- Bruce Elliott
- D-11 Board President Sandy Shakes in the classroom at Wilson Elementary School.
Two years ago, Sandy Shakes was elected to the District 11 Board of Education. She was on a slate of "pro-reform" candidates with an agenda that only became clear over time. That she defected is no secret. This is her account of why she turned, what's happened since -- and what likely will happen if new so-called "reformers" are elected Nov. 1. Supporting documents can be read in full online at csindy.com.
It all started with what seemed an innocent phone call.
Sandy Shakes was considering a run for the local school board. It made sense; a former schoolteacher of 29 years, she had all kinds of insider knowledge about what was right and what was wrong with the way the city's largest district was being run.
A pal suggested she give Steve Schuck a call. The wealthy Colorado Springs developer had a great interest in public education, Shakes was told, and might have some campaign money to toss her way.
Shakes called. She was warmly received. Teacher, wife of a district judge, sister of Penny Whitney, who was married to Craig Whitney of Whitney Electric Company -- Sandy Shakes certainly had the right pedigree.
The two agreed to meet.
Shakes, now 53, was invited to join the club. The chosen four, running for four open seats on the seven-member board, included Shakes, former local NAACP president Willie Breazell and private investigator and U.S. Army reservist Craig Cox. Eric Christen, a swaggering newcomer to the Springs who most recently had worked as a union buster in California, rounded out the team.
One of Shakes' biggest worries about running for public office was the required begging for campaign cash; she says she was delighted to be informed that she wouldn't have to worry about that. Nor would she have to concern herself with organizing, mobilizing volunteers or generally dealing with the messiness of running a political campaign.
The group of four, she was assured, would make headlines with its innovations to improve education. Schuck was a major player in the controversial national movement to install voucher systems in public schools, and the new board members, under his direction, would get coaching from hired gun John Gardner, a former school board member in Milwaukee who had pushed through a voucher program there. (See page 25 for more on Schuck's behind-the-scenes dream team.)
"They kept saying, 'Colorado Springs is in the foreground. Everyone is going to be watching what is happening here,'" Shakes says.
Glossy color mailers went out by the reams. The four candidates were painted as ber-educators, champions of choice, true patriots with the combined superpower to fix all that was ailing. Opponents were stained in big, ugly brushstrokes as anti-education, anti-choice, anti-children.
In all, $150,000 was spent, a record for a local school board race. The other eight candidates, with their rudimentary photocopied brochures and grassroots campaigns, didn't stand a chance.
'You better watch out'
The day the new majority was to be sworn in, Shakes, Christen, Breazell and Cox were summoned to a meeting at the Radisson hotel near the airport. Technically, Shakes notes, it was not a quorum -- which requires public notification under Colorado's Open Meetings Law -- because the elected officials had not yet been sworn in.
But Shakes says the group took the opportunity to privately sort out, beyond public view, who would take on which board offices. She was to become president. The other three would be elected by "secret ballot" to other assigned leadership posts on the seven-member board. Shakes was handed a short statement, prepared by Gardner. At the top it said, "Statement by Sandy Shanks [sic], District #11 Board President."
The instructions were clear. At their first public meeting, after she was named president, Shakes was to read the screed and clear the room immediately. Four new sheriffs were in charge.
"The message [to any possible detractors] was very clear: 'You better watch out,'" Shakes says.
That night, Schuck was in the audience. So were Shakes' husband, her kids, longtime friends and former colleagues. She did as she was told. She was sworn in, became president, read the statement and thwacked the gavel down. Meeting over. No discussion. Spectators glared in disbelief.
Later, the four new board members met -- this time, in violation of the Open Meetings Law --at Old Chicago restaurant and bar in downtown Colorado Springs.
Shakes says everyone was slapping each other on the back, saying, "Oh, ho, ho, didn't we get them good?"
Shakes says she felt sick.
"It was horrible," she says. "It was one of those things like, 'Oh, my God, what have I gotten myself into? I thought I was just running for the school board.' I knew it was wrong and it was just bullying, and that's just not my style.
"But I just love it!" she laughs, recalling the statement that had been prepared for her. "They couldn't even spell my name right."
Ripe for a takeover
With 30,000 students, D-11 is the seventh-largest district in Colorado. It also is increasingly urban, and enrollment has dipped in recent years as the city's core population has aged and more families with school-aged children have moved to the far suburbs.
Leadership has been spotty, often replaced by a cheerleader mentality. Test scores -- which have become official meters of student success -- have been less than impressive. With the exception of a bond measure that passed in 1996, the district has not successfully convinced voters to approve tax hikes for the schools in more than 30 years.
