Six candidates are running for three open school board seats in the 8,000-student Westminster district’s first contested board election in six years.
One incumbent, Christine Martinez, is running for reelection. Two others, board President Ken Cianco and Vice President Max Math, are term-limited and are not running. That means voters will elect at least two and possibly three newcomers to the five-member board in the Nov. 7 election.
Martinez has joined with candidates Audrey Yanos and Mary Beth Murphy to run as a slate that has the backing of the district’s teachers union. Generally, they say the district is headed in the right direction and should stay the course.
The other three candidates — Anthony Sisneros and husband-and-wife team Charles and Brenda Gallegos — are also running as a slate. They are seeking changes, including to improve student achievement and create more opportunities for parents to be heard and get involved.
Westminster’s board members are elected on an “at large” basis, which means candidates represent the whole school district, not one specific area. The top three vote-getters will win seats.
The board race comes at a time of transition for the suburban school district north of Denver, with longtime Superintendent Pamela Swanson set to leave her post at the end of the school year. It’s unclear if the current board will name a successor before the election or leave the decision to the new board.
Like many Colorado districts, Westminster is also facing declining enrollment as birth rates drop and pricey housing pushes more families outside the metro area. Between 2016 and 2021, the district lost more than 1,400 students — a 15% drop.
The League of Women Voters has tentatively scheduled a school board candidate forum at 7 p.m. Oct. 4 at Westminster Grange Hall, 3935 W. 73rd Ave. The district plans to livestream the event.
Here’s a closer look at the six candidates:
ABC for WPS Slate
Brenda Gallegos describes herself as a concerned parent, not a politician. She said it’s time for a school board with new voices and more debate. Currently, “I feel like we’re kind of spinning our tires in mud,” she said. “We have the same people. We have the same ideas.”
Gallegos, who works at a vision clinic, has three daughters and one son. Two of her daughters attend school in the district. Increasing school security is one of her priorities. She said she wants to have school resource officers placed at the district’s K-8 schools and to ensure more oversight of school hallways and gathering places by officers at the district’s high schools.
Like other members of her slate, Gallegos said she wants to ensure that the district listens to and involves parents. When one of her daughters struggled with reading in elementary school, she said Westminster educators dismissed her concerns, prompting her to move her daughter temporarily to the neighboring Jeffco district, where the girl was tested and given a special education plan.
As a Spanish speaker, Gallegos said she could serve as a liaison between the board and Spanish-speaking parents in the district.
“It takes a village,” she said. “Let’s use our village.”
Charles Gallegos said improving student achievement and increasing parent engagement are his main reasons for running for school board.
An optometrist and navy veteran, he graduated from Westminster High School and was the first in his family to attend college. He has three daughters and one son. Two of his daughters attend district schools.
He said he supports the district’s competency-based system, in which students master a topic before moving to the next one, but said too many students are still struggling.
“If you’re a parent and (you) Google performance, you’re going to see some scores that are really, really bad, frustratingly bad,” he said. “Why are there still so many students at the bottom?”
Gallegos said he wants to help build stronger parent teacher organizations throughout the district. Right now, he said it’s “hit and miss,” with robust PTAs at some schools and barely functioning groups at other schools.
Anthony Sisneros is making his second run for a school board seat, after a loss in 2011. He said if he’s elected, he’ll seek to ensure that students with disabilities get the same school choices as other students and will push for a national search to select the next superintendent.
A Westminster High School graduate, Sisneros is the assistant controller at the MSU Denver Foundation. He has three children, including a son with Down syndrome who was at the center of a complaint filed by the Sisneros family against the district after the boy was denied placement at the family’s preferred school. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights ruled in favor of the district in December 2022, but Sisneros said his family has appealed the decision. In the meantime, the son attends a private school.
“Through all these headaches of trying to find a school for my son, I could have easily put up a for sale sign and moved,” he said. “I’m here to fight for the kids and families that look like mine.”
Sisneros said that if he’s elected, he wants to close a policy loophole that he alleges has allowed a current board member who is an architect to receive lucrative district contracts. He described it as a conflict of interest.
District officials said the district has complied with board policies in awarding contracts to DAO Architecture, which board member Dan Orecchio owns. They also said Orecchio has recused himself from votes on contracts with his firm and filed a conflict of interest disclosure with the Colorado Secretary of State’s office saying that he planned to continue doing business with the district after his election.
MMY for WPS Slate
Christine Martinez, the incumbent, said she’s running again to continue the work begun during her first term, including helping the district recover from COVID and selecting a new superintendent. She said she’s proud of the board’s decision shortly after COVID hit to bring students back for in-person learning at the beginning of the 2020-21 school year.
The vice president of a local property management company, Martinez is a Westminster High School graduate, the daughter of two retired district teachers, and the mother of a seventh-grade son who attends school in the district.
Martinez said she wants to promote and share the many positive things that are going on in district schools. She cited a recent trip to South Korea by district high-schoolers participating in a “drone soccer” tournament, a NASA partnership with aerospace and film students, and the planned transformation of a former middle school into a career and technical education hub.
Martinez sees declining enrollment as the biggest challenge facing the district. She said it’s important to bring back students who have left and to recruit new ones as well.
Mary Beth Murphy is a retired teacher who said she’s not coming in with a specific agenda other than to ensure students get the best free public education possible.
“I’m not angry about anything,” she said. “I’m not running on a grievance campaign. I really believe in public education. That’s what I’ve dedicated my life to.”
Murphy is the director of the Central Adams UniServ Unit, an organization that supports four local teachers unions. She retired last year after more than 30 years in the Mapleton district, most recently as a math teacher. She has four adult children, two of whom attended schools in the Westminster district.
Shortfalls in school funding and teacher shortages are among the biggest challenges facing the Westminster district, she said.
Murphy said hasn’t thought much about the selection of a new superintendent, but said she hopes for someone who is a good leader and communicator, honest and upfront.
Audrey Yanos said as a Chicana who was the first in her family to finish high school and attend college, she represents the community.
“I know what path our students are walking in,” she said.
Yanos, an operations supervisor at a healthcare nonprofit, attended K-12 schools in the nearby Adams 12 and Adams 14 districts. She has three children in Westminster schools — one each in elementary, middle, and high school. She volunteered on a committee supporting a 2018 school district tax measure and has been active in the PTAs at her children’s schools.
”I love our school district,” she said. “We’ve had such positive experiences within our school district, and that’s at every level.”
If elected, she wants to continue educating the community about the district’s competency-based system, in which students are grouped by what content they’ve mastered, not necessarily by grade.
Yanos said the district is headed in the right direction and that its biggest challenge is the transition that will come with having a new superintendent.
Ann Schimke is a senior reporter at Chalkbeat, covering early childhood issues and early literacy. Contact Ann at email@example.com.