Conservative Christians took over a Colorado school district. Now they're destroying it.
Woodland Park School District is seeing an exodus of staffers after Christian Nationalists put their agenda over students' needs
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In 2021, Christian Nationalist preacher Andrew Wommack told the members of his political group Truth & Liberty Coalition that, with all the conservatives in their part of Colorado, “we ought to take over Woodland Park.”
“We have enough people here in this school we could elect anybody we want,” he said. “We could take over this place.”
Wommack had moved to Woodland Park to launch Charis Bible College, and now he wanted his people to take over the local government. Or at least the local school board. It’s the kind of rhetoric that conservative Christians have been using for decades to urge their followers to run for local office as a way to influence policy. Wommack himself insisted last year that he got “78 or 80” of his preferred candidates elected in local races (out of an estimated 178 his ministry was backing).
Perhaps that’s an exaggeration. But in this particular case, they actually pulled it off.
Reporter Tyler Kingkade of NBC News just published a shocking article detailing what happened after those conservative Christians took over a local school board that, in theory, should have been far removed from culture war battles.
But when you put ideologues in positions of responsibility, you can’t expect them to do the right thing. That’s exactly how it’s played out.
For example, the local school board, now controlled by Christian Nationalists, adopted a conservative social studies curriculum called “American Birthright” that’s focused on American exceptionalism and whitewashes our nation’s ugly history. It says the federal government shouldn’t have any authority over public schools, that teachers should avoid teaching about current events and media literacy, and that telling kids to vote amounts to activism. (Notes Kingkade: “[American Birthright] includes Bill Clinton’s impeachment but not Donald Trump’s.”)
The program was already deemed unfit for students and rejected as extreme by the state’s school board. They said adopting this program would have “damaging and lasting effects on the civic knowledge of students and their capacity to engage in civic reasoning and deliberation.”
The new school board embraced it anyway.
School board president David Rusterholtz added Christian prayers to board meetings:
“This division is much more than political — this is a clash of worldviews,” Rusterholtz said at a board meeting in January. He concluded his remarks with a prayer for the district: “May the Lord bless us and keep us, may His face shine upon us and be gracious to us.”
Beyond that, according to Colorado Public Radio, he has also “used his official board email address to proselytize, inviting fellow board members to join his church and receive Jesus as their savior.”
The same board approved a charter school without properly informing the public in advance.
Then they imposed a gag order and fired teachers who criticized the moves publicly.
Then the newly hired superintendent decided not to apply for grants worth up to $1.2 million that previously covered the salaries of 15 counselors and social workers because he wanted to focus on academics, not emotions… even though the latter has a direct impact on the former.
And now a large chunk of the staffers and administrators are leaving the district:
As the school year winds down, many of the Woodland Park School District’s employees are heading for the exit, despite recently receiving an 8% raise. At least four of the district’s top administrators have quit because of the board’s policy changes, according to interviews and emails obtained through records requests. Nearly 40% of the high school’s professional staff have said they will not return next school year, according to an administrator in the district.
It’s no wonder they want out. There’s no accountability anymore and the conservatives on the school board are more interested in enacting their personal agendas than doing what experts believe is best for students. When one board member resigned in the wake of the conservative victories, he could have been replaced by someone with a strong background in education and a track record of supporting students. Instead, his replacement was someone who had donated to the campaign of another right-wing board member.
When the superintendent resigned, he was replaced by Ken Witt.
Who is Ken Witt, you ask?
… Witt, as president of the school board in neighboring Jefferson County, supported a plan in 2014 to ensure the district’s curricula would promote patriotism and not encourage “social strife.” Witt said students who protested the board policies at the time were “pawns” of the teachers union. After he and two other conservative members of the board were recalled, Witt became executive director of an organization that oversees charter, online and other schools and helped launch Merit Academy.
Merit Academy was the charter school approved by the district.
His appointment was actually more egregious than that because the board members essentially chose him in secret. Their only interview of Witt happened behind closed doors even though state law requires all district-related discussions between three or more board members to be public.
Kingkade managed to obtain surveillance footage of their meeting. The full conversation (which is inaudible) lasts for about 8 minutes. Witt was hired two days later.
The district staffer who urged the board to release that footage months ago was fired. That person’s boss quit as a form of protest.
Things have gotten so bad that even Republicans in the district are complaining:
“I think they look at us as this petri dish where they can really push all their agenda and theories,” said Joe Dohrn, a Woodland Park father who described himself as a staunch Republican and “very capitalistic.” “They clearly are willing to sacrifice the public school and to put students presently in the public school through years of disarray to drive home their ideological beliefs. It’s a travesty.”
“They’re trying to push a certain agenda down to these kids,” Amy Schommer, a mother in Woodland Park, said of the school board’s adoption of American Birthright. “I’m a conservative but I’m not against my kids learning something they disagree with. They’re trying to fix problems that don’t exist here.”
But none of this will make a difference unless enough of these people vote for board members who care more about students than conservative propaganda. The next elections are in November and three of the board’s five seats will be up for grabs, allowing a non-crazy majority to help undo some of this damage.
The question is whether enough people in the community will care enough to vote in that election. School board races have notoriously low turnouts, but if right-wing Christians aiming to destroy the public schools doesn’t inspire enough people to get off their asses to vote for better candidates, nothing will.
This is incredible reporting from Kingkade and a devastating look at what happens when right-wing rhetoric becomes reality. The people who have a vendetta against public schools should never be placed in charge of them.
“They're not interested in improving the school district,” said one teacher who is leaving. “They're interested in killing it.”
When people don’t pay attention to local elections, however, that becomes very possible—especially when conservative pastors rally their congregations into thinking these elections are existential crises.
The end result is that the best teachers and administrators may leave the district while the worsening schools lower property values and drive away the sorts of people who might consider moving there.
Everyone loses when Christian extremists hell-bent on turning public schools into extensions of their churches get this kind of power.
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