Colorado

Wide gaps in DPS board fundraising persist in second campaign filings

DPS logoDenver Public Schools board candidates who support the current district administration’s slate of policies continue to far outpace their opponents in fundraising, according to the second round of campaign finance reports filed with the Secretary of State’s office on Friday.

Overall, candidates for DPS board seats raised nearly $149,000 in the past two and a half weeks, bringing total campaign donations in the race to $744,116.

Nine candidates are vying for four seats on the seven-member board. The races have been closely watched because while the current board has been supportive of the district and Superintendent Tom Boasberg’s accountability-based reform policies, that majority is narrow and could flip if more critics of the administration are elected. A sense of the high stakes in the races has motivated a spate of high-level donations, primarily to the four candidates who have pledged to continue the district’s current trajectory.

Friday’s filings show that pattern continuing. The bulk of the money raised in the reporting period — $113,580 — was given to those four: former Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien running at-large, former Denver Councilwoman Rosemary Rodriguez in District 2, lawyer Mike Johnson in east Denver’s District 3 and Urban League executive Landri Taylor in northeast Denver’s District 4.

The remaining $35,389 raised went to candidates who are critical of the current administration’s focus on school choice, teacher accountability and data-driven decision-making and who have promised to push the district’s emphasis more to neighborhood schools. Those candidates are software company manager Michael Kiley in the at-large race, community organizer Rosario C. de Baca in District 2, activist and school volunteer Meg Schomp in District 3 and water engineer Roger Kilgore in District 4.

A third candidate in the at-large race, Joan Poston, does not fall into either camp. She has also not established a campaign committee and is not raising any money from outside donors.

Here’s a breakdown of how much money each candidate has raised since October 15:

At-large

  • Kiley – Raised $3,989 in this reporting period, bringing his total to $36,469. He spent $4,078 during the period, leaving him with $8,567 on-hand.
  • O’Brien – Raised $17, 975 during the reporting period, bringing her fundraising total to $191,299, the largest any single candidate has raised in the campaign. She spent $60,332 since October 15, leaving her with $5,918 on-hand.
  • Poston – She doesn’t have a campaign committee and reported spending $311 of her own money.

District 2

  • C. de Baca – Raised $5,170 in the past two and a half weeks, brining her total to $23,335 over the course of the campaign. She spent $6,529 during the reporting period and has $10,224 on-hand. She also received $579 in non-monetary contributions.
  • Rodriguez – Raised $30,040 since October 15, the largest amount raised by a candidate in the reporting period. That brings her total contributions to $117, 760. She spent $31,355 in the period and has $27,294 on-hand.

District 3

  • Johnson – Raised $27,619 in the reporting period, which brings his total fundraising take to $173,754, second only to O’Brien. He spent $52,873 during the period and has $16,711 on-hand.
  • Schomp – Raised $14,220 since October 15, the largest fundraising take of any of the candidates critical of the current administration. That brings her total to $46,169. She also received $579 in non-monetary contributions. She spent $14,052 during the period and has $3,783 on-hand.

District 4

  • Kilgore — Raised $12,010 during the reporting period, bringing his total to $45,279. Kilgore also received $1,079 in non-monetary contributions. He spent $18,366 and has $3,241 on-hand.
  • Taylor – Raised $37,946 since October 15, bringing his total fundraising levels to $110,051. Taylor also received $498 in non-monetary contributions. He spent $37,622 and has $15,002 on-hand.

The largest single donations came from the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, which gave $12,000 to Schomp, $7,000 to Kilgore and $4,000 to C. de Baca, as well as non-monetary contributions for staff support and event expenses to all four.

But the candidates who support the administration benefited from large donations from a variety of advocacy organizations and wealthy donors from Colorado and out-of-state. Democrats for Education Reform’s Colorado political committee gave O’Brien, Rodriguez and Taylor $2,000 each, while Stand for Children Colorado gave O’Brien, Johnson and Taylor $1,800 each.

Houston hedge fund billionaire John Arnold, his wife Laura and their foundation gave a combined $23,900 to the four candidates, while Katherine Bradley, the president of the Washington, D.C.-based education philanthropy CityBridge Foundation gave a combined $6,500 to the group.

Locally, Pat Hamill of Oakwood Homes gave Rodriguez, Johnson and Taylor a combined $18,000. Denver Art Museum president Cathey Finlon gave O’Brien and Johnson each $500 and gave $1,000 to both Taylor and Rodriguez.

Fundraising in the district board race appears to be proceeding at a similar pace to the 2011 board races. Candidates this year raised more money in the second filing round than they did in 2011, but overall fundraising levels are a bit less than they were at this point in the 2011 race, when candidates had raised around $790,000.

Candidates will file campaign finance reports one final time, after next week’s election.

Contributions in other districts

In Jefferson County, an independent committee named Believe in Better Schools reported spending $22,804, most of it in support of candidates that have been endorsed by the county Republican Party. Those include Julie Williams, John Newkirk and Ken Witt.

Spending was on newspaper and social media advertising and on direct mail.

The group received its funding from Jeffco Students First Action, a group that has been critical of district policies but which itself doesn’t have to report its contributors.

Here’s a breakdown of total direct contributions to candidates:

District 1 — Tonya Aultman-Bettridge reported $23,749, plus $3,300 in loans. Williams has total contributions of $5,756.

District 2 – Newkirk has raised $4,785 while Jeff Lamontagne has raised $55,539, including a small contribution from the Jefferson County Education Association Small Donor Committee and $8,166 from the Public Education Committee, an affiliate of the Colorado Education Association.

District 5 – Witt has raised $11,037 while Gordan Van de Water has raised $37,395.

Races for three seats in the Grand Junction-based Mesa 51 district have a partisan tone, with county Republicans endorsing a slate of candidates and out-of-district conservative donors providing funding for those candidates.

In the latest reporting period, GOP-endorsed candidates each received $2,000 contributions from Ralph Nagel, president of Top Rock LLC, a Denver-based investment company, and a strong supporter of school choice. Nagel also has provided substantial donations to conservative board candidates in Douglas County.

The Mesa GOP candidates, Patrick Kanda, Michael Lowenstein and John Sluder, each previously received $5,000 from C. Edward McVaney of Greenwood Village, a retired software company owner. McVaney is on the board of ACE Scholarships and was a founder of Valor Christian High School in Highlands Ranch.

Despite the out-of-district donations, opponents of those three candidates lead in overall fundraising. Here’s the rundown:

In District C, Kanda has raised $7,344 compared to $11,046 for John Williams, who’s received support from the Mesa Valley Education Association, the local union. A third candidate, Lonnie White, hasn’t filed any financial reports.

In District D, Lowenstein has raised $9,143, trailing opponent Tom Parrish’s $12,367.

In District E, Sluder has raised $8,101 compared to $8,627 for opponent Greg Mokolai. He’s also received help from the Mesa Valley teachers union.

Nagel and McVaney also have donated to candidates in the Thompson school district, where a group named Liberty Watch is backing Donna Rice, Bryce Carlson, Rocci Bryan and Carl Langer.

Those candidates have raised a total of $33,150, with $26,000 of that from McVaney and Nagel.

The other candidates, Lori Ward, Gerald Lauer and incumbents Jeff Berg and Janice Marchman, have raised a total of $15,002. Some of them have received support from union committees.

This post has been updated to add information about fundraising in other districts and about individual donors. 

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.