The process for founding a new charter school in Colorado is not exactly simple, but it is straightforward. Interested parents and community members come together, get some ducks in a row, and then file an application with the local school board, which has the legal authority to approve or deny charters. If a charter is granted, the process of opening the new charter school in the district begins. If the school board denies the charter, that’s the end of it.

Or at least, it used to be. 

Now Colorado’s school system finds itself the target of persistent focus from a determined group of well-funded political actors who appear to be weaponizing that process in ways which could change it forever.

I spent much of the summer writing about a right-wing playbook being developed in the Woodland Park school district: a playbook not to dismantle the public education system, but to seize control of it – and the streams of funding which come with it – and put it to use serving conservative political goals. One maneuver from the Woodland Park playbook is already taking root in other districts: in places like Elizabeth and Garfield County, the local school boards have advanced plans to adopt a controversial social studies curriculum which was rejected by the State Board of Education. 

It appears that a different part of the Woodland Park playbook is being exported to another school district in another mountain town: Estes Park, where a charter school is not taking no for an answer. With ballots in the mail and voting underway, it has become increasingly clear, at least in the minds of some locals, that the district’s ongoing board races are a referendum on a charter the district has already denied. 

If the strategy succeeds – as it succeeded two years ago in Woodland Park – and if it proves replicable, it could open a new front in the war on public education, and present a road map for defunding districts from the inside.

The saga started a year ago, and it started in the normal way of these things. In October 2022, a group of parents and community members in the Estes Park school district came together in support of opening a new charter school in the small mountain town, and presented an application to the district. The school the group hoped to open was to be an expansion campus of an existing charter school, Loveland Classical School, which currently operates in the neighboring Thompson school district down on the plains. The group of boosters felt good about their application: they had even gone so far as to secure a future location for the school at a church in the district.

Despite its large footprint, the Estes Park school district – technically Estes Park R-3, per the state’s inscrutable naming conventions – serves just over 1,000 students, and it’s shrinking. The district’s student body has shrunk by 7% over the past half decade, per Colorado Department of Education statistics. Against that backdrop, the push to open a new school struck some in the community as odd.

“Financially, it does not make sense,” board candidate and district parent Brad Shochat told Jason Van Tatenhove of the Colorado Switchblade on a recent podcast episode. “We have declining enrollment, not growing enrollment.”

The Estes Park R-3 school district

The lack of need was not the only thing that gave community members pause about the application to open Loveland Classical School – Estes Valley, or the people behind it.

Loveland Classical School (LCS) opened as a charter in the Thompson School District in September 2011, touting a classical model of education and a curriculum based on the Core Knowledge program and the “Great Books” approach. In the decade-plus of its existence, the school has thrived: it is now a K-12 institution serving more than 900 students spread out across two campuses.

Despite its rapid growth and record of decent academic outcomes, LCS has not been without baggage. From its earliest days, the school has had a reputation for political engagement with conservative causes. As one former teacher wrote, the board and administration of Loveland Classical have “abdicat[ed] their responsibility of running a public charter school in order to assume the role of a political action committee.” That teacher, Jason S. Martin, described the school as the most “politicized and divisive organization” he had ever encountered, in a blistering open letter published in the Loveland Reporter-Herald in 2021.

“School leaders,” Martin wrote, “are so blinded by making political points and appeasing extremists that the school is crumbling. The right-wing loves to portray neighborhood public schools as the brainwashing centers of communities, but everything I’ve witnessed and keep witnessing says the opposite.” There are reasons, he added, why even the school’s founders no longer send their children to LCS.

The school also stood against Covid guidance in 2020, holding in-person classes in the second half of that year, before vaccines became available.

When LCS boosters brought their charter application to the Estes Park school board, additional concerns emerged around the involvement of a local pastor, Bruce Finger. Finger, a member of the board of Loveland Classical School, is also the pastor of Cornerstone Church of the Estes Valley – the location proposed to house LCS’s Estes expansion. Residents like Peggy Mauerman raised concerns about separation of church and state.

“How can LCS-EV, a public school funded by public tax dollars, reside within a church and yet claim this will have no influence?” Mauerman is quoted as saying in the Estes Park Trail Gazette.

