This is the final installment in a 7-part series about the Woodland Park school board. This piece can stand alone without reading the other six pieces.

Samantha Peck’s children watched as the police arrested her in the middle of the night, handcuffed her, and took her away in a squad car. An Army veteran and West Point graduate, Peck was not given time to get fully dressed, or to arrange for someone to come take care of her three children. She was hauled off to jail and held in a cell for hours. Her crime? Offending the wrong man. 

Peck’s ordeal is the starkest example of an emerging reality about the contentious Woodland Park school board members: their tenure in office has been a disaster, not only for the district, but for the community at-large. Even if one were to strip away every controversial policy decision the board has made – the adoption of the American Birthright social studies standards, the canceling of the teachers’ union contracts, the hiring of a bombastic and unqualified superintendent – their legacy would be one of chaos, mismanagement, and bad behavior. 

Read the Series

Part VII

Since the insurgent school board was elected in November 2021, the district’s problems have multiplied: legal expenses have increased by more than 900%, with much of that taxpayer money flowing into the pockets of established political operatives; the district is hemorrhaging staff at a rate far above the statewide average for the second school year in a row; and the once-quiet mountain town is now at risk of being swept away by rivers of bad blood flowing from the fights picked and petty vendettas pursued by one board member in particular, whom district parents have described as “unhinged” and “psychologically disturbed.”

I have spent four months investigating and writing about the controversial decisions made by the Woodland Park school board in recent years, and the various special interests influencing those decisions as part of a long-term strategy to remake public education. I wrote about the national political groups weighing-in on school policy in Woodland Park, and about the power wielded by a local religious sect. I reported on the political history of superintendent Ken Witt and I obtained and published an audio recording of the school board’s attorney, Brad Miller, discussing the playbook being developed in Woodland Park. In all that time, though, I have barely mentioned the school board members themselves. 

There’s a reason for that. Put simply: this is bigger than Woodland Park, and while the policies, tactics, and ideas developed in Woodland Park can be exported to other districts and other states, the board members cannot. That’s not to say that school board members don’t matter; they matter immensely – and this November, Woodland Park has a chance to remove its school district from the hands of board members who have prioritized a national agenda over the well-being of local students. 

The story of this investigation so far has been one of national-level political machinations. I want to conclude this series, though, by telling a story of small-town politics, local drama, and abuse of power.

While parts of the saga of the past 22 months in Woodland Park have been covered in the local press, like Sam Peck’s arrest and trial, the story has never been told as a unified whole. Some parts have not been told at all, like story of the personal impact of politics roiling a small community, or what happens when the community comes together to push back. In recent months, I have spoken to dozens of parents, teachers, and community members who have lived through that saga on the ground, and the story they told me – a story I have substantiated via public records and independent reporting – was astonishing.

This is the story of two years in Woodland Park, in the words of the people who lived it.

Contrary to how things have unfolded in the once-sleepy mountain town in the intervening two years, Woodland Park’s 2021 school board races were not particularly contentious. The debates got a little feisty, political signs proliferated at a greater rate than usual, but most of that was easily dismissed as being the result of the district’s first competitive school board races in a decade. The only thing that struck some folks as out of the ordinary was that four of the candidates ran as a de facto slate, plastering “conservative” all over their signs and literature, seemingly attempting to tap into the then-growing conservative interest in school boards. 

Before the election, the school board was composed of appointees, a result of low interest in recent years leading to vacancy appointments and uncontested races. While some of the incumbent members ran against the new conservative challengers to retain their seats, they didn’t do so as a coordinated slate. When November came around, the conservative slate won a clean sweep, bringing Gary Brovetto, David Rusterholtz, Sue Patterson, and David Illingworth into office alongside the sole remaining incumbent, Chris Austin, whose seat was not up for election that year.

To get the cast of characters out of the way early: that lineup has undergone changes in the past two years. Gary Brovetto was the first to go, resigning in April 2022, five months after the board was elected. The board ultimately filled Brovetto’s vacancy by appointing Cassie Kimbrell, who is now one of the three board members running for re-election this November. By November 2022, after a year of trying to work with the lockstep conservative slate, board member Chris Austin resigned, and was replaced by Mick Bates – who is also up for re-election this November. Of the four-member conservative slate elected in November 2021, three of the four remain on the board, and have filled the other two seats with allies.

The current Woodland Park school board, from the district’s website

When the conservative slate first won in 2021, Matt Gawlowski did not make much of it. Gawlowski, a district parent whose daughter – now a senior – has attended Woodland Park schools since preschool, had supported his friend, incumbent Amy Wolin, in her District B race against David Rusterholtz, but was not particularly shocked or dismayed by the results.

“I thought, ‘hey, it’s Woodland Park, of course it’s going to be the conservative slate. No big deal,’” Gawlowski told me.

That changed almost immediately.

