Mary Bielz wins seat to replace recalled Cripple Creek-Victor school board president

After winning the election to replace Tim Braun, who was recalled by the voters, Mary Bielz created a thank-you message on a window in Victor.

Sometimes you can get by with replacing an alternator or a starter, but in the end, what the truck really needs is a new engine.

Retired art teacher Mary Bielz says it’s an apt analogy for the Cripple Creek-Victor School District RE-1 board.

With all five seats up for grabs on the Nov. 5 ballot, 54% of 1,502 voters agreed that school board President Tim Braun should be recalled. Bielz was the only candidate listed on the ballot to replace him.

Tana Rice, who was appointed to the board in July to replace a member who quit after also being targeted for recall, and Gari Lu Schwab, who was appointed to the board in May, kept their seats.

The other two seats went to Bill Arrick, a recall proponent who served on the RE-1 board from 2006-2010, and Connie Dodrill, director of Cripple Creek’s Parks and Recreation Department. Arrick won by 25 votes.

Charles Solomone, who was appointed in July to fill the seat of the third recall target, lost his school board seat but was elected to the Cripple Creek City Council.

While recalls of elected school board members are not unheard of, it’s rare for them to succeed.

Ballotpedia, a nonprofit and nonpartisan online political encyclopedia, covered 307 recall efforts nationwide against 703 school board members between 2006 and Sept. 24.

Less than one-third of those initiatives reached the ballot, and 18.6% of the targets were removed from office.

In the Pikes Peak region, a group failed in May 2013 to gather enough voter signatures to recall six of seven members of the Colorado Springs School District 11 board, after they made an unpopular decision to close several deficient schools, including Wasson High School.

D-11 voters did recall two board members in 2006 amid controversy over firing the superintendent.

The drive to get rid of the three Cripple Creek-Victor RE-1 members began in January, with organizers citing “multiple violations of Colorado state statutes, school board policies and resolutions, Sunshine laws and the Colorado Open Records Act.”

Braun, Dennis Jones and Tonya Martin disputed the claims listed on the recall petitions and unsuccessfully sought to fight the recall in court.

The recall came on the heels of the board ousting former Superintendent Les Lindauer in November 2018 for causes determined by an independent hearing officer. Lindauer had made some of the claims that led to the recall, including Jones knowingly living outside the boundaries he represented.

The recall group, The Coalition for Better Schools, issued a statement saying members appreciated the community support.

“We are looking forward to the new board members addressing the needs of the staff, children and families,” the statement said. “We hope that these new board members demonstrate the qualities of integrity, transparency and accountability in their leadership.”

The new board will be seated after certification of Teller County’s election results, said RE-1 Business Manager Elaine Hayden.

The certification could happen as early as Tuesday, said Stephanie Kees of the Teller County Clerk and Recorder’s Office, but must be issued by Nov. 27.

“It has been a great eight years, and I wish the staff and teachers at Cripple Creek-Victor schools the very best,” Braun said after being recalled.

Bielz, who was part of the team gathering recall petition signatures from the school district’s 3,462 active voters, said she hopes the turmoil of the past several years will end.

“I have no animosity toward those three individuals that were the object of the recall,” she said. “This was not anything vindictive.”

Lackluster standardized test scores — with 26.4% of junior-senior high school students and 29.3% of elementary students meeting or exceeding state expectations in spring testing in English Language Arts — and enrollment decline and stagnation are among the issues facing the small mountain district.

“Any time there’s turmoil and there’s a lack of strong, fearless, innovative leadership, growth does not necessarily occur,” Bielz said. “You don’t break new ground when you’re embroiled in conflict.”

Bielz wants the district to undertake a strategic planning and needs assessment for grades K-12, similar to one that was done for Head Start preschoolers. The results would become “the platform to draw up goals and measurable objectives and an evaluation system,” she said.

Bielz also is interested in using a state gaming impacts study to understand impacts to schools and leverage grants.

“There’s been a lack of focus and a united effort,” she said. “The schools have taken a back-burner position. I’d like to see us take advantage of the community’s awareness and how the schools deserve to be part of positive, progressive change.

“The whole recall has brought about a mobilization that we need to capture and be opportunistic. I see it’s had some positives.”

Rice, who had served on the board in the past, including in 2014, when she was one of three members who voted to not renew the contract of the previous superintendent, Sue Holmes, said she wanted to rejoin the board, after moving outside the boundaries and having to vacate her seat.

“I have a son and a nephew in the district, and I’m an alum, and my husband is, too,” she said. ‘It’s important to be a part of that for our children.”

Rice said while she was a little surprised by the election results, she hopes the board can work together.

“There’s been a lot of things that have really brought some dark light to the community and the school district,” she said, “and I’d like for that to settle down and start focusing on what’s important, which is what we’re doing for the kids — and not any self-interests.”

Historically, the board has placed academic performance and safety and security as top concerns, Rice said.

“Hopefully, we can move forward and stop the chaos,” she said. “All five of our seats were up for election, which is a pretty major thing.”

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

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