The Cure

Inside the frenzied push to chase every vote in a Colorado State Board of Education race

A test ballot run at the Denver Elections headquarters in October (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post).

At the office park suite that houses the Arapahoe County Democratic Party, the election goes on. Amid empty pizza boxes and stacks of yard signs, political operatives and volunteers gather to discuss how to convince a group of voters that their votes — which haven’t been counted — still matter.

Similar conversations and efforts are underway this week in Republican circles, spurred on by word of mouth on Facebook and with support from the state party.

The two parties are chasing every last ballot in what was an afterthought going into Election Day — the race for the State Board of Education seat representing the 6th Congressional District.

With Democrat Rebecca McClellan rallying past Republican incumbent Debora Scheffel to take a narrow lead, the parties are mobilizing efforts to contact voters whose ballots were not counted on Nov. 8 because of missing signatures, signatures that don’t match what’s on record or missing identification. (In Colorado, new voters are required to show ID when they register).

Clerks in the district’s three counties were required to mail letters to thousands of voters alerting them of the discrepancies along with printed affidavits they can email or fax back.

Party activists, in turn, are relying on public lists identifying those voters — and then targeting them with phone calls and door-knocks based on their party affiliation.

It’s an arduous task known as “ballot curing.” At stake is partisan control of the State Board of Education as it contemplates seeing through a new federal education law, reviewing the state’s academic standards and imposing sanctions on low-performing districts and schools.

The clock is ticking. By state law, voters with rejected ballots have until 11:59 p.m. Wednesday to return signed affidavits to their county clerks affirming that their ballots are valid.

“It really just goes to show that the race is not over till it’s over,” said Democratic communications specialist JoyAnn Ruscha, who was political director for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign in Colorado.

Parts of Arapahoe County account for a lion’s share of the electorate in the 6th Congressional District. Smaller slices of Douglas and Adams counties are also part of the district, which has a fairly even mix of Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters.

Scheffel took the lead in early returns, but McClellan kept gaining and overtook her rival on Friday by 959 votes, giving her 50.14 percent of the vote to Scheffel’s 49.86 percent. McClellan padded her lead Monday with more results from Adams County, giving her a 1,125-vote edge. More votes tallied Tuesday brought McClellan’s lead down to 1,062 votes over Scheffel.

Scheffel said Monday that the Republican effort to run down the remaining ballots “is really not centralized. People have offered to help and we’re trying to piece it together best we can.” She said the state GOP has provided volunteers and database assistance.

“We are certainly working hard to make sure every voter’s ballot gets counted,” said Scheffel, who has called voters herself. “It’s a challenge. Some people are, of course, following this closely and understand what is going on. Others may not be attuned to it.”

Scheffel said she welcomed the opportunity to put a greater spotlight on education issues, including data privacy concerns that have been a hallmark of her tenure on the board.

McClellan, a former Centennial City Council member, also welcomed another chance to bring home her biggest campaign talking point — that if elected, she would be the only state board member with a kid in public schools. (Her daughter graduated from Cherry Creek High School last year, and her son is a freshman there now).

“We all want to see when we cast our vote that our vote makes a difference. And collectively, it does,” McClellan said. “But it’s pretty rare for a voter to have their individual vote make a difference. With the vote coming down to such a tiny margin, it makes every last vote that comes in before the deadline a really powerful vote.”

All three counties have finished counting ballots cast by mail or in person that machines didn’t reject. That leaves provisional ballots, military and overseas ballots, and the ballots set aside for some sort of irregularity. Here’s what we know about the votes still out there:

ARAPAHOE COUNTY: Elections officials flagged 2,814 ballots that were not counted because of signature issues and other problems. (Note: Not all of those voters had the McClellan-Scheffel race on the ballot because portions of Arapahoe County are in not in that congressional district).

So far, 564 of those ballots have been processed and are included in the reported results, county spokeswoman Haley McKean said. Another 455 provisional ballots remain to be verified and tabulated. Although provisional ballots must be verified and counted by the 14th day after Election Day — Nov. 22, in this case — the county is processing these ballots now and hopes to finish them by Friday, McKean said.