Under these conditions, Shakes says, D-11 is ripe for a takeover by politicos who adopt the mantle of "reform" -- who play heroes, riding in on white horses to fix what they claim is a public school system in shambles. The local daily has adopted the description, routinely referring to them as "reformers."
But, Shakes maintains, people would be wise to question the true intent of the sort of "reforms" these activists have in mind.
In the extreme, she points out, Christen aggressively opposes government involvement in education in any form. In fact, he has signed a proclamation supporting ending government funding for education, sponsored by the Fresno, Calif.-based Alliance for the Separation of School & State.
"He wants to get rid of public education in any way, shape or form and privatize all education," Shakes says. "And he's on the school board!"
Shakes describes Cox as less strident than Christen, but with a decided mean streak of his own.
"Capitalism and competitiveness is what it's all about [for Cox]," she says.
Breazell, in Shakes' opinion, truly does have a desire to improve education, especially for minority students.
"Unfortunately," she adds, "I think he's chosen the wrong avenue to accomplish his goals."
'The bane of their existence'
The for-profit, free-market approach to education is just one driving force for reformers of the sort in District 11. Another is an obsessive desire to destroy teachers' unions, "the bane of their existence," as Shakes says.
Besides ensuring teachers' job security and competitive pay, unions usually back Democratic candidates in partisan elections, which, Shakes says, just enrages the newcomers to the D-11 board.
Ultimately, she says, it's about power and control.
"If [pro-voucher advocates] can get control of, say, 5 percent of public education dollars, then they've got billions of dollars. And what better way to do it than to go where you don't have to have compliance, without restrictions?"
Of course, Shakes knows this agenda because she once was in the club. She grew more and more wary, however, over a peculiar irony: The group she belonged to constantly was screaming that public school districts need to be held accountable. Yet, by operating in secrecy, the members refused public accountability for their own actions.
One telling example of their strategy comes from a Nov. 24, 2003 e-mail from Dan Njegomir, former editorial page editor of the Gazette. Then working as an adviser to the four new board members, Njegomir counseled the following: "Resist the urge to [publicly] discuss vouchers at all ... When there is a specific policy you can indulge to help with implementation of vouchers -- to be discussed as time goes by -- implement it without fanfare ..."
Says Shakes: "There's nothing wrong with what they're doing, if it's done without an agenda. It's totally appropriate to question what public schools are doing -- but not if you set it up so the end results are going to support what you want to happen.
"Make no mistake. This is not about reform. This is about a scam to take public funds and work it into private pockets," she says. "And what's outrageous is they are playing the heartstrings of the poor and minorities [as the chief beneficiaries]."
How low can you go?
During the six months between the November 2003 election and the vote that officially made her former friends into her virulent enemies, Shakes became increasingly struck by just how mean they could be.
Almost immediately after the 2003 election, for example, Shakes confronted Christen on his aggressiveness, which was obvious from the get-go.
He tearfully offered, at the time, to quit the board, Shakes says. Three months later, in a Feb. 27, 2004 e-mail, Christen threatened to resign a second time, citing as his "final straw" that a majority of his colleagues were not planning to immediately fire then-Superintendent Norm Ridder.
"This man is an embarrassment to any thoughtful person," Christen wrote.
Earlier this year, Christen again offered to quit, passing Shakes a handwritten note in the middle of a board meeting. His offer contained a caveat: He would leave only if he got to choose his replacement.
In an April 2 e-mail, Christen wrote, "It is quite apparent that Sandy [Shakes] does not want what's best for the district but what is best for her. My reason to step down is very simple: Sandy is not a well person and her irrational, out of control behavior both at board meetings and out in public ... is hurting the district. Seeing how I am a big part of what sets her off I have offered to step down so as to take away this excuse ... She desperately needs to seek help."
Shakes informed Christen that his self-replacement scheme was not in line with Colorado law, and the matter hasn't come up again.
Then there was the Mary Wierman incident. Shortly after the 2003 election, the full board held a retreat. Along with the four new majority members, the D-11 board membership included Wierman, Karen Teja and David Linebaugh.
After the retreat, Wierman approached Christen and politely said something along the lines of, "You know, Eric, I've had a chance to talk with everyone else on the board. I would like to sit down with you; I'm sure there are some things we agree on."
"Mary's got a heart of gold. She's just the nicest lady with the deepest concern for poor children," Shakes says. "Eric just looked at her and said, 'There's absolutely nothing I want to talk with you about. It would be a waste of my time.'
"Afterward, coming out of the conference room, he just yukked it up like, 'Oh didn't I get her?' And Mary was back in the room, just crying."
"It was just mean. Mean, mean, mean, mean, mean."
The bloody revolution
As the months of the new board members' first year wore on, it became increasingly clear that Shakes was not linked ideologically with her three cohorts.
