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 or 303-478-4573.

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.