The county mailed 3,233 military and overseas ballots and as of Friday received back 2,637, which have been counted. That leaves 596 more, and Wednesday is the deadline for the county to receive them. McKean said the county will likely next update its vote tally at noon Friday.

Given that Arapahoe County is key to the outcome of the race, that vote dump could decide it.

DOUGLAS COUNTY: About 3,000 ballots were set aside for irregularities in the Republican stronghold, officials said. However, Douglas County is a relatively small piece of the pie here, with Highlands Ranch and a couple of Parker precincts the only parts of the county in the 6th Congressional District.

Also, Democrats opposed to the conservative majority on the Douglas County school board are a motivated bunch, making this less of a slam-dunk for Republicans than in the past.

As of Monday, an additional 186 provisional ballots and 130 overseas/military ballots had yet to be processed, county officials said. Under state statute, provisional ballots can’t be counted until the deadline has passed for “curing” ballots set aside for irregularities.

ADAMS COUNTY: The county set aside about 3,200 rejected ballots for signature, ID and other issues — so all those votes are up for grabs at the moment. Although the county leans Democratic, Scheffel is beating McClellan there. However, Adams County also has voters living in three different congressional districts, so there are not a ton of votes to chase.

The county has been including irregular ballots that have been found to be valid and overseas/military ballots in its counts made public so far.

Activists are focusing on rejected ballots because that’s where they can make an impact.

Kanda Calef said she wasn’t tracking the state board race closely until she heard about the closeness and importance of the contest. A member of the El Paso County Republican Party executive committee, Calef said the GOP is emphasizing to voters the importance of standing up to “an out-of-state special interest group” trying to influence the lives of Colorado kids.

She is referring to the roughly $150,000 reported spent supporting McClellan’s bid by a political action committee tied to Democrats for Education Reform.

“It’s a tough job,” Calef said of convincing voters to act at this point. “People have to cold-call. And it’s weird for most people who get these calls. They say, ‘What are you talking about?’”

Democrats have a different message to sell — that after the misery of seeing Donald Trump win the presidency, Democrats can win control of a governing board long controlled by the GOP.

“I saw so many people after the election obviously very sad, and I saw folks that had come into the party (during the election) that are newer, as far as activism,” said Ruscha, the Sanders delegate. Many young Democrats are “activated and inspired,” she said.

“It’s not just saving a seat but it’s taking a seat,” Ruscha said. “A lot of us felt activated in that we understand the importance of public education, but also the importance of anti-bullying initiatives, of culturally responsive education. There are a lot of important issues.”

Jen Walmer, Colorado state director for Democrats for Education Reform, said Tuesday that efforts to cure ballots are not about one candidate, but about votes.

“We’re thrilled Democrats across the state are volunteering to ensure every Democratic ballot was counted,” she said.

Democrats’ goal is simple: to maintain McClellan’s edge and keep the race out of automatic recount territory. For that to happen, under state law, the difference between the candidates must be less than or equal to one-half of 1 percent of the winner’s total vote count.

A steady stream of volunteers flowed into Arapahoe County Democratic headquarters in Aurora all weekend. A room was reserved for training. Phones buzzed. A guy in a Colorado College T-shirt wondered aloud whether Bernie Sanders would have made a difference.

David Sabados, chairman of the Colorado Young Democrats, was directing traffic. He wasn’t too eager to share much with a reporter about the mobilization of activists around what had been an under-the-radar race that was the very definition of “down ballot.” He didn’t want to give Republicans an edge, he explained, in the battle to make every vote count.

In any case, volunteers don’t mention the state board race to voters whose ballots have been flagged for problems, said Sabados, a campaign consultant who mounted an unsuccessful bid last year to become chairman of the state Democratic party.

“Honestly, everyone has their own approach to what they say,” he said. “But generally, we lead with, ‘My name’s Dave. I’m here with the Democratic Party. Did you receive a letter from the county clerk saying there was a problem with your ballot? I am happy to help you fix that.’”

Building Plans

Bond defeat in Jefferson County puts Alameda school renovations on hold — again

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
Students move through the crowded cafeteria at Alameda International Junior/Senior High School in Lakewood.

