A contentious race with opposing slates of candidates has developed for four open seats on the five-member school board in Woodland Park School District RE-2.
Among the nine choices appearing on the Nov. 2 ballot are incumbents Amy Wolin and Misty Leafers, both of whom were appointed earlier this year by existing school board members to fill vacated seats.
Six challengers are named, and one write-in candidate has registered with the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office.
The number is unusually high; in previous recent elections, just enough candidates to fill the open seats ran uncontested, or openings needed to be appointed.
At stake are one seat representing the community at-large and three defined by geographic boundaries. Only board President Chris Austin remains without needing to seek reelection this year.
The school district has 15,784 active voters, according to the Teller County Clerk and Recorder's Office.
The district also has a new superintendent, Mathew Neal, whom the board selected in March. He started the job in July.
Large signs in the community announce a declared slate of four “conservatives” making a bid — David Rusterholtz, who ran for Teller County commissioner last year and has managed Glaser Energy Group in Divide; David Illingworth II, a deputy district attorney and former Air Force officer; Gary Brovetto, who served on Woodland Park City Council for three years and was a mayoral candidate; and Suzanne Patterson, who has a background of finance and accounting for the Department of Defense and has worked with people with developmental disabilities.
Four other candidates have aligned on social media and in candidate forums: Wolin, who has served on the RE-2 school district foundation board, and Leafers, an attorney who also has worked at the RE-2 middle school, along with Paula Levy, widow of the late Woodland Park mayor Neil Levy and founder of Daybreak, An Adult Day Program; and Dale Suiter, who has coached children’s sports and is involved with the Spring Valley Metropolitan District in Divide.
Write-in candidate Aaron Helstrom does not appear to be connected to either platform.
Should like-minded candidates win at least three seats, their votes would control the board., which University of Colorado at Colorado Springs Professor Josh Dunn says is the reason some candidates band together.
"A lot of people will look at a school board race and say 'I want to get involved, but I'm one person,' and to actually implement change, they need three or four people," Dunn said.Voters are facing what Illingworth calls a choice between “maintaining the status quo or bringing about the opportunity for real change.”
“For too long the board has governed as a kind of palace guard for the school professionals with little regard for parents,” he said. “We don't need another appointee selected by friends. We need a representative of the people.”
Levy said the candidates she's affiliated with have experience working or volunteering in schools, know how educational systems operate and want to put students first.
Leafers agrees, saying her focus is on “doing what’s best for kids” and that she isn’t accepting campaign contributions because she doesn’t “want to be beholden to any particular mindset.”
Of the nine candidates, Patterson has accumulated the most, $2,253 in contributions and $3,750 in loans for a total topping $6,000, according to campaign finance filings as of Oct. 5.
Rusterholtz has raised $2,126, Levy has donations of $1,350, Brovetto has raised $1,200 and a $72 loan, Illingworth has $700 in donations, and Wolin has accrued $530, records show.
Leafers and Helstrom have zero contributions.
The four conservative candidates each received a donation of $500 from the Teller County Republican Party, according to financial reports.
Said Levy: “It’s very sad and disheartening to me they’ve made it political.”
While school board races are defined as non-partisan, candidates often divide on party lines because “a lot of the issues surrounding education end up having a partisan tenor to them,” said University of Colorado at Colorado Springs Professor Political Science Chair Josh Dunn.
Illingworth said he, Brovetto, Patterson and Rusterholtz have different backgrounds, “But we quickly realized we were united in what we want to accomplish and ideas on how we can do that.”
Said Patterson: “We are collectively committed to provide a well-rounded education for tomorrow’s leaders.”
Candidates on the other slate — Wolin, Leafers, Levy and Suiter — say their mission and thoughts are the same as well.
“It’s about the kids, and we want to and see if we can move the district forward into a more positive environment,” Levy said. “Our community has been divisive in lots of areas for quite some time, it’s time to not rear that head in the schools.”
Some people have inaccurately criticized the conservative candidates, said Woodland Park resident Mike Demuth, a real estate agent.
“Many of the opposing people are making up untrue statements about the conservatives running,” he said.
For example, Demuth said none represent Charis Bible College, an evangelical Christian adult school based in Woodland Park, whose founder Andrew Wommack, encourages his followers to run for political office, including school boards.
“Instead of bashing other candidates, we need to focus on what they will do for our children’s education,” Demuth wrote on Facebook.
Current school board member Nancy Lecky said in a letter to the editor in the Pikes Peak Courier that making the school board a political entity would be a disservice to the community.
"Our public school district is the one place where we must pull together as a community," she wrote.
One point opposing candidates agree on is that the district’s declining enrollment must be reversed.
“A lot of our students have left our district to go other places, and there’s a variety of reasons but we live in a great community, and we’d love to see our children stay here,” said incumbent Leafers.
Patterson said based on her conversations with parents, the enrollment decline is primarily due to “parent dissatisfaction with the school curriculum and lack of communication between parents, faculty and administration.” She said she will work on changing that.
Stopping the slide of Woodland Park students leaving the district is Illingworth’s top issue.
“It has badly accelerated within the past few years and is quickly reaching a crisis point,” he said.
Illingworth’s plan: “Championing school choice, empowering family input and bringing accountability to school performance.”
Leafers said she supports children getting the best quality education and teachers and staff being treated like professionals.
“My family wasn’t well off, and with education, I’ve been able to transform my life,” she said. “I believe in the power of education to be a transformative force.”
Brovetto said he was asked to run for school board by “concerned parents who want to preserve traditional and classical approach to education free from social engineering and indoctrination.”
If elected, Brovetto said he would encourage more vocational education, in cooperation with businesses, government entities and service sectors. He also wants to improve curriculum content and inform parents of desired learning outcomes and objectives, and the relevance of the courses being offered.
Patterson said as a new board member she would work to “positively influence the parent, student, administration and school board communication in areas such as academic curriculum and achievement, school choice, parental rights and local decision-making.”
Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect Nancy Lecky's current role.