After two years of acrimony caused by the board’s efforts to force a hyper-conservative agenda on the district, after protests and recalls and national news coverage, it was clear that the attempt to take over a school district had failed. The man at the center of the ideological crusade, Ken Witt, was thrown out on his ear. Attorney Brad Miller’s letter of resignation followed shortly after.
To the parents, teachers, and advocates fighting to preserve some semblance of public education in the trenches of the Woodland Park School District, this may seem more like a hopeful vision from the future than what it actually is – a scene from a different Front Range district a decade earlier.
From the outside, the events unfolding over the past year and a half in Woodland Park – where a far-right school board won control in late 2021, and has since pursued an aggressive agenda of banning certain books, demonizing the local teachers’ union, cutting funding for mental health services, skirting open records and public meetings laws, approving a highly controversial charter school without due process, and firing staff and faculty for speaking out against them – seem like an extension of the right-wing’s long standing animosity to the public school system. On closer inspection, though, what’s happening in Woodland Park looks like something new: an evolution of that old fight, where the goal is no longer to shrink and dissolve the public schooling system, but to seize control of the system and use it to train up a new generation of conservative voters.
Despite that evolution happening in plain sight, the forces driving and funding it, the forces which somehow chose Woodland Park as their testing ground for a nationwide strategy, remain shrouded in the background. That’s why I am conducting an ongoing investigation into the takeover of WPSD. In the coming weeks and months, I hope to unveil some of those players at work behind the scenes. At this moment, records requests bearing my name are bothering long-suffering public servants from Colorado Springs to Columbus, Ohio, in pursuit of a number of promising leads regarding that bigger, more obscure picture.
Even without the results of those pending records requests, some things are clear. As I mentioned in my last column, one important conclusion can already be drawn about the agenda being enacted in Woodland Park: it did not originate in Woodland Park. It was conceived of and set in motion by outsiders whose interests lie far beyond the schoolchildren of Teller County.
Two of those outsiders have now taken center stage in Woodland Park – one as the district’s legal counsel, the other as its superintendent – where they are responsible for the hands-on management of that grand ideological agenda. And Woodland Park is not their first rodeo; it’s their shot at redemption for the last time they found themselves at the helm of a school district, and failed to get the job done.
They are not the money men; they’re not the grand schemers or strategists who crafted the agenda in the first place. They are the specialists, the project managers. But by understanding their history, their tactics, and their deep ties to a nationwide movement, we can begin to see how Woodland Park ended up at the center of a maelstrom. Through Ken Witt and Brad Miller, we can work outwards to the bigger picture, to the men and women behind the curtain.
Ken Witt, the man currently serving as superintendent of the Woodland Park School District, spent much of his career in the engineering and IT sectors. As the resume he submitted in pursuit of the superintendent gig shows, education was a passion which came to Witt later in life, but one he has pursued with the vigor of youth.
At virtually every step of the way in the ten years since Ken Witt burst into the education conversation, Brad Miller has been by his side. Now, Miller, an attorney specializing in conservative education reform causes, serves as legal counsel for the Woodland Park school board – a job he transitioned to shortly after the conservative board slate took control in late 2021.
Neither man lives in Woodland Park. Neither man has any children in the school district. Both men have deep, longstanding ties to the nationwide conservative effort to transform public schools. Woodland Park is not the first district they have tag-teamed in an attempt to transform it – but it’s the first one where they might succeed.
Ten years ago, Ken Witt and Brad Miller attempted to enact a similar agenda in Jefferson County. In the two years between Witt’s election as school board president and his eventual recall and ouster by the voters of that district, a series of events played out which bears a striking similarity to what’s happening in Woodland Park.
When Witt and his conservative compatriots won control of the school board in Jefferson County, the changes started almost immediately. Less than three weeks after the new board was sworn in, Witt had already been accused of violating Colorado’s Open Meetings Law — by hiring Miller. Without informing the rest of the board, Witt and the two other members of the conservative majority offered a contract to Brad Miller’s law firm, despite the district already retaining full-time legal counsel.