Of all the Jefferson County schools pinning their hopes on the district’s bond and tax measures on the November ballot, few had as much to gain — or lose — as Alameda International.

The cafeteria is so cramped, the school spreads lunch over four periods and some students stand or sit in the hallways to eat. The gym locker rooms don’t have enough lockers. The school is lacking appropriate space to add career classes and teachers are forced to share classrooms.

When voters turned down the $535 million bond request this year for Jeffco Public Schools, Alameda International lost out on getting fixes to those problems as part of a $20 million renovation at the school that has been on hold since at least 2008. The district described the work that the bond would have covered as fulfilling a “past promise.”

Now the principal, Susie Van Scoyk, worries that some of the momentum of the school’s improvements from the last seven years will slow and that retaining teachers at the high-needs school will become more difficult.

The defeat stings more because the school is changing. Last year Alameda International expanded from being a stand-alone high school to including middle school grades.

“Our building isn’t built for younger students,” Van Scoyk said. “Middle school students have different developmental and social needs.”

Jeffco is working on updating plans following the failure of the district’s two tax requests — the bond and a smaller tax increase known as a mill levy override. Van Scoyk said she will continue to be a loud proponent for her school’s needs.

“I believe the students here deserve the same type of facility other students have,” Van Scoyk said. “But we will do the very best with what we do have.”

Alameda International, a school on Jeffco’s eastern boundary with Denver, currently has more than 1,200 students. More than 80 percent qualify for free or reduced priced lunch — a measure of poverty — and about 22 percent are learning English as a second language. It’s a different population from the suburban district’s average school.

“This is really more of an urban school, with the needs of an urban school,” Van Scoyk said. “I can’t go to my PTA and say ‘Hey, we really need to or want to buy new science textbooks or we want to get laptops, or iPads.’ We just don’t have that capacity here.”

The school’s preliminary state ratings this year show Alameda’s high school grades moved up to the performance category for the first time in more than five years. In part, the rating is likely influenced by the school’s rising graduation rate. In 2015, the state recorded Alameda’s graduation rate at more than 92 percent, up from about 71 percent in 2010.

“The students and staff really have been remarkable,” Van Scoyk said.

But lately she says she’s had countless conversations with younger teachers who say they can’t afford to stay in Jeffco if they can make more in neighboring districts. The district’s mill levy override — a second property tax request that voters turned down — would have maintained and possibly increased teacher salaries.

“I want to keep the really good teachers we have here,” Van Scoyk said. “We know what makes a difference for a child is a high-quality teacher.”

Jeffco’s school board members voiced the same sentiment at a recent board meeting discussing with staff what should be prioritized as the district figures out what cuts might be necessary following the defeat of the tax requests. Many said that teacher retention should be prioritized with what money the district has.

Looking back, forward

Alameda’s school building on South Wadsworth Boulevard has been expanded many times since it was built in 1961 to try to accommodate more students, but some original shared spaces like the lunchroom and the gym locker rooms haven’t kept up.

The school has two gyms, but the locker rooms don’t have enough lockers for students. Teachers require students to change for physical education classes, but assistant principal Williams said they can’t penalize students since many don’t have a place to store a change of clothes.

Outside the building, school leaders would like more open space for the middle school student’s activities. Right now, most middle school students play on an open space behind the tennis courts, but between the building’s additions, the bleachers and the tennis courts, the area isn’t easily visible to the staff watching the students, so it takes more adults to be outside watching kids around each corner.

Inside, staff and administrators closely monitor their radios because the school’s announcement system is old and doesn’t work in the cafeteria. If something else is being broadcast through the speakers in the school’s auditorium, the announcements won’t be heard in there either. That presents a safety issue if something has to be communicated in an emergency, such as an evacuation.

Some of those issues were expected to be fixed as part of the phase two renovations that would have been paid for by the district’s bond. The work was put on hold when voters in 2008 rejected the school district’s tax measures that year, too.

In 2012, voters did approve a $99 million bond request, but the smaller amount covered more immediate deferred maintenance across the district, not big renovation projects.

Alameda’s turnaround efforts started seven years ago centered on the rigorous International Baccalaureate classes. Two years ago school leaders started expanding on the program by offering the IB program’s career classes too.

