LITTLETON, Colo. — In this suburban election, lawn signs are being stolen and minivans vandalized. One candidate says she received an email telling her to get cancer and die. Money from the billionaire Koch brothers is funding one side’s commercials and fliers, and upset parents, teachers and labor unions are pouring in cash for the other.
The question facing voters is whether to oust a polarizing school board that has championed charter schools, performance-based teacher pay and other education measures supported by conservatives.
But the vote here in Jefferson County, just west of Denver, has become a money-soaked proxy war between union supporters and conservative groups like the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity, testing whether parents in an election-year battleground believe a rightward turn in their schools has gone too far.
Supporters of the recall have raised more than $250,000, about $15,000 of that from the local teachers’ union. Conservative and libertarian groups have spent about $500,000 on television ads, and Michael Fields, the state director of Americans for Prosperity, estimated his group would spend “in the low six figures” on mailers and ads that put a positive gloss on the conservative board’s actions.
“It’s the future of what education looks like,” Mr. Fields said as he and a handful of staff members and parents drove through suburban neighborhoods, knocking on doors of likely supporters to make sure they had cast their mail ballots.
Americans for Prosperity, which was founded by the conservative industrialists Charles G. and David H. Koch and is based in Arlington County, Va., does not have a formal position on the Nov. 3 recall vote here. But its commercials and messages praise the new conservative board for approving new charter schools, giving charters equal per-student funding as public schools and pushing a pay program to give raises to “highly effective” teachers.
The group is advocating similar measures in other states. In Kentucky, a web ad created by Americans for Prosperity and timed to this fall’s race for governor features African-American parents who praise charter schools as a bridge to “opportunity for all.” In Mississippi, the group has contributed $120,000 to an organization fighting a ballot measure that would require the state to allocate more money to public schools, at a judge’s discretion.
Voters here are almost evenly divided among Democrats, Republicans and independents. In November 2013, voters broke with union-supported candidates to elect a slate of school board hopefuls running as conservative reformers.
But as those members passed new measures giving money to charters and hired a new superintendent, a backlash grew. Critics accused the board of secrecy and of trying to turn the 86,500-student district into a petri dish for conservative educational ideas. Board meetings turned into shouting matches. Upset parents spliced the live-streamed meeting video — an innovation of the new board — into outrage highlight reels.
“I can take it,” said Julie Williams, one of the three conservatives, who said she had received harassing emails. “For my kids, it’s been pretty hard. I come from a strong family. We believe in standing on principle, even with malicious attacks on me personally.”