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Recall of the wild

District 11 campaign succeeds, even as some report intimidation tactics


End the D-11 Chaos organizers (from left) Mary Ellen - McNally, Norvell Simpson and Ann Oatman-Gardner plan - their next steps. - 2006 LAURA MONTGOMERY RUTT
  • 2006 LAura Montgomery Rutt
  • End the D-11 Chaos organizers (from left) Mary Ellen McNally, Norvell Simpson and Ann Oatman-Gardner plan their next steps.

In the days before the District 11 recall effort closed, Ann Oatman-Gardner "put the call out," as she phrases it and the petitions that had been circulating for weeks came streaming in. This, she explains, is how the 400-plus volunteers collected enough signatures to put a recall on the ballot, despite needing thousands of names just weeks earlier.

"We're thrilled," says Oatman-Gardner.

"End the D-11 Chaos," which seeks to unseat board directors Eric Christen and Sandy Shakes, garnered nearly 40,000 total signatures. Last Friday, the county Clerk and Recorder's Office found that both petitions "appear to be sufficient," with 16,443 and 16,003 valid signatures to push forward a recall to oust Christen and Shakes, respectively. These figures are in excess of the 15,000 valid signatures required to post a recall question to the voting public.

"The community spoke," says former D-11 school board director Norvell Simpson, who spearheaded the recall along with Oatman-Gardner and another former school board member, Mary Ellen McNally. "The folks are interested in a quality education system and not in a board that is so divided, a board that is wasting money, and a board that does not keep the children first."

The recall effort prevailed in spite of what some describe as intimidation that may have prevented district employees from signing for the cause they supported. Oatman-Gardner says several D-11 teachers told her that they feared for their jobs, with one saying, "My principal won't let me sign."

The Independent attempted to set up interviews with a number of these employees, but all declined, again citing a fear of retribution. However, former board member and House District 14 candidate Karen Teja corroborated such accounts, saying that she spoke with several employees who were scared for their careers.

"I will tell you that I feel so fortunate that I have a supportive family and that my livelihood isn't dependent on the district," she says. "I don't have to choose between my freedom of speech and my livelihood. That is the choice people have been making with all of this."

Irma Valerio, president of the Colorado Springs Education Association, says a few petition-gatherers described similar encounters with reluctant teachers and employees. But, she says, an atmosphere of intimidation in D-11 is nothing new and it largely can be traced back to Christen himself.

On Election Day 2004, Christen threatened a school janitor with the loss of his job if he removed the Republican yard signs that Christen had planted outside North Middle School, which was also a polling place. Christen also disparaged an English teacher at the school who challenged him about the illegal placement of the signs.

"I have heard Eric say things about teachers who have confronted him, and he verbally attacks them," says Valerio.

Neither she nor D-11 communications director Elaine Naleski has been contacted directly by individuals who felt too intimidated to sign the recall petitions.

Christen says he will question the legitimacy of the signatures in the county-sanctioned 15-day protest period, which began last Saturday. Shakes says she also probably will file a protest.

Because of a conflict in county election laws, the recall likely will not be on the actual Nov. 7 ballot. Voters could be presented with a secondary ballot on the same date, or a separate recall election could take place within the next few months. The recall question will appear alongside a list of individuals who could replace Christen and Shakes.

"End the D-11 Chaos" has asked both directors to relinquish their positions in an effort to save the estimated $160,000 to $200,000 that a recall election could cost the district. They have both declined.

"I am not going to take their advice," Christen says.

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