Predicting higher ballot returns

Elections officials in Douglas and Jefferson counties are estimating slightly higher returns than usual during this “off-year” election, perhaps because of increased political interest in non-partisan school board races.

Josh Liss, deputy of elections for Jefferson County, said nearly 67,000 ballots had been returned as of Wednesday. In 2007 and 2009, about 95,000 voters cast ballots.

“Typically, we tend to see about 30 percent of our total returns on Election Day,” Liss said. “So we could be right on pace for 95,000 – I think we’re going to go over.”

Liss said increased attention to the Jefferson County school board races may be spurring the returns.

This year, Jeffco’s Republican Party is actively promoting two candidates with efforts including “Red October,” a Get Out the Vote drive featuring phone banks at GOP headquarters from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays.

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“It’s sort of a groundswell of activity in the community,” said Don Ytterberg, Jeffco’s Republican Party chair. “People who would like to have a voice, who are on the conservative side, don’t feel they have had that because the races have been organized largely by the education community.”

Ytterberg said it’s the first time “in a long time” that the GOP has been active in the school board elections, though he was hesitant to say it was the party’s first-ever foray into board contests.

In Douglas County, the Republican Party became active in 2009 school board elections – a year that saw a record turnout for school board contests in recent years.

Ytterberg said Jeffco’s GOP activity does differ from that in Dougco.

“We did not take the same action as Douglas County did,” he said. “We did not put forth a slate of candidates as a party but certainly, as a party, we are supporting the candidates who have emerged.”

Political backing sparks official complaint

In Douglas and Jefferson counties, school board members represent geographic areas but they are elected countywide.

In 2005 and 2007 in Douglas County, no more than 31,000 ballots were cast in a single school board race.

But in 2009, when Dougco’s Republican Party endorsed a slate of four candidates, the number of votes cast in each of four board contests topped 45,000.

Douglas County Clerk and Recorder Jack Arrowsmith said 31,650 ballots had been returned as of early Thursday. He projected another 15,000 by Election Day, with the biggest jump on Tuesday, to put total votes in excess of 46,000.

Complaint filed

“So I think there is a pretty good chance that we will match our 2009 numbers and perhaps surpass it by end of day on Tuesday,” Arrowsmith said.

This year, Dougco’s Republican Party is again active, with one mailer titled “Vote for the Republican candidates” above photos of three candidates and depicting what’s labeled as an “official ballot for the Republican Party.”

That prompted candidate Susan Meek to file a formal complaint this week with the Secretary of State’s Office, citing a violation of state statute that says, “A candidate for the office of school director shall not run as a candidate of any political party for that school directorship.”

The office found no violation because that particular statute governs how candidates get on the ballot and not how they campaign.  In other words, school board candidates are not nominated by a political party and there’s no party affiliation – no “R” for Republican, for example – attached to their names on the ballot.

Meek was directed to the district’s attorney office if she wanted to pursue a complaint about knowingly making false statements in a political mailer. She said today she’s undecided about whether she’ll do so.

Ballot totals, no predictions for Denver

Voter turnout is typically lower in “off-year” or “odd-year” elections because there are no presidential or congressional races to drum up interest.

Party of registered voters
  • Denver – 52% Democrat, 28% unaffiliated, 18% Republican
  • Douglas County – 51% Republican, 28% unaffiliated, 21% Democrat,
  • Jefferson County – 37% Republican, 32% Democrat, 30% unaffiliated

*Active voters as of Sept. 30, Secretary of State’s Office

Colorado saw an “off-year” turnout record in 2005 when 49.8 percent of the state’s 2.3 million eligible voters cast ballots. That was the year that two well-publicized and controversial statewide budget measures – known as Ref C and D – were on the ballot.

There were no statewide ballot measures in 2007 and 2009. This year, there’s just one – Proposition 103, which would boost education funding by raising state sales and income taxes for five years.

In Denver, voters also are being asked about ensuring paid sick time for employees, along with selecting three school board members.

As of Wednesday, slightly over 49,000 ballots had been returned and marked valid by the city’s elections division. Spokesman Alton Dillard declined any assessment of possible total voter turnout by 7 p.m. Tuesday.

In prior “off-year” elections, votes cast in Denver’s at-large citywide school board races ranged from 79,000 in 2005 to 72,000 in 2009.

In this year’s other two Denver school board contests, board members are elected by voters residing in a geographic area.

In the District 1 southeast Denver race, 12,777 ballots were returned and marked “accepted” as of Wednesday. In 2007, the most recent election for that seat, 18,600 votes were tallied.

And in the District 5 northwest Denver race, 7,738 ballots were returned and accepted as of Wednesday. In the most recent contest in that area, in 2007, 10,900 ballots were counted.

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

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