The bigger concern about Finger’s involvement in the proposal came down to money. If the Estes Park school board approved the charter application, Cornerstone Church would have received an influx of $50,000 in state funds in order to make “improvements” necessary for hosting a school – in addition to $15,000 per month for hosting the school — per the application LCS submitted to the district. In other words, the approval of the LCS – Estes Valley charter would have triggered a financial windfall for another organization run by an LCS board member.

Late last year, the school attempted to dispel these concerns, saying that they had chosen Cornerstone for the convenience of the location, and noting that the $50,000 figure was just “an estimate.” The damage, it seemed, was already done.

“I believe around 75% of community comments were against it,” Shochat told the Colorado Switchblade, referring to the process the district underwent to solicit public comment on the charter proposal.

In February of this year, citing a lack of evidence that the school could attract adequate enrollment, and the “unrealistic estimate for renovations to the proposed facility,” the Estes Park school board unanimously denied Loveland Classical School’s application.

Then the school board races started.

Some dispute the description of the Estes Park school board contests as a referendum on the LCS charter application. Others have told me that’s exactly what it is. In recent weeks, I have spoken or corresponded with three of the four candidates running for two open seats on the Estes Park school board. Two of those candidates have been perfectly clear about their position: they opposed the LCS charter application as community members, and would continue to do so as school board members. The other two candidates, only one of whom spoke with me, have been less clear about their stance on the charter. Additional clarity, however, can be found in their campaign finance records.

Though school-related issues are scrambling partisan lines in districts around the state, the equation in Estes Park is mercifully simple: there are two open seats, and four candidates running to fill them. While the races are nonpartisan and none of the candidates are running as a slate with any of the others, there is a clear bifurcation in the field. On one side are candidates Brad Shochat and Brenda Wyss. On the other side are candidates Kyri Cox and Kevin G. Morris. Wyss and Shochat have been recommended to voters by the Estes Park Education Association, while Cox and Morris share a different group of backers. 

All four are running against each other for two open seats, which are elected at-large.

Clockwise from top left: Brenda Wyss, Brad Shochat, Kyri Cox, and Kevin Morris

Brenda Wyss was the first candidate in the race, and nothing about her candidacy has given any indication that she cares much about politics. What she cares about, it seems, is education, and the long-term health of the district. She helped create the district’s five-year plan, and is running in part to bring that plan to fruition. She wants to ensure that district leadership “remains committed to and focused on the recent five-year strategic plan that emphasizes academic achievement and growth, as well as student and teacher wellness.”

Wyss has also spoken out against bringing LCS to the district. “I believe in supporting the institutions that we have in place,” she said. “I want to help make them better and stronger. I don’t want to dilute resources by creating new ones.”

Her main reason for running, she told me, is to ensure that the students of Estes Park receive the quality public education they deserve. She laments that people have been “caught up in politics and [lost] sight of keeping the students, their education, and their futures as the primary focus.”

Brad Shochat seems cut from the same cloth as Wyss, his de facto slate-mate in the Estes school board scrum. A Nevada native, Shochat and his wife relocated to northern Colorado to pursue master’s degrees at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. He is the father of elementary schoolers in the district, and has been a long-time volunteer for school causes. He recently served on the committee to create a five-year plan for the district, alongside Wyss. 

“Whenever the school asks for help, I’m there to help,” Shochat told me when I asked why he had decided to run for office. “I see this as the kind of natural next step of that, a position where it’s a little more formal and there’s more that I can do at a high level to help steer the district in the right direction.”

Regarding the push to open a new branch of Loveland Classical School in the district, Shochat told me his objections were primarily about the district’s size and finances. 

“My personal opinion is that we are too small for a second school of any type right now, and that’s really what it is. With declining enrollment, we don’t need a second campus, and we cannot afford the cost of another campus.”

Instead of focusing on LCS, Shochat is putting his attention on the old-fashioned stuff: “The number one goal is academic growth and achievement.”

Shochat and Wyss entering the race did not send the local rumor mill into overdrive. That didn’t happen until the other two candidates filed. 

Kyri Cox, a mother of six, moved to Estes Park from northern California. In October 2022, Cox and her husband were listed among the original boosters for Loveland Classical School in Estes Park. Cox told me she supported the school because she is “pro- every educational opportunity. Home tutoring, anything to get the child the best education they can possibly get, to have the best outcome.”

