Once again, a recall election is arguably the most fascinating election of the year. As opposed to some of the past famous recalls, the big one this year is for a minor political position: three School Board members in Jefferson County, Colorado, Ken Witt, Julie Williams and John Newkirk. Yet we’ve already seen reports that over a million dollars has been raised by both sides in what has to be one of the (though not the) most expensive school board races of all time.
The Jefferson County recalls are at the cutting edge of education policy, with a debate over the political dimensions of education (here’s a quick synopsis of the issues). The elected officials are conservatives who have been pushing on issues such as charter schools and performance-based pay (and, most notably, one of them called for changing the AP US history curriculum to be less negative about different events – this went nowhere, but got a lot of press). The recall is backed by unions and other more liberal groups. I should also point out that the recall language mentions open meeting law violations – this is almost a standard charge.
There’s been plenty of coverage of the recall, but there hasn’t been much about the prevalence of school board recalls in general. Though they are under the radar, school board recalls are a common occurrence. There will be eight others taking place on Election Day – three in Selma, California, three in Golden Plain, CA and two in Caldwell, Idaho. There is also one already scheduled for February 2 in Lucerne, CA.
Perhaps most prominently among other outstanding recall efforts, Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas is facing petitions that were discussed even before she was sworn in. In that one, which also has a very strong conservative v. liberal political dimension, petitioners claim to already have over 100,000 signatures in that one (they need over 366,128 and Arizona has notoriously exacting signature requirements that frequently result in a 40% rejection rate).
While the recalls are rarely as starkly political as the Jefferson County one, we see the same problems crop up: Fired superintendents or even football coaches, closed schools, preferences for one type of school over another. Sometimes the issues are more personal, and sometimes they are odder – one attempt that didn’t get on the ballot involved a school board member who was indicted on charges of attempted murder, rape and pimping. Another saw a member accused of sexting with a 14 year old student. But we do see one constant – if you can get the recall on the ballot, the officials have a great chance of losing.
Let’s look at some stats: from 2012-2015, there have been at least 304 recalls attempted against school board members. The vast majority of those failed to get enough signatures to get on the ballot. Only 58 of those attempts have resulted in either of vote or a resignation (the resignations frequently take place before signatures are handed in, but I still count them). Of those 58 results, 24 officials were kicked out, 21 resigned and only 13 survived the vote. Here’s the breakdown by year, and I including 2011 totals (I did not add in, as I was not keeping track of attempts at that time):
2015 – 6 officials have been removed, 4 have survived and 10 have resigned. (In Center, Colorado, 2 board members were kicked out in March, and a third board member survived the vote).
2014 – 5 School Board members were removed in recall and 3 others resigned. Four officials survive a recall vote (2 in Colorado, Peak-to-Peak Charter School – the vote was actually against the board members, but the district had a supermajority requirement, the board president of the Star Academy Charter School resigned in the face recall as well)
2013 – 6 removals, 4 resignations, 2 survivors
2012 – 7 removals, 4 resignations, 3 survivors
2011 - 9 recalls, 3 resignations, 4 survivors (I did not compile the recall attempts in 2011, so that I didn’t include it in the breakdown).
We certainly see some bad news for the Jefferson County board members. In general, most recalls result in an ouster and this is certainly the case with school boards. But of course, past performance is not indicative of future results. The positive is that we’ve seen the “clean sweep” is a usual result in a recall – if one of them wins, there’s an excellent chance that all of them will win. The other positive for the board members is that Colorado voters have historically been less willing to kick out officials in a recall election than voters in other states.