The most important school board races in Colorado this year are not on the Front Range, and are rarely in the press. They are tucked into high valleys beyond the curtains of peaks, attracting little notice and even less money. While school board races in Denver routinely attract tens of thousands of voters and millions of dollars in outside spending, the races carrying the real stakes of the November elections could be decided by dozens of votes, or a few thousand dollars. Rural school board races have never been as important as they are this year, and their ramifications could be felt statewide.

Those without school-age children may have missed much of the drama of the past two years, in which school politics have taken on national weight and interest. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis built a national platform for himself by cracking down on queer students and teachers with his “Don’t Say Gay” bill, seizing control of Florida’s celebrated liberal arts university, and defending a curriculum that teaches students about the supposed upsides of slavery. In Virginia, Gov. Glenn Youngkin rode to office in 2021 on a wave of concerns about “Critical Race Theory” and diversity, equity, and inclusion policies in schools. The movement the two governors are both fueling and appeasing unites under the umbrella of “parents’ rights,” and in the past two years, that movement has spread like wildfire. This November, communities across the country will vote for school board directors for the first time since the parents’ rights movement came into full bloom. In districts around the country, candidates backed by parents’ rights groups like Moms for Liberty are running on explicitly anti-LGBTQ platforms, promising to deliver less-inclusive learning environments wherever they win.

In Colorado, the stakes are particularly high. Centennial State school districts are facing the same onslaught of intolerance seen in districts around the country — in the past few weeks, the Colorado Times Recorder has covered flare-ups in Cherry Creek, Colorado Springs, and Larimer County — but they are also facing something else: a Colorado-specific playbook designed to maximize conservative control of school boards, and then use those boards to wage an assault on the public education system from the inside.

For the past two years, that playbook has been hammered-out in Woodland Park, a small town about 30 minutes northwest of Colorado Springs, where a conservative board majority won power in 2021. Under the guidance of two long-time conservative education warriors, attorney Brad Miller and now-superintendent Ken Witt, the Woodland Park school board has waged an all-out assault on the local teachers’ union, removed books by diverse authors from curriculum, fired or dismissed a huge number of long-time district administrators, placed a gag order on district employees, and adopted a controversial new social studies curriculum: American Birthright. Far from being a scattershot approach to delivering on conservative wishlist items, the aggressive course of action undertaken by the Woodland Park School Board has been a calculated maneuver to expand the authority of local school boards by exploiting weaknesses in state law – this according to secretly recorded audio of attorney Brad Miller, which I obtained.

In the audio, recorded during a presentation Miller participated in at a conference held this summer by the far-right Freedom Foundation, Miller discussed how his conservative school board clients can thwart the State Board of Education and Democratic-controlled legislature which oversee education standards in Colorado; how they can expand their own authority by taking advantage of weaknesses in the system.

“In Colorado, the state is so blue that the decisions made at [the state] level in the state board and in the legislature are going to be contrary to what my clients want,” Miller can be heard saying on the audio. The trick, he suggests, is to call the state’s bluff.

“The state board rejected the American Birthright standards,” Miller said, referring to the only body in Colorado with the authority to set education standards. “In Woodland Park, we adopted it and said, ‘tell them to try to stop us.’”

So far, no one has tried to stop them.

This, more than anything else, seems to be the motive behind the Woodland Park experiment, and the motive behind expanding that experiment to districts around the state this November: to push the envelope and see who pushes back, and then to push it some more. Next month, it is very likely that a handful of Colorado school districts will be placed in the hands of directors who want to push this strategy and accelerate the unraveling of a uniform, statewide public education.

In recent weeks, I’ve spoken to candidates and community members in another school district staring down the barrel of a potential Woodland-Park-style transformation. It is just one district of nearly 200 in the state, but an electoral win there would represent the first successful exportation of the Woodland Park playbook, and a new veneer of viability for the strategy to remake public education.