It started with health career classes. Students in the career pathway can graduate with a certificate in bilingual medical terminology giving them the chance to work in medical offices as translators who are proficient in language and the context.

Students also asked for an arts career option and one for STEM careers, representing those in science, technology, engineering and math. The arts classes just started this year. The STEM classes are now on hold. School leaders said they were hoping to use bond money to build or retrofit classrooms for engineering courses.

“To have a STEM pathway, we don’t have the type of facility and equipment that some of our neighboring schools have,” Van Scoyk said.

If the bond had passed this year, the renovation of the building also would have likely addressed the building’s layout that is causing stress on the new seventh through 12th grade model.

School leaders are juggling schedules and class locations to keep younger students away from older students. Although the building can house more students, keeping kids in separate parts of the school by grade level means space is short in some places where it can be enough in others. Williams, in charge of the master schedule, has three white boards in his office that help him track what teachers are in what classroom at what time.

It’s not ideal, but school leaders say they are managing for now.

“Kids keep coming everyday,” Van Scoyk said. “They have to be our focus.”

Facing the Unknown

What Trump’s election means for undocumented educators

PHOTO: Agatha Bacelar/Emerson Collective
Marissa Molina teaching last year at DSST: Green Valley Ranch High School.

For three Denver educators, life in Donald Trump’s America is a big unknown.

They worry the president-elect will erase the protections that allowed them, as undocumented immigrants brought here as children, to step out of the shadows and into the classroom. All three were inspired to teach by the teachers who helped them succeed in a new country.

Marissa Molina came to the United States from Mexico when she was 9. Before her first day of school, her uncle armed her with the phrase, “I don’t speak English.” The librarian read Clifford the Big Red Dog with her after school to help her learn the language.

Alejandro Fuentes left his native Chile when he was 4 to join his mother in the United States. When he repeated for her the first sentence his teachers taught him to say in English — “My name is Alex and I like to learn” — she cried.

Carlos Ruiz’s mother brought him to the United States when he was 6 to give him a better shot at graduating high school and going to college, which she hadn’t been able to do in Mexico.

When Ruiz was in 11th grade, she gave a speech about what it meant for her and her son to be undocumented. A local college president was in the audience. Afterward, he gave her his card and offered to help. Ruiz said he never would have been able to afford college otherwise.

“It wasn’t until the middle of college that I realized not everybody’s parent gives a speech and the president of a university happens to be there,” Ruiz said. “That’s when I realized wanted to go into education so I could open the doors for other students.”

Ruiz, Fuentes and Molina became teachers through Teach for America, a national organization that recruits college graduates to teach in low-income schools. Starting in December 2013, the organization began deliberately seeking out graduates granted work permits and exemption from deportation through President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy.

Known as DACA, it was created by executive action in 2012 to give protections, but not citizenship, for two years at a time to undocumented immigrants who came here as children.

Trump has said he plans to reverse Obama’s executive actions, including DACA.

If that happens, the nearly 750,000 young immigrants shielded by DACA would be forced into the underground economy. Ruiz, Fuentes and Molina could no longer work in public schools.

“Teachers have such a huge potential for change and being positive … influences on students,” Fuentes said. “The fact that would not be something I could do deeply saddens me.”

We spoke with all three educators, who are in their early- to mid-twenties, about their lives and careers — and how a presidential election in which they weren’t allowed to vote could profoundly alter them.

•••

Marissa Molina grew up in Glenwood Springs on Colorado’s Western Slope. Her family, fearful of the repercussions, instructed her never to speak about her immigration status.

“That created a lot of shame for me,” she said. “My story and my struggles, instead of being something I was proud to overcome, really was just a sense of embarrassment.”

Marissa Molina. (Photo courtesy Marissa Molina)
Marissa Molina. (Photo courtesy Marissa Molina)

It wasn’t until her senior year of high school, when she was working with her school counselor on scholarship applications, that she admitted to not having a Social Security number.

“Instead of making me feel like a terrible person, he was like, ‘Let’s get to work. Let’s figure out how you’re going to get to college,’” she remembers. “That sense of empowerment he gave me to advocate for myself was something I had never felt before.”

