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Recording reveals outside interest in attempts to recall Colo. school board member

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

People who vote in school board elections prize local control. That was reflected last year when attempts by ultra-conservative national groups like Moms For Liberty to take over local school boards generally fell flat. But national attempts to sway local public school boards on culture war issues hasn't disappeared. Colorado Public Radio's Jenny Brundin has more.

JENNY BRUNDIN, BYLINE: Upset about masking in schools during the pandemic, voters in Colorado's rural, deep-red Garfield County installed an even more conservative school board in 2021. But when one of those board members, Tony May, tried to introduce new controversial social study standards called American Birthright, chaos ensued.

TONY MAY: That's not being inclusive.

(CROSSTALK)

BRUNDIN: May's conduct shocked teacher and parent Leanne Richel.

LEANNE RICHEL: It was, like, this guy is not listening and he's not respecting the other voices on this board.

BRUNDIN: Board meetings were packed, mostly with opponents of the standards. Richel found them superficial and propaganda-like.

RICHEL: I cannot let my kids be educated by this. I refuse.

BRUNDIN: Some parents and teachers were worried that the district would mirror another rural Colorado District, Woodland Park. After it adopted American Birthright, nearly 40% of teachers and staff quit. Eventually, Garfield's school board rejected the ultraconservative social study standards, with May the lone supporter. But many in the district found May so bullying and partisan over the standards that they launched a campaign to recall him. Willow Brotzman is a parent in the district.

WILLOW BROTZMAN: His tactic was just to force everyone to be on board with him, so you were either with him or you were against him.

BRUNDIN: May didn't respond to interview requests, but he said in a board meeting the recall was politically motivated.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAY: And for the record, I haven't bullied anyone.

BRUNDIN: Some allies came in to help May fight the recall all the way from Ohio.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KELLY KOHLS: We need to make them look like the villains that they are.

RICHEL: That's Kelly Kohls.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KOHLS: The radical left-wing grooming - call them everything they are, guys, don't hold back.

BRUNDIN: Kohls is on a call with a handful of May's local supporters. She works with Moms For America, a different group than Moms For Liberty. In this recording provided to NPR, they discuss a playbook for school boards. Fire the district lawyer and superintendent, replace them with people to do your bidding. She instructs the group to hire someone to write PR statements.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KOHLS: We're going to make Tony look like a victim. We're going to clearly point out the bullies.

BRUNDIN: She means those backing the recall. Kohls lays out the scenario.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KOHLS: And they're lying to citizens, and that's - what a shame that is. So in every scenario, guys, you know there's a victim, bully, hero. And that's what we have to play in this one.

BRUNDIN: She was invited to the call by Sherronna Bishop, a former Garfield County resident who now lives in Texas. Bishop has a show on FrankSpeech, operated by Mike Lindell, the MyPillow guy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHERRONNA BISHOP: We worked our rear ends off to try to bring some kind of uprightness to that valley and to make sure our kids are being educated and not indoctrinated and not lose this district to the woke mob. So shame on you all if you don't stand up for Tony. This is insanity.

BRUNDIN: But even though Garfield County remains conservative and elected a conservative school board a few years ago, the recall campaign is going forward. A local court just rejected an attempt to stop it. And May's opponents say their coalition to recall him is broad-based. They say they just want to keep extreme politics out of school boards.

For NPR News, I'm Jenny Brundin.

(SOUNDBITE OF EIKO ISHIBASHI'S "DRIVE MY CAR (KAFUKU)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eric Whitney
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Jenny Brundin
[Copyright 2024 CPR News]