The first self-inflicted wound the board suffered, and the first major wedge they drove between themselves and their constituents, came in January 2022, two months after the election. At a January 26 meeting, the board took steps to consider a major decision – whether or not to grant charter status to Merit Academy – under an agenda item titled “board housekeeping.” There was reason to believe the board was attempting to hide the discussion: the previous school board had denied Merit’s charter request when now-board Vice President David Illingworth’s wife was a Merit Academy board member

Believing this to be a violation of Colorado’s Open Meetings Law (COML), district parent Erin O’Connell filed a complaint with the 4th Judicial District. As part of her action on the alleged open meetings violation, O’Connell submitted a Colorado Open Records Act, or CORA, request for board members’ official communications. That’s when the public learned about what would become the board’s second self-inflicted wound: David Illingworth’s emails. 

O’Connell’s CORA request returned a number of emails in which Illingworth, who also serves as a Deputy District Attorney in the 4th Judicial District, aggressively disparages the district’s teachers. In emails from December 9 and January 29, Illingworth refers to teachers as “the enemy” and describes the Woodland Park Education Association as waging “open warfare” against the school board. In the December 9 email, Illingworth urges his fellow board members to confront their “enemy” with a strategy to “divide, scatter, [and] conquer,” adding, “Trump was great at this in his first 100 days.” 

Within hours of being posted online, the emails went viral in the small community, where teachers are not just district employees, but neighbors and friends. Local and regional press covered the drama, exposing board members to a spotlight they were not used to. The comments section beneath Facebook posts of the emails allowed a small network to start forming around the idea of pushing back on this new board, which had come into office flaunting transparency laws and insulting community members. 

With that, the spark was lit. Teachers organized and protested at the March 9, 2022 board meeting, rallying behind the cry “we are not the enemy,” and less-involved community members started to take notice.

“I really became aware of it when I started seeing teachers talking about, ‘we are not the enemy,’” Gawlowski told me. “That caught my attention.”

The relationship between the board and the community was not the only one getting off to an inauspicious start in early 2022: internal district communications show that the board’s early months in office saw the development of uneasy dynamics between board members, and growing hostility from Illingworth towards district administration.

When the board came into office, David Rusterholtz was elected Board President – giving him agenda-setting authority and other key powers in the board’s processes – with David Illingworth serving as Vice President. Rusterholtz, 63, had run unsuccessfully for a seat on the Teller County Commission in 2020 before landing the school board role in 2021. In his new role as president of the school board, he had a visible and influential (if uncompensated) local perch from which to await future political opportunities. Described to me by several parents as a likable – though ultimately soft-spined – guy, Rusterholtz’s personality clashed with Illingworth’s from the beginning.

Emails obtained through CORA show that Rusterholtz quickly found himself needing to smooth feathers ruffled by Illingworth. After the board’s very first meeting in December 2021, a district parent emailed Rusterholtz to follow up on a number of topics from the meeting, and noted her disappointment with Illingworth’s behavior even at that inaugural meeting.

Excerpt from an email sent from a district parent to board President David Rusterholtz on December 15, 2021

“Tonight we lost our trust in David Illingworth,” the parent wrote to Rusterholtz, adding that Illingworth’s, “inconsistency in thought and biased agenda” are “a problem for our community.”

“David is a very passionate man,” Rusterholtz replied, confiding that he “had a conversation with [Illingworth] about the meeting last night,” and telling the parent that people “need a bit of patience and grace from each other.”

In one contentious email chain, spiraling from January to May 2022 over the course of 73 pages, Illingworth became so aggressive and unprofessional that then-superintendent Mathew Neal forwarded the chain to Rusterholtz and board attorney Brad Miller, requesting their assistance “redirecting Dave” for the sake of “immediate and sustained normed expectations.”

“He is overstepping and demanding of staff,” Neal wrote, describing Illingworth’s tone as “out of line.”

An email sent from former WPSD superintendent Mathew Neal to attorney Brad Miller and board President David Rusterholtz

The issue at hand was Illingworth attempting to bully the board’s staff secretary into treating him as if he were on a committee which Rusterholtz had not actually appointed him to. When Neal attempted to explain that the board would need to formally vote to change a committee appointment, Illingworth responded by threatening Neal’s job.

“If your personal disagreement with a director elected by the people to govern WPSD prevents you from discharging your duties, then I suggest you might be happier somewhere else.”

Rusterholtz, who was CC’d on every email of the 73-page thread, shied away from engaging in the battle royale. It was an early sign that the board president was reluctant to stand up to his number two – a dynamic which has been noticed by many in the community since then.

“Rusterholtz likes being President, but it’s a very tenuous position,” Gawlowski told me. Gawlowski, like Rusterholtz, is an avid distance runner, and says that he and the board president have maintained something of a texting relationship despite finding themselves on opposite sides of the recent board drama. “I believe he makes an effort to listen, and to talk to people,” Gawlowski said, but noted that Rusterholtz is “very concerned about how he appears to voters” and may be concerned about ending up on the wrong side of Illingworth’s vindictive streak.

Other district parents and community members – many of whom spoke to me on the condition of anonymity to avoid adding to the drama and deterioration of relationships in their small community – echoed that sentiment.

“He’s terrified of Illingworth and he votes accordingly,” one parent told me. “He’s a likable guy, but he’s afraid to make hard decisions.”