Of the 178 school districts in Colorado, none seem more eager to follow at the heels of Woodland Park than Garfield Re-2. Stretching along I-70 between New Castle, Silt, and Rifle at the mouth of the Roaring Fork Valley, Garfield Re-2 is a small, diverse district that is not at all reflective of its most famous inhabitant, Congresswoman Lauren Boebert. According to Colorado Department of Education statistics, the district is majority-minority, with 57% of the student body being Hispanic or Latino. 

The local school board does not reflect the district’s diversity – the five-member panel is all white. In recent months, the board has started pushing an aggressive conservative agenda at odds with much of the district’s working-class and minority population. 

Source: Garfield County Re-2 website

On the surface, the district has little in common with Woodland Park – a predominantly white and relatively affluent area – but striking similarities between the two districts’ governance started emerging earlier this year.

At a May 10 meeting of the Garfield Re-2 school board, Board President Tony May presented a resolution objecting to legislation designed to help students access mental health services. Opposition to in-school mental health services is a growing priority within the broader parents’ rights movement where “social-emotional learning” or SEL – which, in reality, is simply the development of social skills – has been framed as a “Trojan horse for both critical race theory and transgender advocacy.”

“The Supreme Court has repeatedly held the right of parents to control and direct the education and upbringing of their own child to be a fundamental right protected under the Fourteenth Amendment,” May read from the resolution at the board meeting, ending with a vow that the district will “opt-out of this and any other bill or measure that violates parents’ rights.”

The reading of the resolution itself, though troubling in its substance, is not as interesting as the other places where the exact same words have appeared.

In April of this year, the month before Tony May read his resolution in Garfield County, Woodland Park School Board President David Rusterholtz read the exact same resolution at a WPSD board meeting. A week before the resolution was adopted in Garfield County, another education institution – ERBOCES, run by Woodland Park superintendent Ken Witt – also adopted the resolution, which is still featured on the group’s website.

When 9News asked May where he got the resolution, he told them that it had been “shared from school board to school board” and that he did not know who had written it. When I reached May by phone for this piece, he hung up as soon as I informed him why I was calling.

His war on mental healthcare is not the only way in which Tony May is following in the Woodland Park school board’s path, nor the most extreme. That distinction is reserved for Garfield Re-2’s consideration of the American Birthright social studies standards. The standards, which were rejected by the State Board of Education for falling short of Colorado’s education requirements, are the product of collaboration between several dozen right-wing groups with a national network of influence. Despite that national network, Civics Alliance – the umbrella group for the American Birthright coalition – has failed to convince any state to adopt their program as a statewide standard.

Garfield Re-2 school board president, Tony May. Source: Garfield Re-2 website

The Colorado State Board of Education rejected the standards last year, and a bill to implement the standards in Ohio has been languishing in that state’s legislature for months. To date, Woodland Park is the only district in the country to adopt the American Birthright standards.

If Tony May gets his way, Garfield Re-2 will be the second.

The trouble started this June, when May pitched the board on switching to a “conservative, Christian-based social studies curriculum,” per the local Post-Independent. “What’s wrong with American Birthright?” May asked about the curriculum, which the National Council for the Social Studies warned “would have damaging and lasting effects on the civic knowledge of students and their capacity to engage in civic reasoning and deliberation.”

NCSS, which has helped support and shape social studies education in the United States since its founding in 1921, has spoken out firmly against the standards as “glorifying selected aspects of history while minimizing the experiences, contributions, and perspectives” of women, non-white people, indigenous peoples, the working class, and other marginalized groups. NCSS also took the American Birthright standards to task for having “a clear political motive.”

Tony May was not dissuaded. “It’s not the end of the world,” he’s quoted in the Post-Independent as saying. “In fact, it’s very patriotic and very American.”

