Rafe O’Brien, one of five candidates running for a seat on the Montezuma-Cortez School Board, said at a recent candidate forum that he might refuse to follow statewide education policies that go against his personal values.

The Montezuma Journal reported: “I would follow the policies to the best of my ability,” O’Brien said. “If there’s a moral high ground I feel like I need to stand by, I will stand it.”

Public posts from O’Brien’s Facebook page illuminate what moral values he might be referring to. Within the past few months, he has shared a handful of inflammatory memes: one mocking the 2020 murder of George Floyd (using emoji to indicate that people offended by the post are “cocksuckers”), another claiming people who wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and other illnesses “fell for it,” and another supporting Donald Trump following Trump’s indictment in August on charges of scheming to overturn the 2020 election.

In recent U.S. elections, many voters have rejected extremism, bigotry, and conspiracy theories at the ballot box.

But this November, voters in Cortez, located in southwestern Colorado’s high desert, will not have a choice. Rafe O’Brien is running unopposed for District A’s school board seat. 

O’Brien, whose children go to school in the district, is not the only one: Of the four vacant seats on the Board of Directors, three including his are uncontested. The others will be filled by Leland Collins in District D and Mike Lynch (no relation to the Colorado House Minority Leader of the same name) in District G. District C is the only contested race, with Jonathan “JJ” Lewis and Rhonda Tracy competing to win the seat. The deadline for candidates to file to run passed in August.

School board races are ostensibly nonpartisan. That has been the case in the past, but more recently, there has been a concerted effort to take over school boards by activists running as overtly conservative candidates, in many cases with the help or endorsement of the local Republican party. 

Many Republicans see local school board elections as an opportunity to gain ground on culture war issues, such as masks, LGBTQ rights, and “critical race theory,” a term many conservatives inaccurately use to refer to a wide range of race-related social justice issues, including discussion of systemic racism. These issues have created a vitriolic climate in what used to be uneventful school board meetings.

The events in Montezuma-Cortez fit in with those national trends – and it seems to have been a factor causing some board members to depart.

In 2021, board member Lance McDaniel was recalled for his comments in support of the LGBTQ community, including bringing pizza to meetings of Montezuma-Cortez Middle School’s Rainbow Club. He and his family also faced severe threats from other members of the community.

“This happened during the recall procedure, that I was when I was still on the board. We had a Zoom meeting and a person threatened to rape my daughters. You know, I have one daughter, but that didn’t matter,” McDaniel told the Colorado Times Recorder. “… And a few, you know, really brave people threatened to hang me from a tall tree and a short rope.”

In 2022, former superintendent Risha VanderWey, a registered Democrat, was asked to resign by Board President Sheri Noyes over “philosophical differences,” which reportedly included VanderWey resisting the board majority on COVID-19 masking policy.

VanderWey would later be replaced by Tom Burris, the current superintendent.

The outrage around masks and CRT would later lead two board members to resign as well. It is unknown whether these factors also caused the current Directors for Districts A, C, D, and G to not run for reelection.

McDaniel said he believed the hate from the community was a likely factor in why so few people chose to run.

“That was one of the first big things that they [potential candidates] mentioned, you know, is that they didn’t want to put up with that,” he said. 

Mary Dodd, who serves as Chair of the Montezuma Democratic Party, said that the party had been involved in a bipartisan search for open-minded school board candidates who could go against the culture war, but that these efforts had failed – in part due to many would-be candidates lacking the time or resources.

“People just were not willing to or not able to,” Dodd told the Colorado Times Recorder. “I mean, I’d definitely say that many people, between careers and kids simply, you know, don’t have the time at this point in their lives to devote the time that would be needed.”

Dodd also added that some prospective candidates were discouraged by their chances of success. With most voters in Montezuma County leaning conservative, any progressive candidates who did win would likely be a minority on the school board.

“So when we did have candidates who might be interested, their concern was that they would be kind of the only voice on the school board for more 21st century educational policies,” Dodd said. “And they felt that that then would be a discouraging way to do community service, would be that they would be voted down.”