Even though his “enemy” emails had engendered the beginnings of organized opposition to the board, Illingworth seemed unwilling to learn any political lessons, firing off more and more aggressive emails even as those emails steadily trickled into public view via an increasing number of CORA requests filed by concerned parents. 

In the background of these deteriorating internal relationships, things were getting worse for the board’s public image. In April 2022, a judge ruled in favor of O’Connell’s open meetings complaint. The decision to conceal the Merit Academy discussion in the “board housekeeping” section of the agenda “was a conscious decision to hide a controversial issue,” the judge said, adding that the Woodland Park school board “cannot demonstrate any legitimate reason for hiding their real agenda at board meetings.” The case also revealed that board attorney Brad Miller had advised board members on how they could privately “connive” with one another in order to avoid transparency requirements.

The ruling caused more problems for the board: now it wasn’t just a “discontent parent” alleging that they had broken the law, it was a judge. With that ruling in-hand, community resistance to the school board was heating up.

It was what happened later that summer, though, that set the town to a boil.

Eight months made a lifetime of difference in Sam Peck’s feelings towards the local school board. Politically moderate but with some conservative leanings, by late 2021 Peck had become frustrated with the district’s COVID policy and frequent school closures, which she felt were a burden on families trying to make ends meet. When she saw that a slate of self-identified conservatives was running for the school board and making some noise about reversing the direction of those policies, Peck was cautiously optimistic. She even voted for some of them.

“When the board was elected, I was not necessarily opposed.” What she didn’t know at the time, though, was “what their agenda really is.”

Like Gawlowski and so many other district parents, Peck – who had all three of her children in district schools at the time – grew concerned when the board attempted to hide their consideration of Merit Academy’s charter, and alarmed when Illingworth’s emails started leaking into the light of day. That spring, she did something she was not in the habit of doing: she spoke at a school board meeting.

Peck, fired `up by the direction the new board seemed eager to take, acknowledges that her comments bordered on aggressiveness. “I spoke from the heart. I spoke about my concerns. And at the end of it, I made a witty comment,” she told me, chuckling drily with hindsight. “I said ‘I hope you will do the right thing, no matter who you go to bed with, figuratively or literally,’” – referencing, in part, the controversy surrounding Katie Illingworth’s involvement with Merit Academy.

She thinks that is what lit David Illingworth’s fuse. 

When Katie Illingworth spoke after Peck at that evening’s board meeting, it was the first and only time Peck ever laid eyes on her before the incident in the Safeway parking lot.

Samantha Peck

In early summer 2022, vindicated in her open meetings complaint and increasingly frustrated by the board’s combative posture, Erin O’Connell got the idea to initiate a recall campaign to remove the board members from office. Under Colorado law, the first step in a recall campaign is to request recall petitions from either the Secretary of State’s office or the county Clerk & Recorder. That’s where the recall effort hit its first snag.

There was interest in the community, there were a dozen volunteers ready to go, hundreds of citizens ready to sign petitions – but no one wanted to be the person to go on-the-record as officially requesting the recall petitions. Enter Sam Peck.

“The reason my name is on the paperwork is because people were afraid,” Peck told me. “They were afraid to put their name, address, and phone number on an official document where the board and their group could come after them.”

Peck, with her West Point diploma, her service in the Army, and her middle-of-the-road reputation, thought she might be insulated enough to take that risk. 

“I thought I was a good person to get involved because I’m a moderate, I have some conservative values, I served in the military,” Peck said. “I’m not your standard progressive parent.”

So she did. Petitions were acquired, volunteers signed up, and townspeople started forking over their signatures in the hundreds. Like most petition campaigns, the Woodland Park recallers often set up shop in the parking lots of local grocery stores, attempting to solicit signatures from the coming-and-going shoppers. They had some success at the local Walmart before switching to Safeway in mid-July, which is where Peck and Katie Illingworth had their second encounter on July 24, 2022. 

Before that evening, the recall had become contentious, with the town’s few vocal board supporters hurling harassment at signature-gatherers when they saw them in public. After a few intimidating encounters, and a few subsequent conversations with the Woodland Park Police Department, Peck says the recallers were instructed to call WPPD “if anything appeared unsafe” during their signature gathering efforts going forward. 

While collecting signatures at Safeway on the evening of July 24, Peck spotted a woman behaving unusually. What happened next has been covered extensively in the local press: Peck, noticing the woman’s strange behavior and apparent interest in the signature-gatherers, kept an eye on her. Believing the woman was inebriated and remembering the advice WPPD had given the recallers days earlier, Peck called the police.

As the Gazette reported at the time, “Peck reported that the female suspect had approached the two recall petition circulators, kept repeating questions and seemed impaired.”

Officers responded to the scene and made contact with the driver in question, who turned out to be Katie Illingworth. Peck, having talked with the police and ensured that her volunteers were alright, eventually headed home, having no idea what was in store for her.