She is surprised that her teammates didn't fully comprehend her positions earlier, she says. Yes, she wanted to affect true reform. Yes, she agreed, the district needs overhauling and, yes, leadership has been spotty. But, yes, the teachers deserve fair contracts, protection and decent pay.
On May 5, 2004, the board gathered in executive session to discuss the terms of the new teachers' contract. Such secret meetings are designed to allow governing boards to discuss sensitive topics about personnel, legal and land issues. Four board members -- Shakes, Wierman, Teja and Linebaugh -- tentatively agreed to approve the new contract for teachers, pending a formal vote in public that was scheduled for the following week.
Less than two hours later, Christen, who had not been at the meeting but clearly had been briefed, leaked what had been discussed during the executive session.
In an e-mail to Schuck, Christen wrote: "A majority of the board agrees that we 'just don't need this fight right now [with teachers] and that we should let them 'have what they want because the unions will strike if we don't cave on this.' "
"Three new seats will open up next November, a date that cannot and will not come soon enough for far too many children who expected and needed so much more.
"Until then the district can expect a guerilla warfare campaign unlike anything they have ever seen by those who are exceedingly proficient at it."
Shakes voted for the new contract. She says, "The next day, Toby Norton [a pro-voucher activist and close ally of Schuck's], called and said, 'Boy, Schuck's really mad at you.' And I said, 'For what?' And she said, 'For your vote on the teachers.' And I just said, 'Well, he knows how to get in touch with me -- he should call me. I don't want to hear it from you.'
"It's really making me mad when someone sends little people out to yabber at me instead of picking up the phone and yabbering at me in person."
The breaking point for Shakes, she says, came on May 25, 2004. That day, accompanied by Ridder, she drove to Denver to attend a conference, called "Revolutions in Colorado Education."
In attendance were about 50 wealthy charter school and voucher advocates. The two arrived just as Denver businessman and voucher proponent Alex Cranberg was introducing Schuck as the next speaker.
"Steve got up there, and he was red and he was beating and pounding his fist on the podium, screaming 'This is the revolution, and we are going to have to be willing to get bloody!' and that moment is when I said, 'It's over the line,'" Shakes recalls.
"It's not about kids for these guys. It's about a revolution, and the revolution is that the haves are going to have and the haves are going to control, and we are going to tell people how it is going to be, without any discussion about what would be adequate for these kids.
"A revolution? Getting our hands bloody? I just looked at Norm and said, 'He's lost it.' "
District without borders
The next month it became clear that the Schuck-supported slate intended to pave the way for a local voucher program with potential ramifications for school districts across Colorado.
Over the past 13 years, Colorado voters twice have rejected vouchers for public schools. Yet, in 2003, the then-Republican-controlled Legislature adopted a law incorporating a statewide school voucher plan.
The next year, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional. So, Shakes says, a plan was hatched to approve a voucher plan on the local level.
She recalls the private meeting she attended to hash over the draft of a resolution, called "Educational Services to Meet the Needs of Every Child." It was held at the private law office of Bob Gardner, a GOP operative and local attorney who had helped coordinate her election. Shakes says Gardner helped draft the legal document.
Joining the group were Ridder and the school district's attorney from the law firm Holme, Roberts and Owen.
Njegomir, the former Gazette editor who currently works for the state's Senate Republican Communications office, also was in attendance. His earlier advice to D-11 candidates -- to implement voucher-friendly policies without fanfare -- was coming home to roost.
The resolution directed the superintendent to "establish a program of contracting for the provision of educational services at educational institutions selected by the parents of children who are either at risk or have other special needs that the parents believe can be met more effectively at an educational institution other than a District school."
One of the document's more interesting points was the possibility of including students living "outside the territorial limits of the District."
Shakes says that Njegomir explained the concept: Not only would D-11 students be able to use tax dollars to attend private schools, but kids living anywhere in Colorado -- say, Greeley, Grand Junction or Denver -- officially could become D-11 students.
The Colorado Springs district would keep 20 percent of the allotted per-pupil operating revenue (which currently is $5,750), and students all over Colorado could then take the rest of the money and apply it to whichever religious or other private school in their hometown would "meet their educational needs."
Njegomir maintains that, as the board president, Shakes had called the meeting "in an effort to try to get more latitude for educational options."
"I was only too happy to be enlisted and add my two cents," he says.
Shakes recalls the discussion a bit differently.
"They kept saying things like, 'This will boost enrollment [at D-11],' but what this was, was a clearinghouse," she says. "They were calling it 'child-centered,' and I just said, 'Don't snooker people; call it what it is.'
"It was just a fancy way of trying to dupe people."