“They [LCS] were offering to help a town next to them, right? They were offering us their services. They invested money and time into it. And we all, here, said no – I didn’t, but everyone else said no, and the majority rules in this society of democracy,” Cox told me when we spoke by phone, before quickly casting doubt on the idea that the true majority had spoken. 

“But there’s a silent majority that didn’t want the aggressiveness or the backlash to their children. There was a silent majority that was worried about coming forward because that happens.”

Cox takes umbrage at the idea that anyone thinks she is running as part of a broader pro-LCS plot. “I don’t have a hidden agenda,” she told me repeatedly. “But if a group of parents with a bunch of students comes again [to apply for a charter], for whatever reason, from wherever, that’s not Kyri’s agenda.”

“But if this group of people comes up again, whoever this new group of people may be, while I’m serving, if I’m elected, I’ve got to look at the data. I’ve got to look at what we can do and we’ll have to take another vote.”

Cox said her focus is on the school’s middling achievement scores, and stopping the district from being put into “school improvement” by the state. “If the school goes down and they break apart and whatever the state does, they’ll have more pressing concerns than Kyri Cox maybe having some hidden agenda,” Cox told me. 

Kevin Morris, who identifies himself as “a follower of Jesus Christ and a politically [sic] conservative,” did not agree to speak with me for this piece. According to posts on his campaign’s Facebook page, he has campaigned closely with Cox, and expressed concerns about public schools “usurping the role of parents and families to raise their children as they please. The language of usurpation echoes the rhetoric used in the broader “parents’ rights” movement, which has been responsible for pushing book bans and anti-LGBTQ+ policies in school districts across the country in the past two years.

When Cox and Morris filed their paperwork simultaneously on September 1, it was not their platforms or biographies which set the rumor mill spinning. Rather, it was a name on their paperwork.

Marge Klein’s name is familiar to anyone who has paid attention to the electoral side of Colorado politics for long enough. A compliance specialist, Klein works with conservative and Republican candidates in Colorado to keep their campaign finance records in order and file the required raising-and-spending reports with the Secretary of State’s office – and she is prolific at it. Since 2009, conservative candidates in Colorado have paid Klein’s company, SWS Polifi, more than $900,000.00, per the state’s campaign finance database. Klein has served as the registered agent for hundreds of conservative campaigns in Colorado, including roughly 30 conservative school board candidates around the state right now. In 2020, Klein served as treasurer for her most famous client: Lauren Boebert.

When Cox and Morris filed with Marge Klein as their registered agent, Estes Park locals quickly took note of Klein’s connection to a constellation of other conservative candidates and causes. They also took note of who was contributing money to the pair’s campaigns. 

Kyri Cox has been the main donor to her own campaign, which is not unusual in small races. What is unusual, though, is who her other donors have been. Excluding the money she has given to her own campaign, 91% of the money Cox has raised has come from original boosters of the LCS – Estes Valley charter application. The share is slightly lower for Morris, but no less conclusive: 73% of Morris’s campaign warchest was contributed by original LCS boosters.

Cox and Morris also have donors in common, including Jay Jacobsmeyer, a prolific Republican donor and original LCS-EV booster who has supported Mike Coffman, Lauren Boebert, and other high-profile Colorado Republicans in the past. The pair also received matching contributions from Dana Maxwell, an Estes Park local who, along with her husband Peter, organized the LCS charter application effort in the district. 

The appearance of a coordinated push by conservative organizations – particularly those dedicated to issues of school choice – to elevate Cox and Morris has only grown in recent weeks. On Monday, the Colorado Conservative Patriot Alliance recommended the duo to its followers. Cox and Morris have also been endorsed by Smart Choice Colorado, a Colorado GOP website run by former Moms for Liberty lead Darcy Schoening that lists Republican-preferred candidates for school districts all over the state. 