The pounding on Peck’s door came in the middle of the night a little over a week later. She was not given the opportunity to get dressed, or to put on shoes. She was not given an opportunity to arrange for childcare. She had neither her phone nor her wallet, and she had no idea why she was being arrested. She was held in a cell overnight while suspects in other crimes, booked after her, were processed before her. The next day, she was released on a $3,000 bond and charged with filing a false police report and two felony counts of attempting to influence a public servant. She would ultimately be prosecuted by David Illingworth’s employer, the 4th Judicial District Attorney, Michael Allen’s office.

In the 14 months since the encounter at Safeway, reams of evidence have emerged about what happened between July 24 and August 2 that led to the disproportionate response where Peck was arrested in front of her children. Though little of that evidence is perfectly conclusive on this point, there are two good reasons to believe that David Illingworth’s role as a Deputy District Attorney influenced the way things played out.

First, there’s the fact that Peck’s arrest went well beyond standard procedure. In allegations of low-level, nonviolent crimes like filing a false police report, police may issue a warrant or even call the suspect and give them the opportunity to come down to the station and turn themselves in. What they almost never do for allegations of low-level, nonviolent crime, though, is send a squad of officers to arrest someone at home in the middle of the night. 

Second, there’s the body camera footage. On July 25, 2022, the day after Peck had called the police, David Illingworth was captured on body-worn camera discussing the case with a Woodland Park police officer – ultimately suggesting that Peck be charged with felonies, as she was a week later.

David Illingworth captured on police footage discussing possible charges against Peck

“If I was prosecuting it,” Illingworth opines in the footage – making clear that officers were either already aware that Illingworth is a prosecutor, or that he was attempting to impress that fact upon them – “I’d be wanting to, like, listen to the tape, and, like, if she’s, like, pushing, like, ‘you need to go get her, you need to arrest her,’ or like ‘she’s a danger,’ that’s felony level.”

The ordeal rattled Peck. Her mugshot was in the local paper, and local right-wing hacks-for-hire like Krista Kafer penned delighted screeds portraying Peck as some sort of teachers’ union thug arrested for “politically-motivated swatting.” 

“I was writing friends’ phone numbers on my body, I was calling them when I got home, doing a check of my house, locking everything and shutting out the lights,” Peck said of the fear she lived through in the months after her arrest. Her brain was constantly on the lookout, preparing for what she would do if it happened again. She found herself thinking about how best to use the next 30 seconds if cops showed up at her door, how she could manage to get a bra and shoes on the next time, how she could arrange for childcare. 

None of that bothered Peck as much as remembering the look on her kids’ faces when she was slapped in cuffs. “It’s hard to remember the look in their faces when those cops showed up,” Peck told me. “The fear in their eyes. That’s hard.”

Last month, after a year of delays, procedures, and pretrial motions, Peck’s case finally went before a jury. The trial took three days – the verdict took less than thirty minutes. Samantha Peck was acquitted on all charges. One juror commented that the case was the biggest abuse of power he’d ever seen, referring to Illingworth’s involvement.

When I asked District Attorney Michael Allen if Illingworth played any role in how the case unfolded, his office said that they could not comment on the case because it is now sealed, but noted that they take internal steps to “wall off” employees from any prosecutorial function pertaining to cases in which the employee is a witness or otherwise involved.

While Peck’s acquittal is good news, the fact of her arrest is still shocking: as a jury has now made clear, she had committed no crimes. The only offense she had committed, now that all is said and done, was to offend David Illingworth. That offense came at the cost of legal fees, public shame, and a year of her life. 

Even post-exoneration, Peck remains concerned about Illingworth’s willingness to abuse power, and what could happen to the next person to end up in his crosshairs. “I’m a pretty well-off person, right? I’m upper middle class, I have a great job with a great company, I’m educated, I went to a great university. I have friends who are not just phenomenal human beings, but who are connected in the community,” Peck told me. “If this can happen to me, think of all the people who don’t have resources, don’t have access.”

“I don’t want innocent Americans who are just trying to live the best lives they can to ever have to go through this,” Peck said.

Peck’s ultimate exoneration was still a long way off in August 2022 when the recall effort narrowly failed. It was a low point for the board’s opposition: one of their leaders had been intimidated and arrested, and the petitions they had spent months collecting ultimately fell short of the recall threshold by just a handful of signatures. 

Though their hope for removing the board from office early had come to nothing, few of them expected that things were about to get so much worse.

The failure of the recalls emboldened the board. They were so emboldened, in fact, that almost everything I have covered in the previous six parts of this series came after the recall, after Peck’s arrest. By the autumn of 2022, the board appeared to have overcome their opposition. The path ahead of them was clear.

Before the 2022-23 school year started, superintendent Mathew Neal, with whom Illingworth had so often clashed, resigned his post. After Neal’s departure, two beloved long-time district administrators, Del Garrick and Tina Cassens, were made interim co-superintendents. When the district fielded a community survey that fall, soliciting input on the future direction of the district, district families overwhelmingly responded in favor of keeping Del and Tina in the position. The community knew them, it loved them, and it trusted them.

The community was disregarded. In December 2022, over the objection of parents, teachers, students, and community members, the board voted to hire Ken Witt as interim superintendent (in May 2023, they would eventually remove the interim from Witt’s title). 

