After a string of electoral successes, conservative school reform candidates in Colorado were dealt harsh blows this week in elections swung by issues that were both intensely local and part of broader battles over power, money and change in American education.

In Jefferson County, a hotel ballroom exploded with chants and tears as three conservatives elected as a slate in 2013 were recalled in a rout.

In Douglas County, six years of dominance by a boundary-pushing board finally showed cracks as three opponents broke through, forming a solid minority promising a more open and diverse board.

In the Loveland-based Thompson district, animus over a teacher contract dispute propelled union-backed candidates into power.

Elsewhere, a conservative attempt to take over a moderate board in Colorado Springs was repelled and one of two conservative reform candidates won seats in Aurora, sending a mixed message.

All the elections had their own quirks, players and storylines. But common themes bound them together, too, highlighted by reinvigorated teachers unions willing to invest money and energy combined with motivated and networked parents fed up with agendas they saw as dangerous overreaches.

“You can’t deny it was a setback for conservative reform at the school board level in Colorado,” said Ben DeGrow, a senior policy analyst with the libertarian Independence Institute, which fought the Jeffco recall and provided policy guidance in other districts. “The unions had their day. There’s no doubt about it.”

Where conservative reformers lost | Get the details about what happened in four districts — Jeffco, Dougco, Thompson and Colorado Springs 11 — at the center of Tuesday’s shift in school board politics here.

Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said the results reflect voter confidence in teachers and frustration with the status quo. Critics of the old boards in the Douglas, Jefferson and Thompson districts complained about divisiveness and a lack of openness.

“The public wants a high degree of trust and collaboration in their school districts,” Dallman said, “and I believe the outcome is a direct reflection that the public didn’t believe those two things existed.”

Dallman downplayed speculation that union involvement in some districts this year was sparked by fears that conservative boards would do away with local bargaining units. The Douglas board ousted its local non-CEA union, and the Thompson board has refused to approve a contract with its CEA affiliate.

“Our main priority was our students,” Dallman said. “For us this was never about Republicans versus Democrats, conservatives versus liberals, unions against reformers.”

Spending and messaging

Angst among teachers goes well beyond contract negotiations and bargaining units, however. In Colorado and elsewhere, teachers are feeling pressure from a drumbeat of reforms that include new standardized tests and tying their evaluations and pay to student performance.

“The (Colorado) vote may be a reflection of the deepening anger that teachers feel across the nation about high stakes testing regimes that treat educators more like factory workers than professionals,” said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a liberal think tank in Washington.

Ken Witt, the Jeffco board president who was ousted in the recall, attributed the conservative losses to the coordinated efforts of union forces worried about losing control. Witt said he believes voters are likely to support education reform efforts he and his colleagues back, but messaging was a problem.

Recall supporter Cecelia Lange waved signs at 52nd and Wadsworth Tuesday morning.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Recall supporter Cecelia Lange waved signs at 52nd and Wadsworth Tuesday morning.

“If you lose an election, then you didn’t reach enough people,” he said. “Reform lost a lot of elections (Tuesday) night. That means we’re not communicating well.”

Not surprisingly, that was not a sentiment held by architects of the Jefferson County recall. Lynea Hansen, a political consultant to recall organizers, framed Tuesday’s results as losses not for conservatives but for what she describes as corporate reform.

“Many conservatives voted for change last night, as well as unaffiliateds and Democrats,” Hansen said. “What I think we really saw were communities seeing the importance of school board elections, many for the first time, and taking an interest in making sure our public schools stay just that — public.”

As in all high-stakes local school board races these days, money poured in from all corners.

Campaign committees affiliated with CEA, plus local union committees, were heavily involved in funding candidates in the Jeffco, Thompson, Denver and Colorado Springs 11 districts. Dallman of the CEA said those spending decisions were driven by requests and recommendations from local union units.

At the same time, a loose network of conservative nonprofits including Americans for Prosperity and the Independence Institute raised and redistributed money through various political committees to rebuff the Jeffco recall and back candidates along the Front Range who support policies such as merit pay for teachers and charter school expansion.

The education reform community is not monolithic. But generally, conservative reformers support policies that give parents more choice between schools including district-run, charter and private schools; establish merit pay for teachers and weaken teachers unions.

