election post-mortem

In Denver, a clean sweep for backers of district reforms and questions about a united front

The last year Denverites voted on school board members — 2015. (Andy Cross, The Denver Post).

This week’s Denver school board election — which featured one unexpectedly close call and two more comfortable wins — means all seven seats will be occupied by strong advocates of the district’s decade-long path of reform.

Board president Allegra “Happy” Haynes recovered from a slow campaign start and questions about her new role heading the city’s parks and recreation department to eke past northwest Denver parent Robert Speth, a political unknown credited for running an effective campaign.

In the race for an open seat in northwest and west Denver, education reform supporter Lisa Flores defeated board critic Michael Kiley by a healthy margin, 53 to 47 percent. Flores claimed more individual donors than any other candidate — and benefited from the generosity of an independent political committee — while campaigning on a platform of looking out for all her district’s kids.

Board vice president Anne Rowe easily held onto her seat against challenger Kristi Butkovich, picking up every precinct in southeast Denver’s District 1.

Throughout the campaign, the three candidates critical of the board’s direction sought to convince voters that dissenting voices were needed. All three lost their races. About 19 percent of registered voters cast ballots in Denver.

Now that the campaign is over, attention will turn to whether the next board will stand as a united front or diverge on contentious issues that lie ahead, including a proposed policy that would draw a bright line for when the districts should close persistently struggling schools.

A close at-large race

A late start, questions about potential conflicts of interest and a virtually unknown challenger who proved to be a formidable opponent turned what many thought would be an easy re-election for Haynes, an established Denver political figure, into a battle.

“None of us expected Happy to have an active race,” said Jeani Frickey Saito, executive director of Stand for Children Colorado, an education reform group that endorsed Haynes.

Allegra "Happy" Haynes at the ethics board hearing she requested (Eric Gorski).
Allegra “Happy” Haynes at the ethics board hearing she requested (Eric Gorski).

That changed when Speth, a father of two who works in the telecommunications industry, entered the race in late August. In October, just one month before the election, Haynes ramped up her fundraising. In two weeks, she raised more than four times as much as she had the previous year — and she began spending it on mailers, Facebook ads and robocalls.

“When you’ve got a candidate who’s not anticipating having to run a contested campaign, it’s going to feel a little rushed and (there’s) a sense of urgency there that wasn’t before,” Frickey Saito said. “For the process, it’s always good to have contested races and give voters a choice, and it’s good to know that when given a choice, they supported Happy’s work.”

In the end, Haynes hung on to her seat by a small margin. Haynes’ strongest showing was in northeast Denver, while Speth performed well in his home turf of northwest Denver and in southeast Denver:

Final_Unofficial_Results_DPS_At_Large_NEIGHBORHOODS copy

“We’re all glad the campaign is over,” Haynes said Wednesday. “For those of us who are continuing, it’s an opportunity to have our full focus on the challenges we have ahead of us.”

Haynes said she figured the race would be close. As to why, she said, “I can’t really speculate,” adding that her campaign “didn’t do any of this, ‘Why is this happening? Why isn’t it?’”

Asked what she was hearing from voters, Haynes said, “What we heard was people who were supporting us or people who said, ‘No, we’re not.’ We weren’t diving into people’s reasons for and against. In a campaign, you’re trying to get people to vote for you. When they do, you say, ‘Great,’ and you move on to the next. When they say they’re not, you say, ‘Thank you anyway.’”

Some political observers said Haynes’s September appointment by Mayor Michael Hancock to head the city’s parks and recreation department may have given voters pause. In October, the Denver Board of Ethics said it was fine for Haynes to hold both the $139,293-a-year job and a volunteer seat on the Denver school board.

Frickey Saito characterized the issue as “an unfortunate distraction.” Others said it was a valid concern.

“I think people didn’t feel good about Happy having both jobs,” said former city councilwoman Susan Barnes-Gelt.

“The fact that it was that close against a guy nobody ever really heard of and got into the race late, and it was fundraised to the max, I don’t think anybody should be doing a victory dance,” she said.

Robert Speth
Robert Speth

Speth, the guy nobody ever really heard of, ended up running an effective campaign, observers said. Speth was endorsed by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association. Union president Henry Roman said he was impressed by the newcomer’s determination, accessibility and ability to explain his positions.

“He is very dynamic,” Roman said. He recalled that the first time he invited Speth to meet with union building representatives, the reps ended up following the candidate outside to get yard signs. “I said, ‘This is a special kind of guy,’” Roman said.