In Woodland Park, Miller’s entrance to the district followed even more closely behind the ascension of a new conservative board majority. The Woodland Park board was sworn in on November 19, 2021. By December, Brad Miller’s law firm was billing the district for work, according to an invoice obtained via public records request.
In both instances, a new conservative school board with an aggressive political agenda hired Brad Miller as one of their first items of business.
Shortly after hiring Brad Miller – and just like the Jefferson County board – the Woodland Park school board was also accused of violating Colorado’s Open Meetings Law, for the manner in which they voted to approve a memorandum of understanding with Merit Academy, a charter school which Miller has represented in the past. In that instance, a judge granted an injunction in response to a lawsuit filed by WPSD parent Erin O’Connell, forcing the board to list agenda items “clearly, honestly, and forthrightly” going forward.
Brad Miller did not respond to a request to comment on this story.
In Jeffco, Witt, Miller, and their allies consistently antagonized the Jefferson County Education Association, the local teachers’ union, even attempting to force a new pay structure on the district’s teachers in violation of the union contract, and possibly in violation of the law. As a letter from conservative agitator Jon Caldara made clear in 2015, the Jefferson County School Board’s constant maneuvering against JCEA was part of a conscious effort to “break” the power of teachers’ unions. “Teachers unions are a threat to our children’s future,” Caldara wrote.
That effort has also been replicated in the Woodland Park School District, where Brad Miller, the conservative school board, and now-superintendent Ken Witt have openly opposed the local teachers’ union since taking office. They have altered policies pertaining to staff retention and staff dress code, issued a gag order forbidding district staff from discussing the district on social media, and have ultimately presided over an exodus of nearly 40% of the district’s staff. Last month on talk radio, Witt said he believes that the Woodland Park Education Association “hate[s] America.”
Witt’s antipathy to labor unions — and his confusion about the distinction between journalists and columnists — was on display when I offered him an opportunity to comment on this story. “Logan, you are touted in an interview as a ‘pioneering union organizer.’ You launched the Political Workers Guild labor union. I don’t know if you’ve ever read journalism, but I know you don’t pen it.”
When offered an opportunity to correct any inaccuracies in my writing, Witt declined to respond.
In each district, the new conservative school boards ousted the superintendents who were serving at the time of their elections – and in each district, the new conservative school boards hand-picked replacement superintendents via opaque processes.
In Jefferson County in 2013, the newly-conservative board did not align with the district superintendent they inherited. Within months of the board’s ascension, they drove her from the district. Similarly, Mathew Neal, the superintendent inherited in late 2021 by the conservative Woodland Park school board — who seemed to work well with that board before ultimately running afoul of them — was out less than a year after the takeover.
When Jefferson County needed a new superintendent, the board spent tens of thousands of dollars on a search process which was pilloried for its lack of transparency, and ultimately resulted in only a single finalist being interviewed, as if he had been handpicked before the process even began. Similarly in Woodland Park, it is unclear whether or not the board interviewed any other candidates for the job before deciding on Ken Witt – or whether picking Ken Witt had been the plan all along, as it seems to many locals.
Ultimately, it was the Jefferson County board’s attempt to change the district’s curriculum which brought that grand ideological project crashing down in 2015. Starting in late 2014, Witt and his board colleagues in Jefferson County proposed a “committee for curriculum review,” which would ensure that the curriculum taught in the district aligned with the board’s values. The instructions Witt’s board gave were that learning materials “should promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights,” and “should not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.”
The propagandization of public school curriculum was too much for the parents, voters, and activists of Jefferson County to ignore. When the recalls came, more than 115,000 people – nearly 65% of the vote – chose to throw Ken Witt out of office.
