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The 2003 election dream machine

When Sandy Shakes joined the team to run for the D-11 school board in 2003, the election machine advocating the privatization of public schools already was in place.

On board were:

John Gardner, a former member of the Milwaukee school board. He had pushed through a voucher plan there and suffered a humiliating defeat in his re-election bid in 2003. As a private consultant, Gardner flies to Colorado Springs frequently to dispense advice as needed. Based on e-mails obtained by the Independent, it appears Gardner also currently is involved in trying to get pro-voucher candidates in Harrison School District 2 elected.

Bob Gardner (no relation to John Gardner) a local GOP political strategist, attorney and former chairman of the El Paso County Republican Party. Gardner is closely associated with Sarah Jack, another local GOP political strategist and ally of developer Steve Schuck. Shakes says Gardner and Jack coordinated the 2003 pro-voucher slate that included her, Eric Christen, Craig Cox and Willie Breazell.

Toby Norton, a self-described "parent advocate," helped with the details of the election, regularly attended school board meetings, wrote letters to the editor and, according to Shakes, reported directly to Steve Schuck.

After it became clear that Shakes had defected from the Schuck-financed and elected board contingent, Norton sent her the following e-mail, dated Feb. 10, 2005:

"President Shakes,

"Do 30,000 children a huge favor and resign, immediately.

"Your immaturity is destroying this district.

"You are playing games even our 6th grade daughters are too mature to engage in: hate who I hate or I hate you, too.

"Quit. Go sell textbooks. Raise dogs, do something, but get out of the educational leadership business. You suck at it."

Dan Njegomir, former editorial page editor of the Gazette, played a huge role in the successful 2003 campaign to elect pro-voucher candidates. Njegomir dispensed advice to Schuck's four candidates in Colorado Springs, Shakes says, and ghostwrote op-eds and letters to the editor. He now lives in Denver and works for the state's Senate Republican Communications office.

Njegomir maintains his work in the 2003 race was entirely as a volunteer. In e-mail correspondence obtained by the Independent, he pumped up his former employer as "the major news organ" in Colorado Springs.

(Coalition candidates were urged, Shakes says, to ignore interview requests from the Independent, which their handlers dismissed as "a tiny newspaper with a circulation of only a couple thousand." In fact, Shakes maintains that she only fully realized the vast reaches of the school privatization movement she was a part of when she read the Independent's national award-winning two-part series, "Command Performance," which appeared on Feb. 19 and Feb. 26, 2004. It can be read online at and

Njegomir composed at least two separate documents detailing handy tips on massaging the media. One of them provided specific instructions on how Shakes should make fast friends with the Gazette's education reporter, Shari Chaney; the other was a more generalized media "how-to" that was sent to all four candidates.

Njegomir's advice to the new board members was to grab the spotlight, while disarming critics "at every opportunity." Included were these nuggets:

"How about scheduling regular visits by one or two board members to teachers' lounges around the district?"

"Ride the school bus with the kids on their regularly scheduled route from time to time. We can alert the media in advance and perhaps get a photo opportunity in The Gazette or a clip on the evening news. Some of the local TV stations likely would eat up this sort of thing."

"Dish out grub in the chow line alongside kitchen workers during lunch at school cafeterias. Again, a potential media opportunity."

Shakes says she got on the bus with a bunch of students, all right. A reporter and photographer accompanied her on the ride-along. She remembers how she felt the day the paper came out: ridiculous. After all, she'd already spent 29 years in the classroom.

Dan Njegomir's gripping advice can be read in full as a Web Extra at

-- Cara DeGette

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