Molina ended up enrolling at Fort Lewis College in Durango as an international student, but paying tuition was a struggle. She cleaned houses with her mom and tutored fellow students in Spanish to help her parents with the bill. But by her junior year, their resources were tapped.

“I remember having serious conversations with my parents: ‘I’m not going to do this anymore, I don’t want to live this lie. What does it mean if they give me a piece of paper that I graduated and then I can’t use it?’” she said. She told them she was thinking of going back to Mexico.

Her mother begged her to have faith. That summer, Obama announced DACA. One of Molina’s friends called to tell her about it. “I will never forget because I was cleaning windows with my mom and saying, ‘You were right. I just had to have a little bit of faith,’” she said.

Molina applied right away and then secured a scholarship to help pay for her senior year. As she was deciding what to do after graduation, she came across Teach for America, which had placed its first two “DACAmented” teachers in Denver. Though she had majored in political science and economics — not education — Molina felt called to give back.

“This was a way to say, ‘Thank you for what you’ve done for me. Let me pay it forward by helping other kids achieve,’” she said.

Last school year, Molina taught Spanish at DSST: Green Valley Ranch High School, a charter school in far northeast Denver. While the student body was more than 50 percent Latino, Molina said she was the only Latina teacher. That made a difference to her students, she said.

One comment in particular stuck with her.

“The student said, ‘This is the first time in a classroom where I can have a conversation about race and immigration without feeling sick to my stomach. … Listening to her tell us her struggle as a Latina woman helps me understand how I can do it,’” Molina recalled.

This year, Molina is the community engagement coordinator at Rocky Mountain Prep, which has three charter schools in Denver and Aurora. In that role, she helps families — the majority of whom are Spanish-speaking — advocate for their children.

Molina said she followed the presidential election closely and even knocked doors for Hillary Clinton. Trump’s win, she said, was painful. “When I woke up Wednesday morning, it was hard not to feel that all of the people who voted for him had directly voted against me,” she said. “It was a lot of reminding myself that’s not necessarily the truth.”

Whatever happens with DACA, Molina said she’s confident she’ll be OK because the education she received in the United States opens doors for her here and abroad.

And frankly, she said, living with fear and anxiety is nothing new for her and millions of other undocumented immigrants. The difference now, she said, is that she’s willing to share her story. And because of that, Molina said she received several texts after Election Day from people pledging to stand with her. One of them was from a former student.

It read, in part, “You’ve never given up on yourself and never given up on your community. You’re a remarkable role model in my life,” Molina said. That, she said, was a call to action.

“I taught 120 young kids who are looking to me and saying, ‘Now what?’” Molina said. “I want to be able to show them it is possible to stand up for what you believe without hating other people.”

•••

Alejandro Fuentes spent his childhood in California. His mother and stepfather worked low-paying jobs and his family moved around a lot. In third grade, he went to seven different elementary schools.

Because he’d been identified as “gifted and talented,” he recalls that teachers were always pulling for him. For sixth grade, he was encouraged to apply to The Preuss School, a highly-rated San Diego charter school for low-income students.

Alejandro Fuentes. (Photo courtesy Alejandro Fuentes)
Alejandro Fuentes. (Photo courtesy Alejandro Fuentes)

His first two years there, Fuentes said he was the class clown. Then, when he was in eighth grade, his family was evicted from their home. It was a personal blow for Fuentes, but his advisory teacher took him under her wing, encouraging him to focus on school.

Although she didn’t share his experience, Ruiz said she showed him great empathy. “She was consistently there,” he said. “It helped to have somebody who seemed to care.”

School became Fuentes’s refuge. He’d leave his house at 6:30 a.m. and not get home until 7:30 p.m. He became a straight-A student involved in myriad after-school activities: National Honors Society, robotics club, lacrosse and cross country.

Though he knew he didn’t have papers or a Social Security number, he didn’t realize what that meant until it came time to apply to college. Again, his advisory teacher was there to help. He ended up going to Whitman College in Washington state on a full-ride scholarship.

