Two years ago, four conservatives in a county a half-hour up the mountain pass from Colorado Springs, Colorado, contested the local school board race for the first time in 16 years.
The four won, then added a fifth for unified control of Woodland Park School District, home to six schools and a pre-school, 2,020 students, and approximately 15,000 voters. They began making good on their campaign promises of school choice, increased education in America’s founding documents, and revoking teachers union privileges.
That’s when the crazy school board meetings started in this county that voted for Donald Trump in 2020 by at least a 30-point margin. In them, women and children sob, and men yell at board members who include a 110-pound grandma named Sue Patterson. Historic levels of interest — and animosity — in school board races have risen across the state and nation.
“Woodland Park is a small town, so I do routinely run into friends and enemies everywhere I go, and I didn’t have enemies before I joined the school board,” said Dave Illingworth in a May interview with The Federalist after MSNBC and former Vice reporter Antonia Hylton visited the mountain town.
A local faction backing a slate of three candidates opposing conservative incumbents Cassie Kimbrell, Illingworth, and Mick Bates in the Nov. 7 election has secured boosts from teachers unions, massive hostile state and national media coverage, and five lawsuits against the small, rural district. On top of that, two weeks ago local officials announced issuing 15,000 replacement ballots due to a printing error, doubling the ballots in circulation locally in this 100 percent mail-in voting state.
“This is why they dislike me and the rest of the board members: because I believe in conservative ends and exercise of government power,” Illingworth said. “But I’m not afraid to use power like a Democrat does, which means I will actually use lawful authority to use our government to advance the best interest of our constituents whom I represent.”
Incoming Drone Fire
In her report on Woodland Park, Hylton called the district’s original documents-focused civics curriculum created by the National Association of Scholars “dangerous” and featured a teacher describing it as fascist. Much of Hylton’s work involves delegitimizing conservative participation in education and promoting LGBT and critical race extremism in schools.
District employees made secret recordings and leaked them to NBC, the outlet reported, one of multiple such incidents that prompted the board to prohibit employees from trashing the district’s elected leadership in public. Teachers unions are suing to overturn the policy.
Hylton interviewed Matt Gawlowski on camera, who told his neighbors, “Don’t think that your district is safe.” State records show Gawlowski has donated $2,645 to candidates opposing the board, and a Julie Gawlowski claiming the same address gave $1,000. They’re among the opposition candidates’ largest donors.
Hylton has even linked parents opposing drag shows for children with “domestic extremism,” following the FBI investigating parents as domestic terrorists for protesting school lockdowns, teaching kids explicit sexual information, and teaching kids to hate people for their skin color.
But in Woodland Park, the angry parents are different. They want the school board to stop promoting racial unity, sexual privacy, parents’ rights, and patriotism.
“The teachers union wants to take us out because every other conservative board in America is going through this,” Patterson, who is not up for reelection this year, told The Federalist. “We’re not going to back down.”
In January 2022, the Woodland Park teachers union’s president told a new recruit the chapter is working with a regional union, the Pikes Peak Education Association, “for other methods of disruption” besides school board protests. PPEA is an affiliate of the National Education Association, the largest teachers union in the country and a Democratic Party politics kingmaker.
A local news article says that same union president, David Graf, “taught civil disobedience for eight years” in the town’s high school. Graf no longer works for the school district and the class has been canceled, but clearly some locals are practicing union tactics for how to take a town hostage until they get what they want.
“If they create layoffs, if they create students having poor educational record, or leaving the schools, that’s all worth it to them so long as they get to proclaim the message that this is what happens when you stand up to the union. If you part with the union, your school district will burn. That’s what they want,” Illingworth told The Federalist in a phone interview last week.
Calling the Cops on Political Opponents
Less than a year after they won their seats, in 2022 the conservative board faced a recall campaign that narrowly failed. According to a 911 recording, one of the recall organizers, Samantha Peck, called the police on Dave Illingworth’s wife, Katie Illingworth, to accuse her of drunk driving with children in the car.
The police found no evidence she had been drinking. This July, a jury acquitted Peck of charges of filing a false police report and attempting to influence a public servant.
Peck somehow managed to secure free legal representation from the high-profile Denver lawyer David Lane. Lane is known for winning a wrongful termination suit on behalf of University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill, who infamously compared 9/11 victims to Nazis and claimed the U.S. government purposely infected Native Americans with smallpox.
Accusers of the Neighborhood
That may be the craziest incident involving Woodland Park’s board, but barely. The board deals with a ceaseless barrage of attacks that all stem from leftists having a temper tantrum at their opponents wielding power in any capacity.
“The teachers union is the enforcement arm of the Democratic Party on the local level,” Illingworth said. “The [Colorado Education Association] and [National Education Association] have no interest at all in the students, the families, the teachers of Woodland Park. The only interest they have in Woodland Park is having the union being the dominant force there. This is a skirmish in a border area: Rome doesn’t care about it except that it’s a threat to Roman authority. So Rome is going to send legions to stamp it out.”
This summer, City Councilwoman Carrol Harvey proposed ending or limiting a local sales tax that funds schools, to prevent it from going to a charter school the board approved to expand school choice. That tax raises $3.2 million a year, according to budget documents.
The local Chamber of Commerce chose Harvey to moderate a proposed debate between school board candidates this fall. The incumbents declined to debate with a moderator publicly opposed to their policies and whom the board had voted against to fill an open school board seat. The incumbents attended three public forums this fall, to which they invited their opponents, who organized their own forums instead and then attacked the incumbents for being unwilling to debate.
