Cañon City, Colorado — Although the call for school board candidates in Cañon City went out this week, an effort to oust incumbents and take control of the board began months ago, and the amount of money raised is on pace to soon surpass previous elections.
The effort comes amid nationwide culture battles that are increasingly focused on school board elections and policies, parental rights, book banning, and curriculum monitoring.
In Cañon City, things erupted when the school board last summer took an initial vote on a policy to align the school district’s guidelines with state and federal laws on transgender rights. After months of community discussion, the school board adopted the revised policy as a standard operating procedure or guidance.
Those discussions, Tom Wenzl told the Fremont County Crusader, “was, in part, the straw that led me to run.”
He joined Graceann Pittner and Matthew Alexander to run as a slate under the slogan “We The Parents.” None of the three, who collectively have raised $11,992 as of Aug. 1, spoke with the Colorado Times Recorder.
Wenzl did not return email and voice messages; when reached by phone Alexander said he had been busy with work but would send an email response, but none have been received.
In an Aug. 4 emailed response to a request for an interview with a Cañon City-based reporter, Pittner said: “I am not doing any interviews at this time. If I do choose to do one I will contact a reporter I know who works for our local paper, but thank you for your interest.”
The other three candidates, incumbents Robin Reeser and Janelle Valladares and newcomer Bret Meuli, all filed candidate paperwork with the Colorado Secretary of State in late July and had done no fundraising as of Aug. 1. Board member Mike Near is not running for re-election.
Reeser, Valladares, and Meuli are running individual campaigns although each said they will appear together occasionally, such as at a candidate petition-signing event. Each said they are adhering to a more traditional August-November school board campaign timeframe and don’t anticipate spending a lot of time fundraising.
And, they each noted that they also are parents.
In the last election in 2021, there were five candidates for the school board although only three received contributions, which totaled $13,163, according to the Colorado Secretary of State’s Tracer website. Expenditures for that race totaled $13,205.
Pittner was a candidate that year but reported no contributions, and expenditures of $336.
Reeser ran successfully for the board in 2019 and spent $1,190 of her own money for yard signs and a postcard mailing.
“Four years ago we had a nonpartisan school board election,” she said. “Now it has become partisan – the GOP headquarters (in Cañon City) is passing out their signs.”
It also is hosting a petition-signing event for the We The Parents candidates. Alexander, Pittner, and Wenzl are listed on the “2023 Candidates Page” of the Freemont County Republican Party website. Fremont County GOP Chair Rick Castor, who backed the We The Parents slate on Facebook, did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
Total fundraising in the 2019 school board election was $1,633 raised by a single candidate; expenditures for the five candidates totaled $3,848, according to Tracer reports.
There was no fundraising or expenditures reported in the 2017 race with two candidates, and $3,180 was raised in 2015, when there were seven candidates.
The stakes in the district with about 3,300 students and eight schools are clearly rising.
Valladares, who was appointed to a vacancy in January, as well as Meuli, Alexander, and Wenzle have not previously run for office.
While the campaign contributions to date do not reveal any unusually large outside contributions, many believe the slate of candidates that wants to take control of the board is getting advice and coaching from conservative and Christian organizations.
“I’m alarmed at what went on in Woodland Park,” said Roxanne Bradshaw, who was president of the Fremont County Public Employees Retirement Association from 2014 – 2018, noting that the superintendent was fired, the curriculum changed, and teachers resigned in droves.
And Jefferson and Douglas County schools suffered similar upheaval when slates of school board candidates promising to overhaul the administrations did just that.
“The schools for this size of town and the resources they have to work with – they do an amazing job with these kids,” Bradshaw said. “There is so much good to be said about this school district, but that depends on who you have on your school board – people who are focused on education.”
Build up or tear down?
Reeser and Valladares both said they want to continue the great work the district has been doing, noting that it has many programs that other districts come to learn about.
Meuli, a self-described conservative Christian, said he talked with Alexander, whom he’s known for years, but after learning more about the slate, he decided he wanted to “run on my own terms, not someone else’s.”
“I’m open to talking to them about what changes they’d like to see and why,” said Meuli, a retired history teacher and former principal and assistant principal in the district. “But I’m not open to gutting. Coming in with an outside agenda of change is not what we want in Cañon City.”
He noted that is what happened in Woodland Park last year, and that it “does not appear to be good for Woodland Park.”
In public statements and on their websites, the We The Parents candidates have indicated they want administrative changes in the district. The only employee of the school board is the superintendent, Adam Hartman. He was appointed in 2022 after serving the district as a teacher and assistant superintendent.
“We’ve seen significant disruption in nearby districts and throughout the state and I don’t want that for our district,” Valladares said. “I do think they want to come in and disrupt some of our key leaders and make changes that may not be allowed under the law. That will disrupt the entire district.
“They have an agenda that I think is going to throw a bomb into our district and disrupt programs.”
In the April article in the Crusader, Pittner was quoted as saying, “This is a crucial year. There’s three spots open. If we take all three, we control the board. We can make the changes that need to be made.”
That’s in part why Reeser said she can’t walk away from the board – there’s too much at stake.
“I don’t know what exactly their agenda is, but I know what the national narrative is and know what happened in Woodland Park,” she said.
Valladares said she wants to continue her work of building up the district and strengthening programs that have proven beneficial to the students. For example, she said, Canon City High School is No. 1 in the state per capita for students earning industrial certifications.
“What I’m proud of here is that we look at the needs of our students and address those needs,” she said.
Valladares, a fisheries biologist who has a son in high school and a daughter in middle school, said she is physically in the schools often and sees the successes and challenges.
Meuli, too, is proud of his work for the district as a teacher and administrator. He said he secured grants to grow the vocational programs and add an industrial kitchen at the high school and recruit some of the best career and tech education teachers in the state.
“There are so many fantastic people who work in our school district and our programs are flourishing,” he said. “We have college credit opportunities for kids. I want to make sure all those programs continue.”
As to the transgender policy, both incumbents and Meuli said the board learned valuable lessons from the controversy.
Valladares believes the board learned that some topics may need more community discussion and outreach. (She was not on the board when the policy controversy erupted.)
Reeser, who was board president during the controversy, said the board followed its usual procedure for adopting a new policy, but learned that perhaps it should post draft policies before any votes are taken. Typically, policies were posted after a first reading and well before a final vote.
Conflict in the district started with Covid and the board learned things then and continues to learn, she said. Even though public participation was rare unless there was a controversy, she said the board continues to find ways to encourage civic participation.
Reeser, now a realtor with a background in education and finance – including auditing, said she brings a diverse set of skills to the board. In fact, she said, having a diverse board has benefitted the district.
“I love our school district and our community,” she said. “Solid, healthy school districts are the lifeblood of the community. We have high poverty here, we have a diverse community in terms of need. I fought hard to keep vocational programs and increase opportunities for kids and families.”
Matthew Alexander: https://electmatthewalexander.com/
Bret Meuli: (coming soon)
Graceann Pittner: https://www.pittnercanoncityboe.com/
Robin Reeser: https://re-electrobin.com/
Janelle Valladares: https://www.electjanellevalladares.com/about
Tom Wenzl: https://electthomaswenzl.godaddysites.com/
CORRECTION 8/12/23: This article initially stated that Roxanne Bradshaw is the current president of the Fremont County Public Employees Retirement Association. She is a past president.