Most of the candidates who did file to run lean heavily conservative. Lynch, in an interview with The Journal, said that if elected he aims to be a voice for “conservative family values.” Like O’Brien, Lynch indicated at the forum that he would refuse to follow statewide education policies if those rules conflicted with his personal beliefs.

“What we are going to advise at least the voters that we speak with, you know, advise them or ask them to consider doing, [is to] leave the uncontested races blank,” Dodd said. “Except for Leland Collins, leave the other races blank. Not filling them in, but completing the ballot. So it’s kind of like a vote of no confidence.”

“Leave the uncontested races blank. Except for Leland Collins, leave the other races blank.”

Mary Dodd, Chair of the Montezuma Democratic Party

For Collins, the focus is on the bigger picture: advocating for the children in the community. He has previously served as a youth counselor and a basketball coach.

“I am compelled to run for the School Board because, beyond personal beliefs and opinions, our collective duty as members of the Re-1 School Board is to be advocates for the children of our districts,” Collins wrote. “We must foster productive discussions and make decisions that propel all of the children within our Re-1 District toward a brighter future. Our aim is to equip them with the educational tools necessary to become future tribal leaders, city council members, committee representatives, business owners, and to become the invaluable community members that our communities need to thrive.”

McDaniel, who has continued to get involved in local politics even after his ouster, spoke highly of Collins, noting his outspoken support for special needs students.

“[Collins and his wife] do a lot of community work for the tribe and are very, very much in defense of students with special needs because they do have a special needs son. And so he’s very positive,” McDaniel said.

Collins’ seat, previously held by Lyndreth Wall, was created to ensure members of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe would have a greater voice in community and school board affairs. Both Collins and Wall are members of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. Previously, the board’s composition had been entirely white.

“We’re very happy that somebody stepped up to fill that seat, because that has not necessarily been an easy seat to get filled,” Dodd said.

The Montezuma Republican Party has not directly spoken on any candidates, but Cindy Wallace, Secretary of the Montezuma GOP, told the Colorado Times Recorder, “In general the Montezuma County Republicans support Republican school board candidates.”

It’s not immediately clear how that would shake out for District C, where both of the candidates are registered Republicans. But Tracy, another conservative candidate, draws a sharp contrast with Lewis, who has been a vocal opponent of some of the current board leadership’s policies.

Both of them are veterans, Lewis of the Navy and Tracy of the Air Force; both have past experience serving on boards. Tracy is a former teacher, while Lewis is a district parent, as well as a psychotherapist who has been called to district schools in the past, and who frequently gives public comment at school board meetings.

Lewis’ public comments have included a substantial critique of the current board. At a meeting in May, he spoke on “the failures of the board and the failures of your superintendent,” and demanded Burris’ resignation.

“I want more transparency, public accountability, and public input within Board decision-making,” Lewis told the Colorado Times Recorder. “Since my speaking at the Board meeting on May 16th, the Board and district have made some positive moves in terms of demonstrating accountability and this shows that I have the potential to continue positive movement in this district.” Since then, he wrote, he believes Burris has made a “positive step” towards improving his own behavior.

Tracy broadly supports the current board leadership. “I have to get more familiar with all of those policies,” she told the Colorado Times Recorder. “I don’t think there’s anything specific that the school board is doing wrong right now. I think everyone there is doing their best and. You know, I’m not like my opponent. I’m not going to bash the current board.”

Lewis has openly spoken out in favor of inclusive and equitable policies.

“When it comes to policies regarding human diversity, we need to ensure that every child has the same opportunities and is treated equitably,” Lewis told the Colorado Times Recorder. “We need to respect all students and be inclusive, so every student is supported. I will ensure this happens within every Board decision.”

Tracy is preferred by at least one noteworthy conservative: former Colorado Moms for Liberty leader Darcy Schoening, who supported Tracy in a voter guide on a website, “Smart Choice Colorado,” Schoening created with the state GOP, listing Republican-preferred school board candidates around the state. ” Moms for Liberty has played a key role, both locally and nationally, in pushing conservative Christian ideology in education.

Tracy’s post with a picture of Lewis

The two candidates have traded combative words more than once.

“I think [Lewis is] dishonest. I think he is he has motives for running for the school board that have nothing to do with the enrichment and betterment of our children,” Tracy said.