Speth did not return phone calls for this story. But on Tuesday night, as he watched the election results roll in from a bar on Tennyson Street, he said his final campaign push involved knocking on doors, handing out fliers and “getting in front of many folks as we could.”

On Election Day, Speth said he took his kids to school, took down his Halloween decorations and waited.

When he left that bar at 11 p.m., he was winning. But by the time the final unofficial election results were tallied at 4 a.m., he had lost. The results will be finalized later this month.

A divided map in District 5

The results in District 5 show that support for candidate Kiley was concentrated in northwest Denver. The software company program manager, who lives in the Berkeley neighborhood with his wife and two kids, won every precinct in the Regis, West Highland and Berkeley neighborhoods. He also won several precincts in Sunnyside, Highland and Sloan’s Lake.

Flores, a former senior program officer with the Denver-based Gates Family Foundation, swept the precincts in the central and eastern part of the district, winning neighborhoods including Elyria Swansea, Globeville, Five Points and Lincoln/La Alma Park. Flores lives in West Highland, where she and her husband are helping to raise her nephew.

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“We were cognizant that there are over 50 schools that make up District 5,” Flores said. She said her campaign made an effort to “reach out to all communities served by District 5.”

Meanwhile, Kiley said he focused on neighborhoods outside of northwest Denver where he was lesser known. The challenge, he said, was getting those voters to relate to his experience of working to improve northwest Denver schools, such as Skinner Middle School and North High.

The gains at those schools and others like them were achieved due to “a common theme of parents working with the principal plus resources equals a better school,” he said. “When we talk about our experience,” he added, “there are schools that sound a million miles away.”

On Tuesday, Kiley won 9,295 votes and Flores won 10,675, according to the final unofficial tally.

A unified board?

Haynes, Rowe and Flores will be sworn in Nov. 19.

All three received financial support from a committee affiliated with Democrats for Education Reform, as well as a network of local and national pro-reform donors.

Outgoing board member Arturo Jimenez, who has represented District 5 since 2007 and is term-limited, was the last union-backed board member. He often served as a dissenting voice in difficult discussions.

Michael Kiley
Michael Kiley

Union president Roman said he hopes that the new board “continues to engage in collaboration” with teachers, parents and the community. But he noted that more power also means more responsibility.

“If something is taken too far, there will eventually be a pushback,” Roman said. The successful recall election in Jeffco is an example of that, he said.

Roman was hesitant to say how far would be too far in Denver. But he said the board needs to step up its oversight of charter schools, work to reduce the teacher-turnover rate and listen to parents and teachers on issues such as co-locating schools in the same building.

“My hope is that we can have conversations to come up with common-sense, good policies,” he said.

Others were less judicious in their assessment.

“Regular people will have less and less voice,” predicted C.L. Harmer, who served as Kiley’s campaign manager.

“I think rubber stamp is a fair label,” Kiley said. He echoed Roman in saying that whatever policies the new board enacts, the members will have to take full responsibility for how the policies play out. “If it works, hats off to them,” he said. “If it continues to struggle, they own it.”

Flores said that when she met with the teachers union, she assured union leaders that no matter who they endorsed, she would be “a great representative for them.”

“I think there were some differences sometimes on specific policy stances,” Flores said, “but when we look at underlying values and how we want to respect and honor teachers, I think there’s a lot of alignment and a lot of areas where we can work together.”

Denver independent political analyst Eric Sondermann said he doesn’t think the new calculus of the board will make much of a difference when it comes to the board’s actions.

“I don’t know that it makes a huge difference to have a 7-0 majority rather than a 6-1 majority,” he said. “It will probably make people on the other side more aggrieved to not have a spokesperson. But to have a spokesperson, you need to win an election. Ultimately, I think there are a strong majority of Denver residents who have endorsed the general direction of the district.”

Lisa Flores
Lisa Flores

Flores rejected the suggestion that her victory means the board is 7-0.

“I hope that we can move past the point where people are talking about a three-four board, a six-one board, a seven-oh board,” she said Wednesday. “I’ve been saying from the beginning, I am not running for or against DPS. I am running for the students of DPS. I am a strong woman who is not afraid to have her voice heard and I will be an independent member of this board.”

Jen Walmer, director of the Colorado chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, which supported Flores, Haynes and Rowe, attributes the closeness of the at-large race to the fact that there were two candidates, instead of five like in 2011 when Haynes first ran for a seat.

“We always have to remember that when two people are running, the choice becomes more stark,” she said. Walmer said both candidates ran “real campaigns.” But ultimately, she said, “voters in Denver looked at Happy’s track record and came out in her favor.”