The rest, as they say, is history: a month after hiring Witt, the board adopted the controversial American Birthright social studies standards and removed the book Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, from curriculum – a frequent topic of book bans by conservatives who fear little more than Black-sounding names and discussions of race relations in America. 

With Witt for cover, Illingworth was also free to escalate his war against teachers once again. The board started changing district policy, seemingly to make it easier to terminate teachers, and canceled the automatic deduction of union dues from teachers’ paychecks. Illingworth was back on his rhetorical warpath as well.

“Nate, you are union president and nothing you say has any credibility with me,” Illingworth wrote to Nate Owen, a district teacher and president of the Woodland Park Education Association, on March 9, 2023. Like so many of Illingworth’s most bombastic emails, the missive to Owen was sent late at night, when Illingworth’s temper consistently gets the better of him. “You seem to only care about creating division, despair, and a climate of doom amongst teachers and parents for your wealthy union bosses. Don’t even pretend to guilt parents and teachers that focusing schools on academics means abandoning our kids. That’s disgusting.”

An email from David Illingworth to WPSD teacher Nate Owen from March 9, 2023

Between the policy changes, the hiring of Ken Witt, the adoption of the American Birthright standards, and the renewed targeting of district teachers, the board’s actions in the winter and spring of 2023 breathed new life into their erstwhile opposition. Teachers protested. Students protested. Community members started showing up to meetings in larger and larger numbers. By May 2023, right as I started working on this series, the sturm und drang had reached such a high level that the district even caught the attention of national news outlets, resulting in the board being featured in a less-than-flattering NBC News article

While the board’s relentless culture war has garnered a good deal of press, its general failure to competently administer the district has not. 

For starters, the school district’s legal expenses have skyrocketed since the board took over. In the 2019-20 school year, before the board was elected, the district spent a little less than $16,000 on legal expenses. In the 2021-22 school year, which the current board presided over the second half of, the district spent more than $145,000 on legal expenses. By the 2022-23 school year, which occurred entirely under the board’s control, legal expenses topped out at $171,250 – nearly a 1000% increase from the year before the current school board took over.

Part of the dramatic increase is easily explained: the board’s actions have resulted in a number of lawsuits. Most recently, the board was the target of a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU, regarding Illingworth’s impulsive decision to ban a member of the public from public school board meetings. The ACLU lawsuit was withdrawn when the ban was rescinded.

Much of the increase in legal billing is not associated with lawsuits, though. According to invoices obtained via CORA, the board had more than doubled the 2019-20 school year’s $16,000 in legal expenses in their first four months on the job. Between December 2021 and March 2022, the board paid attorney Brad Miller more than $38,000, most of which was listed as being for standard legal services: drafting documents, offering advice, responding to emails. 

Miller, who has deep ties to the conservative movement and is brother-in-law to a sitting Republican state Senator – Paul Lundeen (R – Monument) – is not the only well-connected Republican politico those legal fees have flowed to. Earlier this year, the Woodland Park school board also retained the legal services of former Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler, an attorney who has remained active in Colorado Republican politics since his own electoral career flamed-out nearly a decade ago. One of Gessler’s most recent high-profile legal client was former Mesa County Clerk & Recorder Tina Peters, who is currently facing a bevy of felony charges and has already been convicted for obstruction of justice. Gessler is currently representing former President Donald J. Trump in a lawsuit looking to bar Trump from Colorado’s 2024 Presidential ballot.

In March 2023, the board paid Gessler a $10,000 retainer and contracted his services at a rate of $425 per hour.

On top of ballooning legal expenses, the hostile environment created by the current school board – as demonstrated in Illingworth’s “enemy” emails – has also led to massive staff attrition in the district.  For two school years in a row, the Woodland Park School District has lost staff at a rate far above the statewide average, and significantly higher than the attrition rates in districts of a similar size.
In the 2022-23 school year, WPSD lost 33% of its administrators, 36% of its principals, and 40% of its instructors. The statewide public school staff attrition rate for the year was 24%. Those figures came after the previous year, when attrition in Woodland Park was even higher. In the 2021-22 school year, the district lost 40% of its instructors, 48% of its paraprofessionals, and fully 50% of its administrators. That year, the statewide attrition rate was just 21%.

Woodland Park is dramatically underperforming similarly sized districts on staff retention as well. Steamboat Springs, which had a total 2021-22 staff size of 342, compared to Woodland Park’s 330, lost only 10% of its administrators and principals in a year when the Woodland Park district was tripling and quadrupling those figures.

It’s been a long 22 months in Teller County, and there are still miles to go before sleep. No town is Mayberry, and it’s not as if Woodland Park was free of its fair share of drama and controversy in the past – but the steady stream of controversies and recriminations flowing from the school board have taken things to a new level. 

Despite the headwinds they have created for themselves, the three conservative board members on the ballot this year stand a good chance of emerging victorious. In the 2020 Presidential election, Donald Trump received more than twice as many votes out of Teller County as Joe Biden. Still, their victories are far from a sure thing: their opposition is organized, and the races themselves – like the factions created in response to the board’s actions – are nonpartisan. 

