that your true agenda is to dismantle those successes,” Fernald said, who received applause at the conclusion of his comments.
Witt and fellow conservatives Julie Williams and John Newkirk rode a statewide pro-reform and anti-Amendment 66 wave into the win column on Nov. 5. On Nov. 21, they were sworn into their new seats on the Jeffco school board, the governing body of a district that serves more than 85,000 students.
The new office holders of the five-member board were elected to leadership positions: Witt as board president, Williams as first vice president and Newkirk as secretary.
Witt takes over a position that had been held by Lesley Dahlkemper, who remains a board member, but who no longer will hold the title of board president.
“It’s been an absolute honor and privilege to serve as your board president,” she told the audience.
The swearing in of the new board members — who replace Laura Boggs and Paula Noonan, who did not seek re-election — comes on the heels of the recent announcement by longtime district Superintendent Cindy Stevenson that she will be retiring at the end of June. Stevenson’s move was made after the new board was voted into power.
“We’re saddened that our superintendent has tendered her resignation,” Witt said. “I’ve looked forward to working with her for a good long time. She’s provided consistent leadership.”
Witt also said that the board intends to conduct a nationwide search for a new superintendent and said members have “no intention” of choosing a superintendent who is “a former board member,” killing a rumor that Boggs — a conservative firebrand — might be considered a candidate.
But Witt primarily tried to quell concerns that Jeffco was about to turn into the next Douglas County. Although Witt acknowledged that he would like to see a pay-for performance model for teachers, he insisted the board wouldn’t take things as far as has the Douglas County school district, which has gone to a market-based pay program for staffers.
“I have every intention of raising salaries and being the (state’s) go-to district because of work conditions and salaries,” Witt said. “I have no intention of doing the Douglas County salary bands being passed and no intention of being Douglas County.
Douglas County has also stifled the role of teacher unions, having put an end to collective bargaining.
“We look forward to working collaboratively with the associations that represent our employees and we plan to work with the collective bargaining agreements and look forward to renegotiating them as they come do,” Witt said.
Don Cameron, a teacher at Lakewood High School, expressed relief after hearing Witt’s comments.
“I’m glad to hear there is no attempt to rip apart the relationship with the union or attempt to negotiate in bad faith, because only a poor outcome can result,” he said. “Let’s not go there.”
The new board members also talked about some of their goals, with each one of them giving priority to lowering student fees. Newkirk said he would like to see more compensation for teachers.
“I want to be sure that we are paying our best teachers very well so that we can retain them,” Newkirk said.
The new board also said they want more community involvement, with Witt saying he wants to see board meetings move around the county, rather than being housed out of district headquarters in Golden. The next board meeting will be held at Lakewood High School on Dec. 12.
The three new board members also ran on a platform of greater student choice. And their supporters said they intend for the new office holders to live up to those promises.
Sheila Atwell of Jeffco Students First, which raised money in support of the three conservatives’ candidacies, said she wants to see the board expand students’ choices for schools, including more charter opportunities.
“We will hold this board accountable, like the last board,” Atwell said.