When the proposal crossed Teja's desk, Shakes says Teja immediately recognized it for what it was. Teja, who has had numerous clashes with board members Christen, Cox and Breazell, revised the resolution. She watered it down, including limiting its scope to "special needs students" and eliminating the portion that included students living "out of the territorial limits of the District." The amended resolution passed 4 to 3, and, Shakes says, her onetime pals were furious.
So they went after Teja. More specifically, they went after Teja's daughter.
Dog with a meaty bone
In a nutshell, Cox and Christen obtained from District 11 the education record of Teja's daughter, a D-11 student who legitimately had received district-paid tutoring to help her with a learning disability.
They took the private records, and leaked them to the Gazette. They talked about the private records on a local radio talk show. They talked about them during at least one school board meeting. They claimed that Teja, who is opposed to vouchers, was a hypocrite, and that her daughter was getting preferential treatment; in their minds, the tutoring represented the same thing as a voucher.
A resulting federal investigation conducted through the Colorado Department of Education exonerated Teja and found that the district had violated federal laws by releasing her daughter's records to Cox and Christen. The district was instructed to provide written assurance that it would not happen again, lest it risk losing millions in federal education funds.
But the damage to a child was done.
"They never thought that Karen would have done what she did," Shakes said of Teja's sabotaging the voucher resolution. "So that's why they held onto Karen like a dog with a meaty bone. They just wouldn't let go of it. It just goes to the heart of how far they will go to destroy someone."
There is also Douglas Bruce's lawsuit against D-11 to consider. Last Oct. 26 -- egged on by Christen, Cox and their supporters -- Bruce alleged that administrators illegally had engaged in stumping for an upcoming capital improvements bond and mill levy override election on the taxpayers' dime.
Among Bruce's "proof" was an audiotape that he claimed board member Christen had of administrators politicking at Jenkins Middle School. Christen and Cox were formally identified in court documents as "aligned with [Bruce] in this matter."
Over the next four months, the court ordered the transcribed audiotape to be submitted as evidence. At first, Bruce insisted that Christen had it; therefore, District 11 officially was in possession of the tape.
But Christen claimed that Bruce had the tape. The alleged tape never was submitted to the court, and ultimately the charges against D-11 were dismissed with prejudice. Bruce's lawsuit cost district taxpayers more than $50,000.
As Shakes puts it: "Board members involved in lawsuits against their own district? Actively working against their own district?
"They want District 11 to be in total chaos and to have nothing but one problem after another, because it's very hard to improve, and move forward with positive things -- like a focus on education -- when you're spending your time on shenanigans like this."
'Bring it on'
Shakes remembers vividly the last time one of her former allies approached her in a conciliatory manner. It was 14 months ago.
"Toby Norton came over to my house in August . It was a Saturday, about 9:30 a.m.
"She came unannounced. My whole family was there. She said, 'Steve [Schuck] sent me,' and I said, 'About what?'"
Here was the deal from Norton, Shakes says. If she would bring back the voucher resolution and vote for it, Christen would support the 2004 bond issue, an issue Shakes considered critical to the future of improvements in the school district.
"I said, 'I don't need Eric, I don't want Eric.' And at that point, Toby said, 'I like you, Sandy, but you're doing the wrong thing.' She said -- and these were her words, I'll never forget them -- 'You don't know what they're going to do. [They'll] take you down and publicly destroy you. Don't do it.'
"I said, 'Tell him to bring it on,' " Shakes says. "Those were my last words. So as you can see, this is what has happened."
In a little more than two weeks, on Nov. 1, D-11 voters will elect three new school board members. Wierman and Teja are term-limited from office; Linebaugh has declined to run for a second term. As it did two years ago, the pro-voucher movement has recruited three candidates -- Carla Albers, Robert Lathen and Reginald Perry -- and is pouring money into their campaigns.
Schuck, who has declined interview requests during this year's election campaign, could not be reached for comment for this story.
However, the local Grand Old Party's machine has jumped into the fray this year, endorsing those three candidates in a largely Republican community, in what is supposed to be a nonpartisan race.
If just one is elected, the Christen, Cox and Breazell faction would take over the school board. Shakes has no doubt about what would happen next.
"To start off with, you would immediately have five school closures," she says. "[Lower-performing elementary schools like] Ivywild, Hunt, Adams, Monroe, and if they're paying attention, Wilson, would be closed.
"You would have the teachers' contract revoked immediately," likely leading to a strike.
The district's new superintendent, Sharon Thomas (Ridder resigned earlier this year), immediately would be fired, Shakes predicts, and voucher proponent and State Representative Keith King, "or someone of the same mindset," would be ushered in.
Shakes' worst-case scenario is being the lone public school advocate, with six angry, hungry school board members surrounding her on the dais, clamoring to eat her alive for her betrayal.
Would she quit?
"You know," she says, laughing, "it might be funny to be the only sane one left on the board."