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Five candidates are running for two open seats on the Jeffco school board, where they would help shape policy in a diverse school district facing declining enrollment, significant academic gaps, and long-term budget problems.
Since 2015, when voters recalled a conservative board, members backed by the teachers union have led the district. With just two open seats on the five-member board, that won’t change this year — but regardless of the outcome, the board will see new perspectives and approaches. Incumbents Stephanie Schooley and Susan Miller are not running for re-election.
Jeffco Public Schools, Colorado’s second largest school district, stretches from the Denver border to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and serves a mix of urban, suburban, and rural communities.
While the county largely votes Democratic in state and legislative races — a sharp contrast from 20 years ago — Jefferson County remains politically diverse and has seen heated school board meetings over masks, quarantines, and how teachers handle issues related to race and gender identity. There have also been wrenching decisions to close schools and questions of cost overruns in recent construction projects.
In District 3, currently represented by Schooley, engineer Michelle Applegate is running against college president Thomas Wicke.
In District 4, currently represented by Miller, engineer Amara Hildebrand, educator Erin Kenworthy, and advocate Joel Newton are seeking the seat.
Applegate and Kenworthy have the endorsement of the Jefferson County Educators Association, the teachers union, and fueled by contributions from political committees associated with the union, have raised the most money so far, with $18,600 and $21,800 in contributions respectively, according to campaign finance filings.
Wicke — who said he is proud not to have the endorsement of the teachers union — is close behind with almost $16,000 in contributions as of the most recent filing.
In addition to the teachers union, Jeffco could see outside spending from other independent issue committees. Often known as outside money or dark money because they don’t have to disclose their donors, these groups are legally barred from coordinating with candidates but often send mailers or make calls and texts in support or opposition.
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On Wednesday, Marge Klein, who often supports conservative candidates, registered an independent expenditure committee called Better Jeffco Schools, according to Secretary of State records.
Chalkbeat spoke with each of the five candidates. They all talked about the need to engage better with the community, ensure all voices are heard, and build trust between the community and the district. There were notable differences among the candidates as well.
The election is Nov. 7.
Here’s a closer look at who’s running:
District 3 includes portions of Wheat Ridge and Arvada and northern Lakewood and stretches northwest from the Denver border to the Gilpin County line.
Michelle Applegate is an engineer who has worked extensively in public policy and the mother of three children who attend Jeffco Public Schools. She described herself as a lifelong believer in public education who will bring a thoughtful approach to leadership. She’s served as PTA president at two elementary schools. As a parent, she’s experienced her child’s school being considered for closure (Stober Elementary was ultimately spared in 2017) and another child’s school working hard this year to accommodate children from a closed school.
“To me, this is one of the most important ways I can serve my community,” she said of serving on the school board. “I am invested in this district, I have been for many years, and I will be for as many years more.”
Applegate said her priorities would be ensuring thriving schools throughout the district, making sure safety is part of the student experience, and improving community trust through budget transparency.
She said she would work to improve the hiring and retention of high-quality educators and make sure schools have the resources they need. Helping the district navigate budget challenges and ensure there is money for teacher pay and classroom needs is part of that, she said.
After the Columbine massacre, Jeffco Public Schools invested heavily in the physical safety of school buildings and has generally been supportive of school resource officers. Applegate said the district needs to think about safety more broadly and find a balance that includes the right relationship with SROs and support for student mental health.
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Michelle Applegate is married to Robert Applegate, who ran unsuccessfully for school board in 2019. While Robert Applegate was endorsed by the now-inactive education reform group Jeffco Students First, Michelle Applegate is endorsed by the teachers union.
Thomas Wicke is the Aurora campus president for for-profit Concorde Career College, which trains students for health care careers. He’s also the parent of two graduates of Jeffco Public Schools and a high school freshman. His wife teaches at Drake Middle School, and he said he sees how teachers bring their work home — literally and emotionally — and how they aren’t always supported by administrators.
Wicke said he’s been watching past board meetings and believes board members could be more engaged in critical issues.
“I’ve learned that the school board, though highly important, does not control everything,” he said. “At the same time, they seem to be spending a ton of time talking about how the furniture should be arranged on the Titanic deck. I have to believe we can become a more involved and accountability-holding board.”
Wicke said his priorities would be improving academic achievement and addressing major fiscal challenges facing the district. He’s concerned that less than half of students meet academic expectations on state tests and said it’s time for new leadership after union-backed candidates have controlled the board for most of the last decade. At the same time, he said he doesn’t blame teachers and has gathered a teachers advisory board to give him input.