He majored in psychology but in his senior year, he began to wonder if it was worth it. Facing life without a work permit, Fuentes had resigned himself to the fact that he’d probably graduate and return to California to work construction alongside his stepfather.

“I felt kind of hopeless because I knew how much my dad was getting underpaid because people know he’s undocumented,” he said.

What he really wanted to do was become a teacher. Teach for America had come to his college on a recruiting trip and Fuentes was intrigued by the idea of changing young people’s lives the way his advisory teacher had changed his.

But that was before DACA, and the organization had never had an undocumented teacher. He remembers being told, “we’re not sure we can take you, but please apply.”

Shortly thereafter, Obama announced the policy. Teach for America accepted Fuentes and placed him at DCIS at Ford, an elementary school in far northeast Denver. In the fall of 2013, Denver was the only city in the country that had agreed to take DACA teachers.

His first ever day of teaching, he shared his story with his students. “I found this quote … ‘Everything is hard before it’s easy.’ I relate it to that quote,” Fuentes says. He tells his students that if they believe they can overcome their obstacles, they will.

Now in his fourth year as a teacher in Denver, Fuentes recently accepted a new job teaching sixth-grade math at KIPP Montbello College Prep middle school. The day after the election, he said he showed up to school with tears in his eyes.

“At the beginning of every class, students were coming up to me and asking if anything was wrong,” he said. “So I figured it was as good a time as any to tell them my story, my fears of losing my job and not being able to stand in front of them and be the teacher I want to be.”

Fuentes said he worries about no longer being able to financially support his parents — he makes more than both of them combined — and about deportation.

On the one hand, Fuentes said he felt uncomfortable sharing his burden with his students. But on the other, he said he was comforted by their words. “It was a lot of, ‘Don’t worry, Mr. Fuentes. We won’t let anybody take you,’” he said.

Fuentes is struggling with what he would do if DACA were repealed. Would it be better to go into hiding? Or to continue speaking out? He said he’s leaning toward the latter.

“We tell our students that if you’re working hard enough and doing the best you possibly can and showing to everyone who you are and what you stand for, life could eventually work out for you,” he said. “And so I guess I’m trying to be an example of that advice I’ve given to my students: Put yourself out there and people will support you.”

•••

As a high school student in Tennessee, Carlos Ruiz wasn’t motivated. He had poor grades and a low ACT score. Knowing that he was undocumented, “I didn’t see the point of it,” he said.

When DACA was announced his freshman year at Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville, he said it changed his whole outlook. Ruiz applied the very first day possible.

“DACA was an avenue for me to work hard and do what I wanted with that,” he said. “It made me feel in control and empowered.”

Carlos Ruiz. (Photo courtesy Carlos Ruiz)
Carlos Ruiz. (Photo courtesy Carlos Ruiz)

A history major, Ruiz decided he wanted to become a teacher. He said he hoped to convince teenagers who felt as hopeless as he had to stay the course. “You don’t know what’s going to change, you don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said.

He applied to Teach for America and was placed at an elementary school in Denver. Realizing his passion lie in working with high school students, Ruiz left the organization. This year, he’s a Spanish teacher at STRIVE Prep Excel, a charter high school in the northwest part of the city.

His students, the majority of whom are Latino, know his story. Ruiz said it’s a point of solidarity: Even though most of them were born here and are citizens, many have undocumented friends or family members. The day after the election was difficult, he said.

“There was a lot of anxiety in the building,” Ruiz said. But, he added, “as the day went on, I felt better and continue to feel better. I grew up without DACA. DACA is a relatively new development. It’s hard having tasted freedom and knowing it might be taken away. But you have to look at it like, whatever happens, I will be OK.”

Ruiz said he’d be lying if he said he hadn’t searched job websites in Mexico, a country he hasn’t stepped foot in since he was a child. But being undocumented and growing up surrounded by uncertainty about his future has taught him to focus on what he can control and not dwell on the rest — a lesson he hopes to pass on to his students.

“That’s the mentality I’ve reverted to: Hope for the best. Keep on staying level-headed for myself and for my students. And continue to speak about it in an educated way because I sincerely believe that when people hear our stories, they will be supportive and change will come.”