In May of this year, The Advocate magazine published a story about how the board’s actions have alienated many fellow conservatives. 

“They’re trying to push a certain agenda down to these kids,” the outlet quoted Woodland Park mother Amy Schommer as saying. “I’m a conservative, but I’m not against my kids learning something they disagree with. They’re trying to fix problems that don’t exist here.”

With school board elections less than two months away, I asked a handful of Woodland Park parents from across the political spectrum how they felt about each member of the school board. Three of those parents – Matt Gawlowski, Erin O’Connell, and Sam Peck – spoke on the record, while others spoke anonymously. While much can be gleaned from their emails, their interviews, and the actions they have taken as a board, nothing paints as clear a picture of the Woodland Park school board as the way their own community describes them.

Sue Patterson and David Rusterholtz, the two board incumbents who are not on the ballot this year

Suzanne Patterson, who I previously covered in the context of her relationship to controversial faith healer Andrew Wommack and nearby Charis Bible College, has made a soft but unfavorable impression on many in the district. A number of community members I interviewed described Patterson as meek or quiet. Gawlowski noted that she’s on her phone a lot in meetings.

Sam Peck went on the record with the other common refrain I heard about Patterson. “I think she allows her relationship with Charis Bible College to dominate what she decides,” Peck told me, and noted that Patterson “has said some pretty off-the-wall stuff.” In the latter category, Peck referenced a March 2023 email – now something of a running joke within the board’s opposition – which multiple sources referred to simply as “the socialism email.” Patterson did not respond to requests for comment.

Board President David Rusterholtz – who, like Patterson, is not on the ballot this year – has engendered more mixed feelings in the community at-large than any other board member. Several district parents and community members told me that Rusterholtz wants to be liked, and mostly succeeds. When Peck was first arrested, Rusterholtz reached out to her, saying that he wanted to hear her side of the story because the version of events he was hearing didn’t sound like her. 

The problem parent after parent raised about Rusterholtz, however, was that his general affability and desire to be liked puts him at a disadvantage when it comes to making difficult choices or navigating dominant personalities.

“He chooses the path of least resistance,” one parent told me, and will ultimately be swayed by the loudest voices in the room.

“If he stayed on [the board] and the other three or four members were wonderful people who prioritized kids, whatever side of the aisle they sit on, we’d be fine,” Peck said. “Unfortunately, that’s not who this board is.”

Erin O’Connell rarely minces words, and she did not hold back on Rusterholtz. “He says he wants to hear from parents, he says he wants to support students, he says he wants to be transparent,” O’Connell said. “All of his actions are directly contradictory to that.”

“I believe his cowardice has caused a lot of damage to our community,” she added.

Rusterholtz did not respond to requests for comment for this piece.

Mick Bates and Cassie Kimbrell, the two board appointees facing the electorate for the first time this November

Of the three board members on the ballot this year, two are appointees who have never faced the electorate before: Mick Bates and Cassie Kimbrell. Largely as a result of their lack of electoral history and the fact that they joined the current board late, community members had less to say about them than any of the others.

“I don’t think I’ve heard him speak,” Peck said of Bates. 

“I don’t think he’s a bad person, but I don’t think he really gets involved with the board,” Gawlowski said. “I don’t ever see him offering anything in the meetings, you know, or having a conflicting opinion.”

“He’s another pawn for Illingworth,” one parent commented. “He’s just going along with what Illingworth tells the board to do,” said another.

“I think he’d be a fun neighbor to have, but he’s not a leader,” Gawlowski concluded. 

The community members I spoke to had similarly vague feelings about Kimbrell, who has voted in lockstep with the rest of the block, but not gone out of her way to antagonize anyone. 

“I have not seen her really drive anything or push an agenda [of her own],” Gawlowski told me, nothing that Kimbrell, in his view, has mostly just “reinforced Illingworth.” 

Peck had similar thoughts, and feels that the possibly well-meaning Kimbrell, like Rusterholtz, doesn’t know how to stand her own against the board’s dominant personality. “She doesn’t have enough experience to feel confident enough in her own beliefs and thoughts to stand up to anyone,” Peck said.

O’Connell thinks of Bates, Kimbrell, and Sue Patterson as a trio of puppets. “It saddens me because their role on the board is so important. Whether I agree with them or not, the thing that disappoints me the most is that they truly do not have their own voices.”

“They mirror whatever Illingworth, Witt, and Miller are pushing at the moment.”

Neither Bates nor Kimbrell responded to requests for comment.

As the comments about the other four board members make clear, one figure looms above the rest in all of the board’s dealings. Without exception, the parents, teachers, and community members I interviewed this summer reserved a unique and passionate disdain for David William Illingworth, Jr, the source of so many of the board’s self-inflicted wounds.