Another similarity to Woodland Park: May introduced the discussion of American Birthright, and hiring a consultant to advise the board on it, at a June 14 school board meeting under an agenda item named “Future Agenda Items.” In 2022, the Woodland Park school board was subject to a judicial injunction for concealing an important agenda item under the name “Board Housekeeping.” 

After that initial floating of the idea in June, the district community pushed back. At a June 28 school board meeting, parents expressed concerns.

“I think this curriculum is nothing more than an extreme viewpoint pushed by people who are trying to take advantage of our small mountain community,” the Post-Independent quoted district parent James Marquardt as saying. The local outlet noted that David Way, one of the district’s social studies teachers, raised a concern that the American Birthright standards “appear[ed] to be in conflict with the Colorado State Academic Standards and with the provisions of the First Amendment of the Constitution.”

At another community feedback meeting, district parent Steven Arauza spoke passionately about how the American Birthright standards clash with the district’s majority-Latino heritage.

“As a third-generation Mexican-American, a proud Chicano, my ancestors were presented as enemies at the Alamo and then they were not mentioned at all,” Arauza said. “My Mexican parents didn’t teach me that I had no place in history, but the Eurocentric curriculum did.”

Despite that pushback, the board barreled ahead. At the end of a four-hour August meeting in which no one spoke in favor of American Birthright, the board agreed to schedule a final vote on the matter for October 25. If the vote remains scheduled for that date, it will be held two weeks before board president Tony May stands a chance of losing his governing majority. 

The current balance of power on the Garfield Re-2 school board is tenuous, and liable to shift this November. Whether it will shift away from American Birthright — and the strategy of unmooring local districts from state oversight — or towards it, remains to be seen. 

Here is the math: the Re-2 board has five seats, three of which are currently up for election. None of the incumbents in those three seats are on the ballot, leaving six newcomers sparring to replace them. The seats held by the other two incumbents – board president Tony May and his reliable ally, Britton Fletchall – are not on the ballot until 2025. To add a chaotic element, one of the board’s five seats is currently vacant. Now-former member Dawn Evridge abruptly resigned in early September after the furor around American Birthright kicked off, citing health concerns. Because Evridge resigned within 90 days of the election, her seat will remain vacant until her replacement is chosen. With only four sitting members, any vote on adopting the American Birthright standards could potentially deadlock 2-2.

Fittingly, the race to replace Evridge is the most hotly contested of the three Garfield Re-2 elections this fall, with three challengers vying for the position. It is also the race that could put one of the community’s most persuasive opponents to American Birthright on the board.

Daniel Adams is a lot of things. Before anything else, he’s a local: Adams grew up in New Castle, where his grandfather was the long-time postmaster. He’s a father with a young daughter entering the school system next year, and he’s an engaged community member, serving on the local planning board. He’s other things, too: an engineer, a Colorado School of Mines graduate, a businessman who has worked around the world, and a farmer who works a hundred-acre patch outside of New Castle — as his family has done for five generations now.

He’s also a vocal opponent of the current school board’s push to adopt the American Birthright standards, a well-spoken advocate for providing better representation for the district’s Latino-majority population, and a Republican.

Daniel Adams, candidate for Garfield Re-2 school board

Adams complicates the traditional lines around education fights. He is not a liberal by any stretch, but he believes in the importance of public education, and he believes in the importance of community. He also opposes Tony May’s vision for the district. The local Republican Party does not support his candidacy, and two other conservatives are running against him. 

When we spoke, both by phone and by email over the course of a few days, Adams did not mince words about whom he thinks steered the district down the wrong course. 

“Saying that Tony [May] is controversial is an understatement at this point,” Adams told me, adding that May is “the only reason Re-2 is considering the [American Birthright] program.”

In recent months, Adams has taken issue with the content of the standards, as well as the process by which they are being considered in the district.

“I’m disappointed in how this process was led to get to this point,” Adams said. “When this discussion was set up, it was framed as two extreme views that we need to decide from and maybe moderate towards a middle point.” Adams says that current board leadership attempted to portray “Colorado’s approved state curriculum as equally extreme to the ABS program. This couldn’t be further from the truth.”