In the years since the collapse of the Jeffco experiment, Witt and Miller have remained close colleagues, pursuing a shared vision of conservative education reform across the state. Witt runs a consulting firm called the Aabren Group, which according to his CV focuses on education policy consulting, and he has spent the past five years serving as executive director for Education reEnvisioned BOCES (in Colorado, BOCES – pronounced bo-sees – are Boards of Cooperative Educational Services which exist to help two or more school districts provide services which the individual districts cannot afford to provide), where he has had the power to incubate, authorize, and promote various kinds of contract and online schools. It was through ERBOCES that Witt first authorized Merit as a contract school, long before it occupied a taxpayer funded space in a Woodland Park middle school building.
Brad Miller has spent the intervening years representing a number of education reform organizations and controversial charter schools. Several of his clients are schools which were approved by Witt at Education reEnvisioned BOCES, where, according to his presence in many ERBOCES meeting minutes, Miller also appears to serve as legal counsel. Like Witt, Miller was present at the meeting where Merit Academy was first authorized, long before he, Witt, or the new school had found footholds in Woodland Park.
Despite being hired as the full-time superintendent of the Woodland Park School District on an interim basis last December and a permanent basis in May of this year – a job for which he is paid $155,000 per year by the taxpayers of Teller County – Witt has also maintained his position as executive director at ERBOCES, where he is being paid an additional $112,750 per year, and retains the ability to authorize new schools. When asked whether he believes the taxpayers who fund his Woodland Park salary deserve an accounting of how much of his time is dedicated to the district as opposed to his other job, Witt did not reply.
Now, in Woodland Park, where Witt and Miller are once again at the helm of a school district ripe for ideological experimentation, they are moving onto the part of the plan which upended their efforts in Jeffco: ensuring that the material being taught to the district’s students has a pronounced right-wing bent.
The web of networks and connections animating the struggle in Woodland Park is complex beyond fathoming, with almost no straight lines to follow all the way through from one end to the other.
That’s not an accident – the complexity of the situation is by design. Members of the Woodland Park school board have pursued their aggressive conservative agenda with a specific focus on out-maneuvering those who would oppose them. In a December 2021 email, then recently elected WPSD board member David Illingworth advised his board colleagues that they needed to “move the ball forward” on multiple items at once, calling it a “flood the zone” tactic.
“The idea is that if you advance on many fronts at the same time, then the enemy cannot fortify, defend, [or] effectively counter-attack at any one front,” Illingworth wrote. “Divide, scatter, conquer. Trump was great at this in his first 100 days.”
It’s that strategy that makes it so difficult to tell this story as a chronological narrative. Point A does not simply lead to point B, and then on to point C. This is a story where point A fractalizes, proceeding not to point B, but to point A1, which somehow connects to point C7 – who, as it turns out, is the brother-in-law to point G3. It is a researcher’s dream, a writer’s nightmare.
That’s why I am not telling this story chronologically, choosing instead to drill-down on certain characters and concepts, attempting to paint the frame into which this investigation’s ultimate conclusions will eventually be transposed. Ken Witt and Brad Miller, with their penchant for opacity and their dogged pursuit of a singular agenda, are important parts of that frame.
But Witt and Miller are not the full story either: they’re foot soldiers, middle management, putting into action a plan which originated above them, with the national operatives, organizations, and foundations – wrapped in flags, carrying crosses – whose entire raison d’être is the remaking of American education; operatives, organizations, and foundations to whom Witt and Miller have documented ties.
In the next part of the story, as we introduce the singular distinction which sets the Woodland Park school district apart from every other district in the nation, those larger forces will start sauntering into the frame.
This is Part II of an ongoing investigative series into the takeover of the Woodland Park school board, the sources of money and influence behind that takeover, and what can be done to protect democratic institutions in towns around America from similar takeovers. If you are connected to the Woodland Park school district, school board, or any of the entities mentioned here – or if you have information about those groups, or other information which you believe would be useful to this investigation – I would love to hear from you.