WPSD board member, and Deputy District Attorney, Dave Illingworth (source: Facebook)

Over the course of my career, I have worked for, with, and against hundreds of elected officials. Contrary to common stereotypes, they come in all shapes and sizes, and there are even some good ones. To no one’s surprise, there are also many bad ones. It’s not uncommon for elected officials to be vain, arrogant, and needy – in fact, those are often the traits which propel them to office and can inspire them to accomplish great things once there. Even the bad ones, though, tend to have some sort of instinctual understanding that their power comes from their likability.

David Illingworth does not have that instinct. From the moment he took office, Illingworth seemed determined to be disliked, and has pursued that singular goal with a dogged intensity every day since. The good news for Illingworth is that he has succeeded.

“Illingworth is psychologically disturbed,” one member of the community told me.

“There’s something wrong there, psychologically,” Sam Peck echoed. “You don’t do all these things he’s done unless there’s something wrong internally.”

“The guy is unhinged,” another parent told me, employing a word that a number of community members independently used to describe the Vice President of the local school board in our conversations.

“I guess I mostly feel bad for him,” Erin O’Connell said. “It must be hard to be an adult and feel like you have to throw tantrums like a child.”

“My guess is that, somewhere deep inside, he truly thinks the things he is doing are right,” she added, but criticized Illingworth’s inability “to acknowledge the utter destruction he is party to.”

His board colleagues have emailed behind his back about his behavior, the former district superintendent sought legal advice on how to interact with him, and community members have grown increasingly concerned that he is unfit to be a prosecutor.

“A lot of us are not happy with him being in that position [at the DA’s office] given how he has comported himself as a board member,” Gawlowski said. Other community members told me that they have voiced those concerns in emails and complaints to the District Attorney’s office.

When I asked District Attorney Michael Allen’s office about these concerns, Allen said that he “could not speculate as to public perception,” but that “it is important to note that this office does not tolerate any employee misusing their authority.”

When confronted by detractors, Illingworth frequently comments that he will not apologize for taking the district in a “pro-parent” direction. Emails obtained through CORA, however, show that Illingworth has a long track record of berating, belittling, and disparaging district parents who differ with him even slightly. 

In November 2022, Kelly Hunsaker – a district parent and the wife of a district teacher – reached out to the board to submit a public comment about the board’s desire to get rid of the Summit Learning Platform. Hunsaker said that Summit provided the students with a huge amount of useful feedback, and that the teachers loved it. 

“The teacher and administration’s view in favor of Summit is well documented. However, those parents not married to WPSD staff have found themselves ignored and vilified when they voice objections to this platform,” Illingworth responded, immediately dismissing Hunsaker for being married to a district teacher. 

“Parents want someone to LISTEN to THEM for once,” Illingworth all-caps’d at the parent he was not listening to.

An email from Dave Illingworth to Kelly Hunsaker from November 15, 2022

“My email to you was completely respectful, and I do not know why you felt the need to respond with hostility,” Hunsaker responded, prompting even more hostility from Illingworth. By later that evening, Illingworth had descended into incoherence and ad hominem, eventually resorting to the last refuge of all great minds: bragging about being a lawyer.

“One of us at least is a lawyer qualified and authorized to practice law,” Illingworth said on the thread, as if it were germane to a discussion of the Summit Learning Platform.

Another email from Dave Illingworth to Kelly Hunsaker from November 15, 2022

The same behavior – if not worse – is on display regularly on Illingworth’s official campaign Facebook page, where he goes round after round against district parents in the comments sections, brooking no dissent, thinking he’s taking no prisoners.

In a recent Facebook exchange, Rebecca Johnson, a parent and former district employee, took Illingworth to task for his treatment of district parents after Illingworth had responded to another parent by telling her “nobody is asking for [her] rude comments” and calling her a “rude bully” for attempting to hold him accountable. 

“It’s amazing that this is a school board member talking to a parent of a student in his district,” Johnson commented. “As stated many times, not ALL parents’ voices matter to this individual.”

Like so many of his Facebook interactions, Illingworth responded to Johnson with a number of weak jabs before realizing that her comments were receiving more likes than his and promptly evaporating from the discussion.

When I reached out to Illingworth for comment on this article, he responded as one might expect: he dodged every single question and attempted to insult me personally.

“You are a union shill with no regard for the protection or education of vulnerable children, and your ‘articles’ are as disappointing and boring as they are unreliable and misleading,” Illingworth wrote during business hours at his day job. “Good luck being a hack, and I look forward to doing everything in my power to ensure that your patrons in the teacher unions continue to be miserable over the independent and pro-parent progress of WPSD.” 

According to campaign finance records, Illingworth – who, in our email exchange, claimed that I “don’t understand basic English” – recently spent nearly $1,900 on campaign signs. The apostrophe in “parent’s” [sic] is misplaced on every single one of them.

Illingworth’s sign, declaring him “the parent’s choice.” The plural possessive of parent is parents’.

Ultimately, Illingworth is a medium-sized fish in a small pond who believes he’s a Great White. That behavior might catch up to him this November, when voters have a chance to weigh in on his petulant reign, but some locals are worried that low-information voters might be fooled.

“I worry for the people who aren’t exposed to the truth, who see a smiling conservative father who cares about conservative values,” Sam Peck said. “I hope they will take the time to read more and realize this is not someone you want to represent you.”

