NBC News reported on the takeover of Woodland Park, Colorado, by rightwing extremists. Woodland Park is a mostly white district with 8,000 residents. Colorado is a bluish state. The governor is a Democrat, as are the two Senators. But the state, like other states, has deep red districts. The new board wasted no time in pushing their ideological agenda, which apparently concerns even some Republicans.

WOODLAND PARK, Colo. — When a conservative slate of candidates won control of the school board here 18 months ago, they began making big changes to reshape the district.

Woodland Park, a small mountain town that overlooks Pikes Peak, became the first — and, so far, only — district in the country to adopt the American Birthright social studies standard, created by a right-wing advocacy group that warns of the “steady whittling away of American liberty.” The new board hired a superintendent who was previously recalled from a nearby school board after pushing for a curriculum that would “promote positive aspects of the United States.” The board approved the community’s first charter school without public notice and gave the charter a third of the middle school building.

As teachers, students and parents began protesting these decisions, the administration barred employees from discussing the district on social media. At least two staff members who objected to the board’s decisions were later forced out of their jobs, while another was fired for allegedly encouraging protests.

These rapid and sweeping shifts weren’t coincidental — instead it was a plan ripped from the MAGA playbook designed to catch opponents off guard, according to a board member’s email released through an open records request.

“This is the flood the zone tactic, and the idea is if you advance on many fronts at the same time, then the enemy cannot fortify, defend, effectively counter-attack at any one front,” David Illingworth, one of the new conservative school board members, wrote to another on Dec. 9, 2021, weeks after they were elected. “Divide, scatter, conquer. Trump was great at this in his first 100 days.”

The leaders of the Woodland Park School District are enacting an experiment in conservative governance in the middle of a state controlled by Democrats, with little in the way so far to slow them down. The school board’s decisions have won some praise in heavily Republican Teller County, but opposition is growing, including from conservative Christians and lifelong GOP voters who say the board has made too many ill-advised decisions and lacks transparency.

“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.”

Teachers grew particularly alarmed early this year when word spread that Ken Witt, the new superintendent, did not plan to reapply for grants that covered the salaries of counselors and social workers.

At Gateway Elementary School in March, Witt told staff members he prioritized academic achievement, not students’ emotions. “We are not the department of health and human services,” he said, as teachers angrily objected, according to two recordings of the meeting made by staff members and shared with NBC News.

Someone in the meeting asked if taxpayers would get a say in these changes, and Witt said that they already did — when they elected the school board.

Over the past two years, school districts nationwide have become the center of culture war battles over race and LGBTQ rights. Conservative groups have made a concerted effort to fill school boards with ideologically aligned members and notched dozens of wins last fall.

In Colorado, conservatives started making gains earlier because school board elections are held in off years. Woodland Park offers a preview of how quickly a new majority can move to reshape a district — and how those battles can ripple outward into the community. Some longtime residents say that the situation has grown so tense, they now look over their shoulder when discussing the school board in public to avoid confrontation or professional consequences.

David Rusterholtz, the board’s president, believes that chasm predates his election in November 2021.

“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…”

When asked to respond to criticism from school personnel and parents, Illingworth, the board’s vice president, replied in an email: “I wasn’t elected to please the teacher’s union and their psycho agenda against academic rigor, family values, and even capitalism itself. I was elected to bring a parent’s voice and a little common sense to the school district, and voters in Woodland Park can see I’ve kept my promises.”

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.

The board’s critics have pinned their hopes on the next election in November — when three of the five school board members are up for a vote — to claw back control of the community’s schools.

“This is an active case study on what will happen if we allow extremist policies to start to take over our public education system,” said David Graf, an English teacher who recently resigned after 17 years in the district. “And the scariest part about it, they knew that this community would bite on it.”

The new board approved the district’s first charter school without any public notice. The approval of Merit Academy was listed on the board agenda as “board housekeeping.”

The district’s teachers union complained in an email to middle school staff that the board’s action was “underhanded, and at worst illegal.” A parent sued, aiming to force the board to follow open meetings law. A trial court judge did not rule on the legality of the board’s actions but ordered the board to list agenda items “clearly, honestly and forthrightly.”

In response to the teachers’ complaints, Illingworth accused the union of attempting to organize a “coup,” and instructed then-Superintendent Mathew Neal to make “a list of positions in which a change in personnel would be beneficial to our kids” and “help the union see the wisdom in cooperation rather than conflict.”

Illingworth’s emails spread after parents obtained them through open records requests. Subsequent board meetings attracted boisterous crowds, as teachers accused board members of creating a hostile environment, while other community members spoke in favor of the board for supporting “school choice” and quoted Scripture. A handful of parents, including some lifelong Republicans, tried to organize a recall, but failed to get enough signatures to force a vote.

The district’s superintendent resigned and was replaced by Ken Witt, who had been active in conservative politics in Jefferson County, CO., schools.

A week before Witt was hired, on Dec. 13, students in a class called Sources of Strength, which is part of a national suicide prevention program, asked their teacher what should they know about him as the sole finalist for the superintendent job.

Sara Lee, a longtime teacher at Woodland Park High School, responded, “You should Google him.”

The students did, and they didn’t like what they learned.

They discovered that 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.

The teacher, Sara Lee, had taught high school for 25 years, 18 of them in the district. The board reassigned her to an elementary school to punish her for sharing information about Witt. She resigned and was promptly hired by another district.

Please open the link and keep reading. The story gets worse. Parents and teachers tried to persuade Witt to reapply for mental health funds to support counselors and social workers. He refused, insisting that such problems should be handled by parents, not schools. The district’s mental health supervisor, unable to persuade him to ask for the funds, submitted her resignation.