Some candidates early in this Denver Public Schools board elections season are racing to distance themselves from a five-letter word that already has surfaced frequently.

That word is  “S-L-A-T-E.”

It made one of its first appearances last month in connection with a fund-raising event benefiting three candidates for the DPS board: Happy Haynes, campaigning at-large, Anne Rowe, running in southeast Denver’s District 1, and Jennifer Draper Carson, a candidate in northwest Denver’s District 5.

Invitation to the June 13 fundrasier

A flier publicizing the June 13 event at the Denver home of Kristin and Blair Richardson solicited contributions to those three candidates’ campaigns.

An accompanying e-mail from the Richardsons urged, “Please consider supporting the slate of candidates that have pledged to continue the nationally recognized reform movement that Denver has achieved.”

Kristin Richardson is the board chair for the Denver Public Schools Foundation, which also includes DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg as an ex-officio board member.

A contribution form attached to the Richardsons’ invitation solicited donations to Carson, Haynes and Rowe. It said that checks, made out to candidates individually, could be hand-delivered at the event, or mailed to the attention of “DPS Candidates” to a Denver address which is that of Executives Partnering to Invest in Children (EPIC), a coalition of business leaders, non-profits and foundations advocating for the advancement of the early childhood system in Colorado.

EPIC’s executive committee includes Janice Sinden, named last week as Mayor-elect Michael Hancock’s chief of staff. Its “CEO roundtable” includes Oakwood Homes boss and Colorado Concern board member Pat Hamill. Sinden and Hamill were both listed as co-hosts of the June 13 fundraiser.

Slate “a poor choice of words”

Kristin Richardson said last Friday she was surprised the word “slate” was in her email, and called it “I guess a poor choice of words.”

“They’re not a slate,” said Richardson. “The only reason I hosted a fundraiser for all three is that I was going to be gone all summer, and it was just more efficient.

“They are just people who, I’ve listened to their platforms, and I agree with their positions on education. I am very supportive of Tom Boasberg and the Denver Plan. I just take the time to listen to what the candidates are about, and I like those three.”

Contacted in recent days, each of the candidates promoted by the Richardsons’ event – or the candidates’ campaign managers – also disavowed the notion that they constitute a “slate.”

“I don’t perceive, and I don’t think either of the other two, perceive us as a slate,” said Haynes, a former president of the Denver City Council, who resigned as chief community engagement officer for DPS in May to focus on her campaign.

Carson’s campaign manager, Greta Twombly, said, “Jennifer is not part of any slate.”

Anne Bye Rowe
Anne Bye Rowe

Rowe said she only became aware the word “slate” was being used in connection with the June 13 fundraiser after the fact.

“We’re not a slate, and I actually don’t think it would be a healthy thing” to promote any group of candidates as a slate, said Rowe, a founding co-chair and executive board member of A+ Denver.

Running against Rowe in southeast Denver is Emily Sirota, a community activist who, like Rowe, is campaigning for the DPS board for the first time.

“My sense is there most certainly is a slate, and the candidates will most probably continue to deny that,” Sirota said.

“I do know that there are folks out there, quite obviously from that fundraising invitation, who believe the stakes are very high and they must win at all costs,” she said.

Sharing advice from a prominent political consultant

One thing the three campaigns have in common is contact with prominent Denver political strategist Craig Hughes, a partner at the RBI Strategies & Research political consulting firm. While the three campaigns said they aren’t paying Hughes (the first financial reporting forms aren’t due until mid-October), they have been talking to him or seeking his advice.

Emily Sirota
Emily Sirota

It’s unclear whether any outside party is paying Hughes to advise the candidates.

Hughes managed former DPS Superintendent Michael Bennet’s successful 2010 campaign for one of Colorado’s two U.S. Senate seats.

Haynes said Hughes “is helping me out with a few things, although now that I have actually hired a campaign manager, we’ll be doing most of what needs to be done.

“Craig is a political advisor who advises a lot of people in town. He’s one of the best, and you know he’s familiar with these issues and it makes sense for people to lean on him, particularly for research and finding issues, or when it comes time to doing any polling or work of that type.”

Rowe confirmed she has talked to Hughes, but said she has not retained him, and that she was still in the process of hiring a campaign manager. She said she has hired John Britz to work as a strategic consultant to her campaign.

Twombly, the campaign manager for Carson, said, “While Jennifer is glad to have Craig’s support, and advice, neither he nor RBI is currently employed by our campaign.”

Hughes said he is “proud to help these three great candidates in any way I can. I think (they) will be tremendous leaders for Denver and will take the Denver school board in the right direction for the future.”

Term-limited board member Theresa Peña’s at-large seat is being contested by Haynes, Park Hill business consultant Roger Kilgore and South High School social studies teacher Frank Deserino. Deserino initially planned to run in southeast Denver, along with Rowe and Sirota. He ran unsuccessfully for that seat in 2007.

But Deserino said he determined that if he stayed in that race, he and Sirota would split potential votes between themselves, ensuring a Rowe victory in the southeast.

“Everybody who is on the ground knows that Anne Rowe, Happy Haynes and (Carson) are part of the slate of candidates that are being managed by the majority board members of DPS,” said Deserino.

“From what I’ve heard, their concerns are that the minority board members, or anyone elected against their candidates, is part of a slate that wants to change things, doesn’t like the Denver Plan, doesn’t want to do reform, and wants to fire Tom Boasberg.”

A slate “that represents parents, teachers and kids”

Deserino predicted, “I’m going to be labeled as part of a slate of candidates sponsored by the board minority. And if you want to look at this honestly, yeah, I’m part of a slate. I’m part of the slate that represent the parents, teachers and kids, because they feel they don’t have a voice.”

Peña, a member of the 4-3 majority consistently supportive of Boasberg’s reform policies – and also listed on the Richardsons’ invitation as a co-host of their June 13 fundraiser – suggested that to determine the true existence of a “slate,” a dictionary might be useful.

“It depends on, what is your definition of a slate?” Peña said. “Just because there was a fundraiser for three candidates which used the word, I don’t think that makes them a slate. What is their ideology? What are their platforms? What are their issues?

“If you look at their personal experience and the work they have done, I don’t think you could predict how they would vote on any of the most controversial decisions the board has made in the last few months.”

School board candidates can’t start circulating nominating petitions for their required-minimum of 50 voters’ signatures until Aug. 3. They must be turned in by Aug. 26.