Wicke said his college is held to high standards by its accrediting body — required to ensure most graduates earn their professional licenses and secure jobs in their field — and he wants to see Jeffco schools held to similarly high standards based on student outcomes.
He said parents need more insight into what’s being taught in schools — ”not to mention the stuff you might lump into woke ideologies, which is a secondary point” — and that parent distrust of how teachers handle politically sensitive topics is contributing to lower enrollment, as parents with the means to do so enroll elsewhere.
District 4 includes Edgewater and central and southern Lakewood from roughly 32nd Street and Sheridan stretching southwest to Bear Creek Reservoir.
Amara Hildebrand said she’s running because she worries that public school no longer prepares most children for success in college or in the workforce.
“Kids are really not thriving,” she said. “Public school was a springboard for my success and I want every kid to be able to have that, to take their education and thrive in life.”
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Hildebrand is an engineer and the mother of a sixth and a ninth grader. Hildebrand removed her children from public school during virtual learning and enrolled them in Catholic school. Her daughter is back in public school now, while her son remains in private school.
Hildebrand said she’s concerned about low academic achievement and the fiscal health of the district. She described herself as fiscally-minded and said she enjoys working with budgets. She believes Jeffco has enough money to better support teachers and learning if less money were better managed. As a school board member, she said she would visit schools and talk to principals to learn what they need to be successful.
Now 4½ years sober, Hildebrand has experienced her own struggles with addiction and mental health, and she wants to focus more attention on student mental health. She blames online communication for degrading both civil discourse and mental health and even contributing to violence.
At the same time, Hildebrand said she doesn’t see a need for more counselors in schools. Instead, she thinks giving kids a greater sense of purpose with community service projects and hands-on learning, raising academic achievement, and reducing the time children spend online will improve their overall well-being.
Erin Kenworthy is a former public school teacher turned religious educator, and the parent of two Jeffco students, a first grader and a sixth grader. Kenworthy has served on school and district accountability committees, groups made up of appointed community members who provide oversight of public schools.
As a parent, Kenworthy said she has found Jeffco schools to be “incredibly supportive,” and she wants all students and families to have that experience.
While she’s now been out of the classroom longer than she was in it, Kenworthy said she still has a strong understanding of the gaps between theory and reality that classroom teachers must manage and the heavy burden teachers are carrying.
Kenworthy said the current superintendent has done a good job shifting more resources to the classroom and she wants to support and expand on those efforts. Kenworthy said she’s passionate about community engagement and hearing from parents who traditionally have been marginalized. She wants to make it easier for parents to participate in the accountability process.
And as a former social studies teacher, she wants to see more opportunities for students to express themselves and have agency in their learning.
“If there is anything we could focus on moving forward, we need to center voices that have generally been kept at the margins or denied a seat at the table,” she said.
Joel Newton is the father of two Jeffco students and a longtime education advocate. His experience founding and running the Edgewater Collective for the last 10 years shaped his decision to run. The organization works with families from Title I schools with high rates of poverty in the eastern part of the district near the Denver border. Newton saw students at those schools posting lower academic scores — and having access to far fewer resources, such as afterschool programming and advanced coursework.
The district’s overall demographics — whiter and more middle-class than neighboring Denver — obscure some significant gaps that affect students of color and those from low-income families, Newton said. Newton wants to push the district to do more to close those gaps.
“For the longest time, I thought the way to move the needle was to advocate from the outside,” he said. “The more I watch school board meetings, I think there needs to be someone at the board table who brings the perspective of Title I families, especially as school budgets are declining.”
Newton emphasized he doesn’t blame teachers — these are systemic problems that need to be solved at the district level, he said. Newton sought the teachers union endorsement but didn’t get it. While that was a disappointment, Newton said, he hopes the lack of endorsement gives him more ability to talk to people across the political spectrum and find consensus.
As he has traveled around the district as a candidate, Newton said he’s heard many LGBTQ students and students of color don’t feel safe or heard at school. He wants to bring more parents into conversations about education and work to find consensus and build trust. His top priority in that work, though, will be ensuring students feel safe at school — otherwise they can’t learn, he said.
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that Michelle Applegate’s husband is Robert Applegate, not Bob Applegate, and that Thomas Wicke is president at Concorde Career College, not Concordia.