Editor’s Note: This is the 23rd in a series of “How I Got That Story” interviews featuring the winners of the 2005 AltWeekly Awards. First-place entries are collected in the book “Best AltWeekly Writing and Design 2005.”
When Colorado Springs woke up one morning and found that four new candidates had taken seats on its District 11 school board, reporter Terje Langeland took notice.
In a two-part series for the Colorado Springs Independent, Langeland untangled a web of political and financial connections. His series, titled "Command Performance," took a first place in the 2005 AltWeekly Awards’ Education category.
The four new members weren’t shy about their stance in favor of the use of vouchers to enable students to attend private schools at taxpayers’ expense. What wasn’t clear was the high degree of organization behind the takeover. Four wealthy Colorado businessmen, including pro-voucher activist Steve Schuck, had financed the four candidates’ campaigns.
After a judge suspended a state law that would have allowed some school districts to issue vouchers, the board had more luck on another privatization issue. It quickly approved a charter school, on whose board of directors Schuck served. The charter school would be run by a private company, but student attendance would be funded by the district.
Though the story began as a look at a local issue, Langeland demonstrated that the Colorado Springs takeover was part of a nationwide effort by school-choice groups to advance their cause by gaining a majority on district school boards.
Even the new school board president, Sandy Shakes, who later defected from the pro-voucher group, didn’t fully know what she was a part of until she read Langeland’s story, she told Indy editor Cara DeGette.
Langeland, who loves the art of investigation, also wrote another two-part series about the collapse of a multi-million-dollar, fraudulent construction project. "Honor Among Thieves" earned an honorable mention in the AltWeekly Awards’ Investigative Reporting category.
Since writing "Command Performance," Langeland has moved to Japan to teach English, "mostly for the sake of adventure," he said. He was hired back at the Independent during a two-month visit to the United States that ends this month. He is learning to speak Japanese, and he said he would like to continue his writing career by working for an English-language publication in Japan.
What inspired you to undertake writing a story about school vouchers?
We had not been keen on covering school board races because they were traditionally pretty boring affairs that did not attract a lot of attention or generate a lot of controversy. Historically, in school board races, people raised a couple thousand dollars and got elected with support from their friends and neighbors.
Actually, we missed the story when it was happening. We just woke up one morning and had a conservative takeover; it was accomplished. And it was immediately clear what had happened. We knew the names of some of the players; we knew what their interests were; and we realized the importance of it. We decided that we needed to tell people how this had been accomplished — it was a stealth takeover.
Were people aware that this was a takeover by pro-voucher candidates?
People knew that there was a new majority on the board, and it had been reported to some extent in the dailies that this was a school-choice-friendly new majority, but no one really knew how they had come to power all of a sudden. The story, of course, was that this was an organized takeover backed by people with state and national connections, and out-of-town millionaires with ties to national school-choice groups who had collaborated and plotted in a very organized and strategic fashion to make sure that this happened. That story had not been told.
A lot of footwork must have been required to gather numbers and background information on these people. How did you go about doing that, and did you have sources helping you?
Basically, it was a lot of Googling and searching contributions records. What I did was take all of the contributors and crosscheck every name, address, phone number and organization to see all the connections that popped up. There were quite a few.
Were the candidates that took over people who would be expected to run for a school board, or were they people clearly chosen to run this campaign?
It was a mixture. There were two people that had run for school board before. One of them was fairly unknown in the community; the other was well-known as someone who had been involved in local civic life before. Of the other two, one was a former teacher, wife of a local judge, not completely unexpected, but she was still new to the political scene. And then the fourth guy came truly out of nowhere. He maintained a residence here but was working out of California as a union buster, and no one had heard of the guy before.
As we learned over time, a couple of these guys came into it kind of accidentally. It was a matter of them talking to friends and saying "Hey, I’m interested in running for school board," and having them say, "Well you know, there’s a guy here in town you should talk to because he is very interested in this and he’s well-connected and maybe could help you if he likes you." And that guy was real-estate developer Steve Schuck, who was the mastermind of all this.
How did you deal with having three of the four school board members deny you interviews for the story? Did you expect that when you went into it, or did that come as a blow?