Outgoing board member Jimenez sees the results differently.

“It’s great to see the city spoke in protest against the establishment with all of the votes for Robert Speth,” he said Tuesday night when early results showed Speth with a slight lead.

Haynes said her tight race won’t change the way she approaches her work on the board.

“We have a lot to do and we need to get refocused on where we have to go,” she said. “And that’s what I will continue to do: look at all of the issues, try to find solutions to things we think aren’t working well and to move forward.”

Editor’s note: Chalkbeat receives financial support from the Gates Family Foundation.

Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story misstated which campaign raised the most money according to the most recent campaign finance reports. Kiley narrowly brought in more money than Flores. 

Raise your voice

Memphis, what do you want in your next school superintendent?

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Tennessee’s largest school district needs a permanent leader. What kind of superintendent do you think Shelby County Schools should be looking for?

Now is the chance to raise your voice. The school board is in the thick of finalizing a national search and is taking bids from search firms. Board members say they want a leader to replace former superintendent Dorsey Hopson in place within 18 months. They have also said they want community input in the process, though board members haven’t specified what that will look like. In the interim, career Memphis educator Joris Ray is at the helm.

Let us know what you think is most important in the next superintendent.  Select responses will be published.

Asking the candidates

How to win over Northwest Side voters: Chicago aldermen candidates hone in on high school plans

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat Chicago
An audience member holds up a green sign showing support at a forum for Northwest side aldermanic candidates. The forum was sponsored by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.

The residents filing into the auditorium of Sharon Christa McAuliffe Elementary School Friday wanted to know a few key things from the eager aldermanic candidates who were trying to win their vote.

People wanted to know which candidates would build up their shrinking open-enrollment high schools and attract more students to them.

They also wanted specifics on how the aldermen, if elected, would coax developers to build affordable housing units big enough for families, since in neighborhoods such as Logan Square and Hermosa, single young adults have moved in, rents have gone up, and some families have been pushed out.

As a result, some school enrollments have dropped.

Organized by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Friday’s event brought together candidates from six of the city’s most competitive aldermanic races. Thirteen candidates filled the stage, including some incumbents, such as Aldermen Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st  Ward), Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward), and Milly Santiago (31st Ward).

They faced tough questions — drafted by community members and drawn at random from a hat — about bolstering high school enrollment, recruiting more small businesses, and paving the way for more affordable housing.

When the audience members agreed with their positions, they waved green cards, with pictures of meaty tacos. When they heard something they didn’t like, they held up red cards, with pictures of fake tacos.

Red cards weren’t raised much. But the green cards filled the air when candidates shared ideas for increasing the pull of area open-enrollment high schools by expanding dual-language programs and the rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum.

Related: Can a program designed for British diplomats fix Chicago schools? 

“We want our schools to be dual language so people of color can keep their roots alive and keep their connections with their families,” said Rossana Rodriguez, a mother of a Chicago Public Schools’ preschooler and one of challengers to incumbent Deb Mell in the city’s 33rd Ward.  

Mell didn’t appear at the forum, but another candidate vying for that seat did: Katie Sieracki, who helps run a small business. Sieracki said she’d improve schools by building a stronger feeder system between the area’s elementary schools, which are mostly K-8, and the high schools.

“We need to build bridges between our local elementary schools and our high schools, getting buy-in from new parents in kindergarten to third grade, when parents are most engaged in their children’s education,” she said.

Sieracki said she’d also work to design an apprenticeship program that connects area high schools with small businesses.

Green cards also filled the air when candidates pledged to reroute tax dollars that are typically used for developer incentives for school improvement instead.

At the end of the forum, organizers asked the 13 candidates to pledge to vote against new tax increment financing plans unless that money went to schools. All 13 candidates verbally agreed.

Aldermen have limited authority over schools, but each of Chicago’s 50 ward representatives receives a $1.32 million annual slush fund that be used for ward improvements, such as playgrounds, and also can be directed to education needs. And “aldermanic privilege,” a longtime concept in Chicago, lets representatives give the thumbs up or down to developments like new charters or affordable housing units, which can affect school enrollment.

Related: 7 questions to ask your aldermanic candidates about schools

Aldermen can use their position to forge partnerships with organizations and companies that can provide extra support and investment to local schools.

A January poll showed that education was among the top three concerns of voters in Chicago’s municipal election. Several candidates for mayor have recently tried to position themselves as the best candidate for schools in TV ads.