Douglas County’s politically charged, voucher-driven school board election explained

On a recent Thursday evening, the eight candidates running for a seat on the Douglas County school board gathered on the same stage for the last time before the suburban Denver electorate decides on Nov. 7 which path Colorado’s third largest school district will take.

On one side of the stage, seated in plush leather arm chairs, were the candidates known as the “Elevate Douglas County” slate. The group, backed by the county’s Republican Party and an independent political committee with high-profile donors such as businessmen Ed McVaney and Pete Coors, has promised to keep the philosophical vision of the current school board’s leadership alive, albeit with tweaks and a greater focus on community participation.

“We need to have a better conversation,” said Grant Nelson, a commercial real estate developer running to represent the areas of Castle Pines and Lone Tree. “We need to listen to one another.”

On the other side of the stage were their opponents, the “CommUnity Matters” slate. The four candidates, backed by a coalition of politically active parents and another independent political committee financed by the nation’s second largest teachers union, have promised to slow down or roll back many of the policy shifts the current school board has put in place during the last eight years.

“Our schools, teachers and students have faced unnecessary challenges,” said Krista Holtzmann, a lawyer running to represent northern Parker. “There are 68,000 students who need and deserve an advocate.”

Before the candidates could engage, one of the moderators explained the rules.

Passions are running high, said Jonathan Fung, one of the event’s organizers. Disruptions — applause, flash photography, anything to throw the candidates off — won’t be tolerated.

“We might ask you to leave,” he said.

So, how does a school board election in one of the nation’s wealthiest counties — the average household income is $109,292 — turn into a political melee involving soccer moms, the state’s political donor class and national interest groups?

The short answer is: private school vouchers. The long answer is more complicated.

It all started in 2009, with the election of a group of four candidates who had the unusual backing of the Douglas County Republican Party.

School board races in Colorado — and most other states — are nonpartisan. So when the county Republican Party inserted itself into the election, it raised eyebrows. At the time, the county chairman said his effort to influence the election was in direct response to the involvement of the county’s teachers union. Unlike political parties, teachers unions have a long history of participation in school board elections, as well as, at least nationally, an alignment with the Democratic Party.

Members of the CommUnity Matters slate from left, Krista Holtzmann, Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor, and Kevin Leung. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

“When you take money from unions in Douglas County, you can expect to hear from the Republican Party,” said John Ransom, then chairman of the Douglas County Republican Central Committee. Douglas County is a traditionally Republican stronghold in the Denver-metro area, with Republican voters outnumbering Democrats more than two-to-one.

The four candidates backed by the GOP, who ran on a platform of expanding the district’s charter school options and financial transparency, went on to win the election with more than 56 percent of the vote. What’s more, it was the highest off-year election turnaround in memory. The number of voters who cast a ballot in 2009 — 43,598 — was more than double that in 2007.

The board, which now had no registered Democrat, made several high profile moves within its first few years.

Its first move in 2010 was hiring Liz Fagen, an Arizona educator with little experience running a school district the size of the 67,000-student Douglas County. But the school board was won over by the then-35-year-old’s energy and attention to results.

Fagen quickly became a polarizing figure in the district, in part because she was carrying out the board’s agenda, which had stirred up a spirited resistance.

Another high-profile move by the school board in those early years included ending the collective bargaining agreement with the district’s teachers union. The board replaced the traditional salary schedule based on time served and education with a “market-based” system that paid teachers more in hard-to-staff subjects, such as high school math, than in popular subjects, such as history.

The board’s most controversial decision was creating a school voucher program, which is still tied up in courts today and is seen by many as the central tension in this year’s election.

In 2011 the board rolled out a new school choice system, which included a voucher program that would have allowed 500 Douglas County families to use tax dollars to attend participating private schools approved by the district.

Thirty-four private schools applied to participate in the voucher program. The school district approved 23 of those schools. Of the 23, 14 were located outside Douglas County and 16 taught religious doctrine.

The voucher program was modeled after other programs across the nation that have prevailed in court. But that didn’t matter. Before the program could launch, a Denver district court judge put a hold on it.

In 2015, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled the system was unconstitutional. The court said Colorado’s constitution prohibits tax dollars from being spent for religious purposes. The district and a group of parents whose children enrolled in the voucher program appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 2017 asked the state court to reconsider its decision in light of a similar decision known as Trinity Lutheran v. Comer.

Randy Mills, a member of the Elevate slate, addresses a crowd of Douglas County voters at a candidate forum. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

The state Supreme Court is expected to take up the case again later this winter.

That’s what makes this election so crucial to supporters and opponents of the voucher program — both in Douglas County and across the nation. If the Elevate slate wins, the district will continue to defend the program, likely all the way back to the U.S. Supreme Court.

A win for the Douglas County voucher program at the U.S. Supreme Court would set a national precedent, and likely strike down so-called Blaine Amendments in dozens of state constitutions. The amendments prohibit states from funding religious programs, including schools. It would clear the way for voucher programs, which are rare, to spring up across the U.S.

If the Community slate wins, they’ll surely end the lawsuit — and along with it the voucher program all together. That would be a major setback for the conservative education reform movement.

The debate over voucher programs is often philosophical and personal.

Vouchers supporters generally believe a couple of things. First, that vouchers empower parents to make better educational decisions for their students. And that vouchers — which are usually provided to students from low-income homes — offer an alternative to a public school that might not be providing the best education to all students. (Household Income was not a factor in the Douglas County voucher program.)

There is sometimes also a religious component: Parents believe they have a First Amendment right to use their tax dollars to educate students into a particular doctrine.

Opponents argue that vouchers are an attack on public schools and that siphoning off tax dollars from schools hurts more children than benefits a few. They believe the schools that lose the most funding are then the schools that need more financial resources, not less. Opponents believe that public schools should meet the needs of all students and their families. And that public schools are often the heartbeat of a community and a cornerstone of American democracy.

In case you were wondering whether vouchers make an educational difference for students, the research is mixed.

Here’s a close look that Chalkbeat published earlier this year.

There are a few other big issues the Douglas County school district is facing. Here’s a quick rundown and an idea of where each slate stands on the issues.

The first major decision the new look school board will need to confront is naming a permanent superintendent. After the Republican bloc on the board lost three seats in 2015 (while still maintaining the leadership), Fagen left the district. The board named Erin Kane, who helped found the American Academy charter school, as interim superintendent.

Both slates agree that Kane has done a tremendous job in calming some of the tensions between teachers, charter school leaders and parents. The Elevate slate is ready to name her the district’s permanent leader, but the Community slate wants a national search, though they would encourage Kane to apply.

Both sides agree that the district’s pay system for teachers needs an overhaul. The Elevate slate has forcefully denounced the district’s neutered teachers union and said they would not reinstate collective bargaining. The Community slate has stopped short of saying they would invite the union back to the negotiation table, but have signalled that they would follow the lead of district teachers.

Like most Colorado school districts, Douglas County’s budget is tight while new needs are emerging. Critics of the district worry that teachers aren’t being paid enough. Its school buildings are old, and hundreds of millions of dollars in capital needs have been identified.

One possible remedy is to ask residents for a tax increase. That’s something the current conservative majority has declined to do. The Elevate slate has not ruled out the possibility of asking voters for an increase, but the group has said that it must first win the trust of the public. The Community slate is in favor of asking voters for an increase.

To learn more about the candidates’ positions read our survey here.

Update: This article has been updated to clarify that household income was not a factor in the Douglas County voucher program.