He says that May knows better, but pushes the line anyway.

As for what Adams would rather see for the social studies curriculum, he supports a modified version of the state standards, where the required instruction is included but some of it begins in older grades. It’s just a matter of communities operating at different speeds from each other, as he tells it. 

“On the Western Slope, conversations about same-sex relationships tend to happen later, typically,” Adams told me, using as an example a topic some conservative communities have objected to. “This adjustment gives parents more time to have those conversations, but respects the inclusive community as students get older.”

“We should have been talking about the fine details and tailoring this topic, not deciding if we want to completely diverge from the state.”

But all of that, Adams says, is beside the point: the whole conversation around American Birthright is detracting time and attention from where the district’s focus should be. If elected, Adams wants to refocus the board’s priorities on the issues that he believes warrant attention, issues like expanding the district’s ability to get feedback and participation from more parents in the Latino community, many of whom are commuting long distances up the valley for work every day.

“The further you go up the valley, there are more opportunities to make money. The challenge is that you’re not going to make enough money to live there in most cases,” Adams told me.”So we have a lot of people who are living in Silt and Rifle, which are on the western side of the district, and working in the valley. So you take somebody that’s working eight or 10 hours a day at a job, adding another hour and a half with their commute, and then you ask them to show up at a meeting at 5:30 on a Wednesday to voice their opinions? That just doesn’t happen.”

“I think it’s really important to be able to meet people in the right place at the right time,” he said, suggesting moving some board meetings into Latino community spaces, or having them on days and at times when more people are off work and available to attend. 

Adams believes that the district and the community need leaders who can bring people back together, and focus on the real problems at hand. “We need more moderate voices,” he told me. “I’m just trying to be a moderate voice saying, hey, let’s do the right thing for our students and our teachers.”

Garfield Re-2 faces a stark decision this November, between a future where the board pursues an ideological crusade down endless rabbit trails, accelerating the fraying of the state’s education framework as it goes, or a future more in line with Daniel Adams’ vision, where moderation and tolerance win the day, and the board returns its focus to educational outcomes. 

The unsettling news is that the Garfield County district is far from alone in that choice.

It is not an exaggeration to say that every school board race in the state matters this year, not just for the small corners of the state they preside over but for the framework of laws that ensures that Colorado kids can receive a good education anywhere in the state. That framework is being intentionally torn asunder by operatives and ideologues who believe that turning students into young conservatives is a more worthy endeavor than turning them into competent college students and active citizens. 

Though journalists, activists, and public education advocates have been raising the alarm in an effort to push back the tide of “parents’ rights” candidates riding the ballot this November, it is a foregone conclusion that we will not stop them all. There are too many districts, too little time, and not nearly enough media attention to have clocked, cataloged, and counter-programed the takeover efforts in every individual district. There are school boards in this state 100 miles from the nearest newspaper, and school boards where not a single member has social media profiles. Far-right operatives have flooded the zone with candidates up and down the state, and some of them are going to slip through. 

For the past two years, it has been Woodland Park. For the next two years, it might be five districts, or a dozen, or five dozen. The more districts that break away from the state’s standards, the more districts that follow Brad Miller’s strategy of pushing the envelope then pushing some more, the harder it becomes to reel any of them back in, or to ensure that the kids in their schools receive the education they deserve.

We are, to put it shortly, at an inflection point. The true scale of the challenge standing between where we are now and where we want to be – a future where public education is robustly protected in every Colorado district – will not be known until the dust settles next month. In some districts, the forces in favor of public education will win at the ballot box. In other districts, the fight won’t even begin until new board majorities start holding public meetings in January.

What I have learned from Woodland Park is that the battle does not end when the opponents of public education win – it only ends when we quit, and we owe it to the future to fight.