It’s always disappointing when that happens, but it wasn’t completely unexpected. We don’t get to interview a lot of people on the far right because they know that we ask tough questions that often they don’t want to answer. Some of them have a blanket policy of not talking to us. And that’s unfortunate. But really it was a story where the facts and the numbers and the connections all spoke for themselves.
Did the majority of those involved in the pro-voucher movement know you were doing a story about this once you started calling people and doing interviews?
They figured it out pretty quickly. Steve Schuck knew our paper very well, and I’m sure he realized right away what we were doing.
What has he been involved with before that the Independent covered?
He had been involved in the voucher issue for years and years. His activism on that issue had prompted us to do an extensive cover profile on him a few years back. And he cooperated with that profile. I think we really got a glimpse into his mind, and how that works. I think he was pleased with the story, so we were on speaking terms with him. When it came time to investigate this, we knew how he worked, and he knew how we worked.
Did you expect the story to take on a national angle from the beginning?
I didn’t have any particular expectation. At the same time, it wasn’t surprising. When names or organizations pop up, you start seeing connections to other places where this has been tried, like Milwaukee. We knew Steve Schuck was hooking in nationally. We knew he was a friend of the Bushes.
Had school vouchers been a hot-button issue in Colorado Springs?
It had been a hot-button issue at the state level, and one of the primary promoters was Steve Schuck. The battle fought at the state level in the past was to pass a state voucher plan as a state law. There were two failed state referendums — Steve Schuck was involved in both of those — and when that didn’t work he tried backing state legislation, but the law that passed was ruled unconstitutional. So then he decided, well, we’re going to do it one school district at a time. And that’s when he set his sights on the largest school district in the city, and one of the largest in the state, which was District 11 in Colorado Springs.
Though your story won the award in the education category, it’s very reminiscent of an investigative piece. Is that your forte?
It’s what I like to do. If I had my choice, I would be doing nothing but investigation.
What made you decide to do a sidebar about the bad temper of one of the pro-voucher board members, Eric Christen?
The first time I ever called Eric Christen on the phone, before I had written a single word about him, he hung up on me. I thought, "What kind of guy is this who does not yet have any reason to be angry with me, and yet he hangs up on me?" That made me curious.
Of the four pro-voucher board members, he was definitely the one who came out of nowhere. He immediately became known as a hothead who confronted people in an angry fashion at school board meetings and berated them and showed obvious signs of needing some kind of anger management. So I thought, "Who is this guy? Where did he come from? Does he have an interesting past?"
Just Googling, I found out easily that he had run for office once before in his home state, Oregon. I thought if anybody has dirt on this guy, it would probably be the guy he ran against. His opponent told me the guy has a criminal record. We were able to get the facts that he had been arrested and convicted of criminal mischief. He had this road-rage incident where he blew up at another motorist and was kicking the other guy’s car and had a misdemeanor conviction for that.
There’s nothing that says you can’t be on the school board if you have a misdemeanor. But given the behavior he had exhibited at school board meetings, I thought people would be interested in knowing what kind of guy he was.
How was this story covered by the mainstream media? Did any of it come out?
In Colorado Springs we have one daily paper, which, in terms of the editorial page, is stridently pro-voucher and pro-school-choice. Whether or not that affects their news coverage is up to each individual to determine for themselves. They had done a decent job of the usual daily news reporting without really investigating the connections and how deep it all went. This was not a story that would have been told if it were up to them.
A year before, another group in town that publishes a small newsletter had revealed a letter in which a national school-choice organization was explicitly talking about taking over school boards in Colorado and what a great thing it would be. No one had noticed this; we didn’t notice, and we print their newsletter. Shame on us for not picking up on that at the time, but certainly nobody else had either or was going to, and that was a nice piece of evidence for me to throw in my cover story when we did get around to it.
As far as the Denver media, I think they regard what goes on down here as quaint, and not really of interest to the readers, which is a huge mistake because it’s a national issue.
Do you think you had to write the story any differently because Colorado Springs is a conservative town?
I don’t feel like we adjust our coverage much to account for that. We’re perceived by many as a left-wing paper in a right-wing town. I don’t try to convince people one way or the other, that I’m left-wing or right-wing. I do what I do.
Lindsay Kishter is a junior at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism. She interned at the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies last summer.