“This is a man who will abuse his power to get what he wants, no matter who gets hurt,” she said. “I just can’t relate to it. I cannot grasp how someone would want to hurt other people like that.”

A school board can change a town. The smallest election on the calendar, they can have an outsized impact. The school system shapes the workforce, serves as a major employer, and touches more people in more parts of society than virtually any other government program. That’s why a national right-wing apparatus has sprung into existence to seize it: it’s important.

Though it has gone unnoticed or unremarked-upon by many otherwise engaged citizens who do not have school-aged children, the conservative “parents’ rights” movement sweeping the nation since 2021 has consequences for all of us. The nearly constant raft of headlines generated by the movement’s silliest incarnations – Mister-Potato-Head’s-Genitals-gate, Target Satanism, the works – masks a darker agenda. 

From “critical race theory” to “social emotional learning” to “wokeness” to “groomers” to the ongoing and increasingly dangerous anti-trans panic, conservatives are attempting to use the school system to set new norms for who is – and isn’t – welcome in society. They are successfully raising the social cost of being anything other than straight, white, and conforming. In a way, this agenda shows that those on the political right have even more faith in the school system than those on the center or left. It has long been a tenet of faith in right-wing circles that schools “indoctrinate” children, turning them into “liberals.” Despite the fact that this belief is entirely baseless, it illuminates the motives of those pushing to take over these crucial institutions: they see themselves as fighting back against an imagined wave of indoctrination. They see their control of the schools as a way to churn out little right-wing voters, as they imagine “left-wing” public schools have been doing all along.

The “parents’ rights” flare-up of the past two years is not the first time conservative strategists have realized that the school system can be an efficient tool for stoking social passions and affecting political outcomes. When the Brown v. Board of Education decision was handed down in 1954, starting the process of school integration, conservative white parents protested across the South in what has been remembered as the massive resistance movement. 

During massive resistance, conservative white parents framed integration as jeopardizing their children’s education for political gains, a refrain frequently heard from today’s “parents’ rights” crowd.

Segregationist protesters

Then, as now, the fight was about more than schools: it was about who was welcome in society. And then, as now, the forces opposed to a more open and inclusive society were the ones driving the panic, furor, and potential for violence ever higher. As I wrote this piece, we passed the 66th anniversary of how that violence manifested in my hometown of Nashville, Tennessee, where segregationists bombed Hattie Cotton Elementary School on September 10, 1957 for what was seen as the unpardonable sin of admitting one Black 6 year-old.  

The main difference between massive resistance and the “parents’ rights” movement is that massive resistance was trying to stop inclusion from happening; the parents’ rights movement is trying to roll-back steps towards inclusion which have already been taken. 

While the months I’ve spent immersed in the story of Woodland Park have shown me the possibilities of a troubling future where right-wing ideologues seize more and more school boards in their pursuit of a re-homogenized society, they have also shown me something else: that hope can be found in community.

The most amazing things I found in Woodland Park were the wildflowers blooming from the burn scar: the parents who became a community around the shared cause of protecting their district from a national agenda. Before the school board started raising hackles with its controversial moves in early 2022, parents like Matt Gawlowski, Sam Peck, Erin O’Connell – and the dozens of other core organizers in their group – were not all friends; some of them did not even know each other, or recognized each other only in-passing from various school functions. By coming together around their shared goal, they not only provided a meaningful check on an out-of-control board, they built a community. 

From left to right: Erin O’Connell, Matt Gawlowski, and Samantha Peck

The Woodland Park school board is being held up as a model for other districts looking to impose a similar vision on their local schools. The community that came together in Woodland Park to resist the school board can also be a model for other districts.

By building community, the resistance in Woodland Park built power: they divided their efforts, shared the load, and built one of the most organized local resistance movements I have encountered in more than a decade in politics. O’Connell – once the only lesbian bar owner in Teller County – is willing to pick any fight that needs picking, and often served as the group’s vocal front. Gawlowski, a mechanical engineer by trade, dedicated his organized mind to the group’s CORA requests, not only submitting dozens of them himself, but organizing the thousands of documents returned by those requests into a useful, accessible Google Drive. Other stars of the group’s ongoing resistance campaign are Logan Augustus Ruths, a district alum and former district employee who brings his knowledge of the district to the task of standing against the board’s agenda, and Jeralee Gonzalez, who dedicates her time and skills to external oversight of the district’s finances – like those skyrocketing legal fees. 

“I have seen first-hand how people of different backgrounds, beliefs, faiths, and political ideals can come together,” O’Connell told me, referring to the group as “an incredible community of people who have stood up for students, teachers, and parents.”

Without that incredible community, most of what has happened in Woodland Park would have happened in the shadows.

Regardless of the outcome in November, the story of Woodland Park is not just the story of external forces pushing an agenda on a small-town school board; it’s the story of the internal forces resisting that push, the story of the community that has responded like an immune system to protect the town from the board’s worst impulses.

Even if the board wins another clean sweep at the ballot box this fall, that community will remain, blooming from the burn scar.