Then there’s Truth & Liberty. Based in Woodland Park, Truth & Liberty is the political arm of a globe-spanning ministry empire led by controversial faith healer Andrew Wommack. Wommack has made headlines for demonizing the queer community after the Club Q shooting, and suggesting that LGBTQ+ people “should be required to put a label on their foreheads.” Wommack also employs Joshua Lwere, a Ugandan clergyman who is best known for lobbying on behalf of that nation’s 2014 bill to punish homosexuality with life in prison. In recent years, Wommack’s political operation, via Truth & Liberty and an array of front groups and brand names, has taken a particular interest in school boards. This year, they are interested in Estes Park.

Wommack’s focus on school boards is not a fluke; it’s part of his whole shtick. As what’s called a “Seven Mountains Mandate” (7M) dominionist, Wommack is a leader in a strain of Christian nationalism that believes in conquering the “seven mountains of society” for Christ: religion, family, government, media, business, entertainment, and education. Wommack’s focus on school boards is a merging of the two “mountains” his ministry places the most focus on, government and education. 

Last week, Truth & Liberty – the vehicle by which Andrew Wommack pursues his millenarian political project – released its biennial school board voter guides under the name Transform Colorado. The group issued guides for 30 Colorado districts, evaluating candidates in categories with names like “Transgenderism,” “Parental Rights,” and “Boys in Girls’ Sports.” The Estes Park guide gives Cox and Morris approval in all categories.

Whether they agreed to be a part of it or not, Cox’s and Morris’s candidacies have been pulled into the same statewide conservative machine which has brought chaos to Woodland Park, Garfield County, and other districts across Colorado. It is a machine with an unrelenting appetite for transforming public education and a solid track record for turning even vaguely pliable school board members into lock-step apparatchiks of ideology, whether through conviction or convenience. Should Cox and Morris prevail in the Estes Park elections this November, they can expect the men behind the curtain to come knocking.

There is one question I never got a straight answer to while reporting this piece: does Loveland Classical School plan to bring a new application to the district if Cox and Morris are elected?

“There are so many unknowns, right? I haven’t spoken to them about it,” Cox told me. “I haven’t done anything like that.”

Others have been equally vague. Peter and Dana Maxwell, organizers of the original booster group, referenced “next steps” in their statement to the Loveland Reporter-Herald when the application was denied, and Ian Stout, director of Loveland Classical School, said that LCS will remain “open to partnering with EPSD to help serve its students and families.”

The prospect of the application reappearing once a new board is seated is troubling. One could conceivably argue that a post-election reversal of the charter decision would be democracy in action – but that’s hardly the case. School board elections are notoriously low-turnout affairs. In most parts of the state, they are also remarkably cheap, as far as elections go. The combination of low-turnout and a low price tag makes these races uniquely vulnerable to outside influence. Combined, Cox and Morris have raised just shy of $10,000. An outside PAC or (c)(4) could spend five times that amount on mail or digital advertising between now and election day without breaking a sweat. We can make a big deal about our free will and complex emotions as voters, but those objections tend to flatten out under 5:1 spending margins.

It’s this vulnerability to outside influence which makes school board races such a rich opportunity for the vast network of conservative organizations determined to remake the school system. From a strategic standpoint, it makes perfect sense. Why spend $500,000 to be a minor player in a Congressional race, when you could spend $50,000 to be the unbeatable giant in a school board race? The price of entry is cheap, and the reward for victory is direct: the opportunity to tinker with the mechanisms of education in real time; the opportunity, hypothetically, to approve an already denied charter application and reap a windfall. You could sink all that money into a Congressional candidate and never get anywhere close to results. 

The problem with this vulnerability in the system is not that it allows charter schools. Education is complicated, kids are different, and the budget strictures imposed by TABOR can make charters a necessity in certain parts of the state – that’s a separate debate entirely. Rather, the problem with the vulnerability in the system is that it’s a new crack in the piggy bank of per-pupil funding, and it presents a roadmap for breaking that bank completely. What happens if outside actors realize that they can charterize entire districts and siphon-off millions of dollars to out-of-state vendors, and that they can do it all for the low, low price of some rural school board races? 

I’m afraid we might find out.

If Cox & Morris win, and LCS – Estes Valley is ultimately granted a charter, we can expect to see a strategy exported to more districts in two years – a strategy which adds another step to the bottom of the standard process for charter school application and approval in Colorado: if your application to operate a charter is denied, buy a new school board and try again. It’s cheaper than you think.