Republicans jump into non-partisan school board races

4:02 PM, Oct 18, 2011   |    comments
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"The Republican Party here makes no bones about it. They are going after the school board," Tad Stevens, a parent within the Jefferson County School District, said.

Stevens is upset. He believes the Jefferson County Republican Party is overstepping its bounds by fundraising, promoting and consulting candidates Preston Branaugh and Jim Powers. They are running against Lesley Dahlkemper and Jill Fellman.

By design, local elections such as school board and town council are supposed to be conducted without political party identification.

"It is supposed to be a non-partisan race," Stevens said. "I would say they are not violating the law as near as I could tell, but they are violating the spirit."

Jefferson County Republicans Chairman Don Ytterberg is proud to say they've gotten involved. He says it is his job to get Republicans elected to any office at any level.

"I guess in response to people who would question our activity, I'd say, 'Gee, I don't understand the question,'" Ytterberg said.

What is happening right now in Jefferson County actually started because of what happened in neighboring Douglas County a couple years ago. The Douglas County Republicans decided to step in the school board race there, successfully getting a slate of four conservative candidates elected.

"Yes, we have given a lot of advice to the Jefferson County Republican folks," Mark Baisley, chairman of the Douglas County Republican Party, said.

Baisley says he was approached by a person running for a local utilities board. He says they had never gotten involved in local races like this, but then he realized, the party should get involved to start taking the country back from the Democrats, one small office at a time.

"They do make a difference. Town council members do make a difference," Baisley said. "Board members on library boards do make a difference."

Shortly after the Republicans took control of the Douglas County School Board, it passed a controversial school voucher program to pay for public school students to attend private schools. The program was halted by a court order after several groups including the American Civil Liberties Union sued claiming it was unconstitutional to use public money at religious schools. It is still being fought in the courts.

The Republican candidates in Jefferson County have said they will not pursue vouchers. But, Ytterberg says it is a move to get different viewpoints on the school board of the state's largest district. He insists the party would have no influence on how the board members would vote, if elected.

"It was really coming out of Republicans across the county saying we believe that we can and should speak on behalf of our candidates," Ytterberg said.

Steve Burkholder is a lifetime registered Republican. He is the former of mayor of Lakewood, winning that non-partisan race. He believes his own party should stay out of school board races.

"That's designed by the State of Colorado. Local school boards and local elections are to be non-partisan," Burkholder said. "One of the local successes of local government in the United States of America is that the majority of local government is non-partisan."

Baisley says that's not true.

"There are really no non-partisan elections," Baisley said.

He says Democrats have been involved in school board elections for generations, through education unions. The unions are technically non-partisan, but they often lean heavily towards Democrats. The Jefferson County Education Association - the teachers union - is endorsing Dahlkemper and Fellman.

"It hasn't been fair for a real long time cause we have not had our eye on that ball," Baisley said.

Both Baisley and Ytterberg say the recent involvement of the local Republican parties is just a move to catch up to the Democrats.

"Is it really anti union? No, not really," Ytterberg said. "It's a response to say we need an organization [getting involved], too."

Burkholder says it has the party politics at the local level can stifle progress.

"We've got some issues out there that are facing us today. All of us have economic problems and [the public is] saying just fix it," Burkholder said. "I think for us to get into these partisan situations are issues that just don't need to be there."

It is a changing landscape for all local races, Ytterberg says. He believes it's time for local parties to evolve.

"I think there will be greater involvement in all local races," Ytterberg said.

Stevens says it's an evolution that worries him because he says it starts placing politics over kids. He says what's best for kids is what school board elections should be about. Stevens says say goodbye to the "mom and pop" election.

"[The Republicans] have their agenda. They already know what they are gonna do," Stevens said. "This is very organized, funded, very regimented, very disciplined. These are professionals."

(KUSA-TV © 2011 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)

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