She continued, “We don’t need to bring in things that are not essential to our children’s education. We need to keep in mind who’s paying for this, and the things that he wants to bring into our schools have no place in a public funded facility.”

“I was honestly surprised that [Tracy] isn’t running a positive campaign,” Lewis wrote. “My running for the School Board is for the kids, teachers, and community. I was always taught to take the high road. She is clearly choosing the low road.”

In Facebook posts, Tracy referenced a photo taken when Lewis joined a protest against the Montezuma County Patriots, a local right-wing group that has been involved in stoking hatred against LGBTQ people. According to a Facebook post from Lewis, he decorated his motorcycle with a Pride flag, a BLM flag, another flag reading “F__k Trump” and a cardboard cutout representing Antifa. Lewis said he used the Antifa sign to poke fun at far-right groups, and that no such group exists in Cortez. He continued that there were “some things I may have done differently” if he were to go back.

Lewis’ post addressing the picture

“He’s got an open mind and he will listen,” McDaniel said about Lewis.

This year’s election comes after the current board has implemented various controversial changes to school policies, including the curriculum to be taught in schools.

“When I was still on board, we approved an English curriculum that was well researched … and it was well received. And they disbanded that, even though it was approved unanimously, like six months earlier. So they did a complete about-face on that,” McDaniel said. 

One article by the Journal this year contained an easy-to-miss detail: a May school board meeting was attended by Brad Miller, the lawyer for the school district. Miller also serves as legal counsel for the Woodland Park School District, where the conservative board majority fired the superintendent, then went on to institute sweeping policy changes, including adopting the American Birthright social studies standards, a controversial curriculum wth that had been rejected by the State Board of Education. 

These, among other factors, led to a 40% loss in Woodland Park’s teaching staff last year.

McDaniel said that the Cortez board is considering implementing its own new social studies curriculum in a similar vein to American Birthright.

“The social studies curriculum, I believe they’re still working on,” McDaniel said. “But they’re getting their talking points from – I can’t say that we have a Moms for Liberty group here, but most of the board members or the remaining board members and their cohorts are certainly counting the same bullet points that they use.”

Miller’s influence is not limited to Montezuma-Cortez and Woodland Park; he specializes in conservative education reform, and has made a career working with numerous charter schools and public school districts in Colorado. His presence is often a precursor to board members carrying out an aggressive conservative agenda in the district.

“I’ve gone through many, many cycles in Colorado, because we don’t have a majority in a lot of places,” Miller said during a conservative group’s conference in Denver. “And so, when we grab it, it’s quick.”

In Montezuma-Cortez RE-1, much of that agenda has already fallen into place. In 2021, the board passed a resolution against critical race theory, forming a committee to search the school curriculum for traces of the subject. Last year, the board banned clubs from meeting during lunchtime, effectively forcing the Rainbow Club to dissolve.

Even if more open-minded heads prevail in November, the conservative majority will still hold power.

“I think this school board will continue to push their conservative agenda,” McDaniel said. He worried that the ongoing issues would cause a drop in attendance as more students depart for schools in Mancos and Dolores.

“So is this just sort of an ebb and flow situation. You just kind of have to watch with interest and hope it doesn’t roll over you,” he said.

Lewis said that even if he has his disagreements with other board members, he hopes they can find common ground to work for the good of all students.

“Although we’ll have political differences, I’m sure, we have more in common than we realize,” he wrote. “This is a 4 year volunteer position with a considerable commitment in energy, time, and personal sacrifice. Just having that in common demonstrates a commitment to our community and likemindedness when it comes to personal values.”

Dodd said that even after 2023, the Montezuma Democrats will not give up on the school board, as she still sees potential chances for change in future election years – provided community members stay engaged.

“We’re looking at director districts as far as we can,” she said. “Because now that we’ve identified people, we know that this might not be a good year for them. But, you know, the next time this particular seat is up might be a good time for them. So we’re encouraging people to attend school board meetings, to watch them when they broadcast them or watch them after, on the YouTube channel.”

O’Brien and Lynch did not respond to requests for comment. This story will be updated with any response received.

Updated 10/30/23 with comment from Leland Collins.