Ulcca Joshi Hansen drops out of Denver school board race, citing outsize role of outside spending

A woman in a green top leans against a tree.
Ulcca Joshi Hansen announced that she is dropping out of the Denver school board race. (Courtesy of Ulcca Joshi Hansen)

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Ulcca Joshi Hansen, one of five candidates running for an at-large seat on the Denver school board, announced this week that she’s dropping out of the race.

Hansen, who works in education philanthropy and has two children in Denver Public Schools, cited money and politics as the reason. For years, outside groups have spent far more in DPS school board races than the candidates themselves. Though it hasn’t always led to victory, it has made it harder for candidates not backed by outside groups to compete.

Hansen calls this type of spending “soft side spending.” It’s also referred to as outside spending or dark money, because the funders of the outside groups often remain secret. New limits passed by state lawmakers on the amount of money individual donors can give to school board candidates will make outside spending even more significant this election cycle.

“Last week, it became clear that I would not have that soft side support,” Hansen wrote in a letter announcing her decision. “After careful consideration and reflection, I’ve decided to withdraw from the current race.”

Three of the seven seats on the Denver school board are up for grabs Nov. 7. The election has the potential to shape the district’s approach to key issues such as school safety and to shift the dynamics of the board, which has been criticized as dysfunctional.

Last week, an organization called Denver Families Action endorsed former East High School Principal John Youngquist for an at-large seat representing the entire city, passing over Hansen and three other candidates in the race.

Denver Families Action is the political arm of Denver Families for Public Schools, which launched in 2021 with the backing of several local charter school networks. In Denver school board politics, support for independent charter schools and other education reform strategies is often a dividing line.

In the 2021 Denver school board election, outside groups that favor education reform spent more than $1 million to support a slate of candidates who wound up losing to candidates backed by the Denver and Colorado teachers unions, which spent less than half that amount.

The candidates themselves often raise and spend far less. In 2021, the top-spending Denver candidate was Scott Esserman, who spent $67,636 in his bid to win an at-large seat.

Hansen was among the top personal fundraisers so far in this year’s at-large race, according to campaign finance reports filed with the Colorado Secretary of State’s office on Aug. 1. As of that date, she’d raised more than $32,000. In her letter, she said she’d raised even more since then. Her total as of this week was $47,000 from more than 350 donors, she wrote.

But in her letter, Hansen said she expects soft side spending — which occurs through independent expenditure committees that are not allowed to coordinate directly with the candidates — will far outpace candidate spending. Endorsements are key to getting support from committees connected to both education reform and to the teachers unions. 

The Denver Classroom Teachers Association, which also contributes directly to candidates, has not yet endorsed anyone in the at-large race.

Hansen hinted in her letter that she’d run for school board again in 2025. Four of the seven seats will be up for grabs, including the seat representing the region where Hansen lives. That will likely be a less expensive race; candidates running to represent a specific region of the city often have to raise and spend less money than candidates running at large.

As for this year, Hansen said in an interview that she hopes whoever is elected refocuses the board’s attention on students. The current board, she said, “has gotten away from that.” 

“I’m hopeful that we get new board members, including in the at-large seat, who are willing to step up and be vocal leaders and advocates for the board to focus on the things that are about students and the experiences students have that allow them to succeed,” she said.

Melanie Asmar is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering Denver Public Schools. Contact Melanie at masmar@chalkbeat.org.

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