Gary Brovetto resigned from the school board in April after a teacher and student accused him of insensitive comments about special-needs children. Brovetto is the father of a special-needs child and said his comments were misconstrued. In his resignation letter, Brovetto, also a former local city council member, said he“can no longer continue in this highly stressful hostile environment to be effective as a board member.”
Tempest In a Teapot
NBC’s reports amplify a litany of attacks on the board’s actions. Counterpoints on Illingworth’s campaign website show many opposition claims simply aren’t true.
For example, in public forums and social media, much has been made of the fact that Woodland Park saw a 30 percent turnover in teachers in 2022. State data shows that between 2021-22 and 2022-23, at least 64 other Colorado districts — one-third of the state’s 179 districts — had employee turnover near or above 30 percent. Some districts’ turnover rates were as high as 50 percent or more.
“They’re under attack every minute of every day,” candidate Mike Knott said of Woodland Park teachers at a public forum two weeks ago. Knott claimed that “what’s happening in our district is … coming from a national movement that is political in nature.” The unions supporting him have been major national political players for decades.
According to state records, Knott and fellow candidates Seth Bryant and Keegan Barkley have received get-out-the-vote targeting data from unions, as well as contributions from people in Los Angeles, New York, Florida, Nebraska, Ohio, Wisconsin, South Carolina, New Jersey, Seattle, and Michigan.
Barkley and Knott did not respond to emails and phone calls Wednesday requesting comment. Byrant answered his phone in the morning, but said he was checking out in a store and couldn’t talk. He agreed to talk to The Federalist at 4 p.m. MT. At that time and 10 minutes later, he didn’t answer his phone, and he didn’t call The Federalist back.
Here’s what The Federalist planned to ask the challengers:
Woodland Park’s full-time teachers earn more, on average, than teachers in approximately two-thirds of all Colorado school districts, show state records. The conservative board has also upped their teachers’ pay 13 percent in the last two years, their largest pay raise ever recorded in available state data.
New School Exemplifies Board’s Vision
Teachers at a new public charter school in town, Merit Academy, averaged approximately $8,000 less in earnings per year than Woodland Park’s non-charter teachers, according to state data from 2022-23. This is typical for charter schools, which tend to receive significantly less public funding. When it opened in 2021, The Federalist profiled Merit, a classical school focused on academic and moral virtue.
The previous school board’s attempt to keep Merit from opening helped sweep the conservatives into office. Many parents in the area were frustrated with extremist politics in their kids’ classrooms and wanted another option.
The conservative board allowed Merit to share Woodland Park Middle School’s building. They also opened all their elementary schools to every family, instead of zoned by geography. The middle school was built for 900 children but today teaches approximately 400. Sharing it rescued Merit kids from their earlier spot in an old hardware store, where they’d moved after temporarily operating in two churches, all in their first school year.
Merit opened with 187 full-time students in August 2021. This school year, its enrollment is 438, plus approximately 60 part-time students, Merit cofounder John Dill told The Federalist. That means in three school years, Merit has grown into one-fifth of Woodland Park’s enrollment.
This year, Merit and the middle school were jointly awarded a state distinction for growth in academics, said Merit Headmaster Gwynne Pekron in a phone interview, “which is not handed out lightly. So both schools are able to celebrate that.”
Dill’s joyful voice radiates describing the education his twin daughters and their classmates receive at their dream school. Earlier this year, Colorado Springs officials put down a black bear after it charged children. Merit Academy has that bear in its freezer. The students gutted, skinned, and deboned it. They’ll eventually reassemble its bones for display.
“It was a little rank,” Dill noted gleefully. “I asked my daughters, they said, ‘Nobody fell out, we kept driving on.’ That’s what we’re raising, is a bunch of mountain kids.”
This year Merit started a shooting sports program coached by a former Olympian. Dill said the team has more students wanting to join than equipment the school can afford to supply, especially given rising gun prices. They’ve started with four rifles and four pistols. The kids shoot into blankets designed for the purpose in the gym.
“If they can sit at a desk and hold a pistol with a coach standing behind them, they can shoot,” Dill said. “So we’ve got first graders out there.”
While the kids are aware of the school animosity largely spread via social media, at Merit they focus on academics: “When there’s so much screeching and hollering on Facebook and Nextdoor, we just really try to rise above, follow our virtues, live them out,” Pekron said. Dill and Pekron both said they love to watch the students changing classes to get a sense of how everyone is doing.
“One student came out of history class, maybe it was English, and he was a sixth grader, and he says, ‘Oh my gosh, that was the best Socratic discussion we’ve had in a long time!’ To hear that from a student coming out of their class gives you the chills,” Pekron said.
‘These People Think They Can Cut Me, and They Can’t’
Dave and Katie Illingworth are the parents of five children. In 2011, they lost their first child, Georgianna, when Katie was 38 weeks pregnant, Dave Illingworth said when asked what gives them stamina.
“Good comes out of evil,” he said in a phone interview after dropping off a friend who was helping him campaign. “For whatever that tragedy is, it’s definitely the worst thing I went through, so anything they throw at me pales in comparison. … These people think they can cut me, and they can’t because I’ve already been cut far deeper.”
Illingworth believes people who want a free country must be willing to suffer to keep it free. That’s why the Air Force veteran is on the board despite the pressure that puts him under. There’s no benefit to having a Constitution if the people of our country don’t act to enforce its ideals, he said.
“Every time you point to something great and enduring, it’s because some person followed through on the courage of their convictions,” he said.