‘That’s the whole point of being in a union’

In Aurora, the school board race featured new narratives and players in district education politics.

The campaigns for three seats in the academically struggling district featured two incumbents, two conservatives and involvement from reform groups on the right and left. When ballots were counted, the results were mixed — one of the conservative reformers prevailed and the two incumbents held on.

To ward off a perceived threat from two conservative candidates, the Aurora Education Association coordinated more directly with candidates it endorsed and spent more money on the 2015 election than it had in recent memory, said Amy Nichols, the union’s president.

“We’ve never had, in recent memory, a race this big for us,” she said. “We saw what happened in Douglas County, in Jeffco, in Thompson. And we just didn’t want those distractions here.”

The Aurora teachers union gave $1,500 to each of the three candidates it backed and later made a donation to an independent expenditure committee. Nichols said she didn’t immediately know how much was given to that committee, which won’t file its next finance report with the state until January.

Aurora school board candidates, from left, Monica Colbert, Billie Day, and Mike Donald took questions from parents at a candidate forum Thursday.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Aurora school board candidates, from left, Monica Colbert, Billie Day, and Mike Donald took questions from parents at a candidate forum Thursday.

Nichols challenged those who spotlighted unions’ stepped up spending and involvement.

“That’s the whole point of being a union,” she said. “Bottom line. I find it ironic. It’s like the pot calling the kettle black. You want to organize with your money … But you don’t want others to have the same opportunity?”

Former Republican state senator Josh Penry — a political consultant for Ready Colorado, a nonprofit that backed the two conservative board candidates — saw positives in the Aurora race compared to other more heated affairs in Jeffco or Dougco. He framed the debate over whether “sensible change” was needed.

Penry also pointed to heightened teachers union involvement as a key factor in Tuesday’s results.

“The unions to their political credit spent heavily and aggressively, more so than they have in the last several cycles,” Penry said. “That definitely tipped the scales in a number of places.’

The storyline was different in Denver, where Democratic-flavored education reform efforts were bolstered by Tuesday’s results. Although board president Happy Haynes faced an unexpectedly stern test, she held on and the balance of power on the board shifted from 6-1 to 7-0 favoring the district’s decade-old reforms.

A statement from Jen Walmer, head of Democrats for Education Reform in Colorado, illustrates how the term “reform” can mean vastly different things. After lauding the DPS result, Walmer went on to applaud “the defeat of ideologically driven school boards that voters rejected in favor of practical improvements.”

“As reformers dedicated to measurable high performance, accountability, transparency and choice for families in the best interest of their students, we must always protect and carry the mantle of true reform,” said Walmer, a former DPS chief of staff. “It is clear that some are using reform language to cloak their true desire to dismantle public education. A dialogue that is anti-teacher and not in the best interest of kids falls flat when held against true leaders working on behalf of students and equity.”

What kind of statement?

Opinions vary over how much to read into Tuesday’s results, and which conclusions to draw.

School board races tend to be low-information, low-turnout elections, so it’s generally unwise to use them as a barometer of public opinion on education policy, said Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder. But this week’s much-watched school board races are more likely to reflect broader sentiment, he said.

Of the success of the Jeffco recall, Welner said: “I don’t see that as signaling an overall shift in the state, but a moderating influence in a place that kind of jolted to the right very recently.”

Also uncertain is whether the results will slow the march of reform in suburban areas.

More affluent, higher performing suburban districts are in once sense ideal for experimenting because students there have more safety nets, so the risk is smaller and potential payoff larger, said Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies for the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

“But if you are dealing with suburban communities where families are deeply involved and schools are seen as pretty good, trying to do ambitious reforms can be a high-wire act,” Hess said. “It can be easy for critics to raise concerns.”

In the Thompson school district, this week’s election shifted control from a reform-driven majority to one supported by the teachers union by a super-majority of five seats to two.

Denise Montagu, an incumbent endorsed by the local union who previously was in the board minority, said conservative school reform candidates lost in Thompson and elsewhere because voters believed they were sold a bill of goods.

“I think the community wanted to give reform a try,” Montagu said. “‘Reform, doesn’t that sound beautiful?’ But when they learned that reform meant attorneys, disenfranchising our teachers and clearly not putting the students first … that’s not what they signed up for.”

​Chalkbeat Colorado reporter Melanie Asmar contributed information to this report.