Colorado

Final tally for DPS school board races

Jaw-dropping amounts of money flowed into the 2009 Denver Public Schools’ board elections from would-be education reformers near and far while state and local labor unions united in a covert push to fight them.

Friday’s campaign filing deadline provides more details about what became a battle between those who want to shake up the city’s public schools – and those who’d like their change with a little less shaking.

But, as in years past, the final vote tallies showed neither big money nor union backing guaranteed a win.

Money matters – or not

Thomas W. Gamel, with little recent history of political activity but supportive of DPS reforms such as school autonomy, contributed a total of $237,558.84 to three candidates, giving $144,350 to at-large candidate Mary Seawell – or 60 percent of her total dollars raised. She beat her opponent Christopher Scott by taking 71 percent of the vote but the other recipients of Gamel’s largess did not fare as well.

Gamel contributed more than half of the $104,138.84 total raised by Vernon Jones in northeast Denver but Jones was defeated by Nate Easley, whose final tally was $41,470. In southwest Denver, Gamel’s $36,950 in donations helped push Ismael Garcia’s fund-raising total to $85,830. Garcia was defeated by Andrea Merida, who raised less than half that amount – or $30,116.

Three of Gamel’s associates at Rockmont Capital and Timpte Industries also contributed $75,000 to Seawell, Jones and Garcia, bringing total donations from Gamel & Co. to $312,558.84 for the 2009 DPS election. Still, Easley edged out Jones by 749 votes and Merida defeated Garcia by a razor-thin 116.

Similarly, in 2005, at-large candidate Jill Conrad raised $64,875.68 while her opponent, Brad Buchanan, raised more than double that, or $141,984.88. Conrad, who was endorsed by the teachers’ union, won the four-way race for the citywide seat with 46 percent of the vote to Buchanan’s 43 percent.

When labor unions unite

In 2005, Kim Ursetta, then the president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, said the union had never endorsed a losing candidate. That held true that year but fell flat in 2007 – union-backed candidates John McBride, Laurence Botnick and Raymond Gutierrez lost – and in 2009.

DCTA last fall endorsed Merida in southwest Denver and Easley in northeast Denver, both winners. But their pick for the citywide seat was Scott, who lost to Seawell.  Neither the DCTA nor Scott met the last campaign filing deadline so it’s unclear how much the union ultimately helped Scott, whose last report showed less than $20,000 in cash raised.

Five labor unions – the Colorado Education Association, its local affiliate DCTA, the American Federation of Teachers, the AFL-CIO and the United Food and Commercial Workers – contributed a total of $103,450 to help the three DCTA-backed candidates.

Merida received $22,000, the most of any single candidate and 73 percent of her fund-raising total. But the biggest chunk of union money went not to a candidate but to a 527 political organization formed a month before Election Day.

Creating a 527

The CEA and DCTA gave $54,000 to fund Coloradans for Accountable Reform in Education or CARE, registered with the state Oct. 9 by Erica Hynek, the sister of John Britz of the consulting firm Welchert & Britz. After Ed News reported on the 527,  Britz replaced his sister’s name with his own.

Andrea Merida

By then, the DCTA already had publicly endorsed their candidates. But creating a 527 allows a group to try to influence an election without immediately naming its own funders and without a candidate’s approval – in fact, a 527 is not supposed to coordinate activities with a candidate.

So why create one? 527s can be used to push negative ads without backfiring on a candidate. Welchert & Britz, who received $10,000 for consulting and $25,500 for campaign work under the name of their company Centennial Communications, crafted one mailing on Merida’s behalf that said kids can’t walk to school because charter schools “siphon tax dollars away from local neighborhood schools.”

Merida has said she knew nothing about CARE’s work, as have Easley and Scott. CARE was apparently behind a Denver Post advertisement for Scott though Britz has declined to comment. Scott’s campaign said they had nothing to do with the front-page stickers. CARE’s Friday filing, its first finance report, shows $8,200 for ads in the Post.

(Douglas County’s teachers’ union also created a 527 for the fall election. The American Federation of Teachers was the sole funder of Accountability for Kids, giving $48,480 to the group created Oct. 8. All four union-endorsed candidates lost and the 527 has since been deactivated.)

Money from near and far

Donors from New Hampshire to Oregon contributed to candidates or groups who supported them in the DPS election, reflecting the increasing national interest in the city’s schools.

Democrats for Education Reform, a New York-based political action committee, launched a Colorado branch last year and has brought in speakers such as New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein.

DFER, listing a Colorado address, gave $7,000 to Garcia’s campaign. Its national executive director, Joe Williams, gave $500 to Jones’ campaign, and six other New York-based investors contributed another $6,500 to his attempt to win a northeast Denver seat.

At least five of the six are DFER donors and several also have supported the campaign of Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, the former DPS superintendent. Four were named in a recent New York Times article about hedge fund managers raising money for that city’s charter schools.

Another national group, Stand for Children, also formed a Denver chapter last year, with a political committee that raised $19,684.83 in chunks from $75 to $500 from Stand members nationwide.

Stand for Children in Denver spent $16,237.22 in in-kind services, such as recruiting volunteers, on behalf of the three candidates its local members endorsed – Seawell, Jones and Garcia.

A record fund-raising total?

Final campaign filings, due after Election Day has passed and attention has shifted, can bring surprises in the names of last-minute donors and a late influx of cash.

Mary Seawell

That’s exemplified in recent years by the 2007 campaign of Arturo Jimenez, who raised $8,604.05 in his first finance reporting period, $12,050 in his second and $66,049.66 in his third, and final, period.

Jimenez, in a close race to represent northwest Denver, initially filed reports filled with $25 to $100 donations from parents and neighbors. His final report includes $15,000 donations from Bruce Benson and the Gary-Williams Energy Co., $10,000 from Larry Mizel and $7,500 from John Saeman.

Similarly in 2007, Theresa Peña raised $31,605 in her first reporting period, $70,950 in her second and $114,055 in her third. Peña’s donors include prominent Democrats such as Tim Gill and Pat Stryker.

But like Jimenez, her donors also include prominent Republicans – Benson, Mizel and Saeman – who tended to give more later in the election. One of her biggest contributions, $20,000, came Oct. 30 from Alex Cranberg, a Denver oilman who supported vouchers.

That pattern was less prominent this past fall, perhaps because Gamel so dominated the donors’ list early on. Benson, now the president of the University of Colorado, is no longer politically active. Cranberg did not contribute to any candidate.

Still, Gamel’s giving to Seawell likely helped set a record for the highest dollar amount given by a single donor. Seawell’s total funds raised also may be a record for a single campaign – though not by much. Peña, in running citywide in 2007 for her second term, raised a total of $216,610. Seawell’s total of $240,605 tops that by $23,995.

Nancy Mitchell can be reached at nmitchell@pebc.org or 303-478-4573.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede