it's over

Democrats seize control of State Board of Education with narrow win in contested district

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Rebecca McClellan, a candidate for the State Board of Education, greets a participant at a forum in Aurora.

Democratic challenger Rebecca McClellan has outlasted incumbent Republican Debora Scheffel in a hard-fought State Board of Education race that extended beyond Election Day, handing Democrats control of the governing board for the first time in nearly 50 years.

McClellan, a former Centennial City Council member, has an insurmountable lead of 1,296 votes over Debora Scheffel, a career educator and dean of the School of Education at Colorado Christian University, according to the latest unofficial results released Friday.

The Democrat will represent the politically diverse 6th Congressional District, which includes large portions of Arapahoe County and smaller parts of Adams and Douglas counties.

“It’s exciting, very exciting” McClellan told Chalkbeat. “I think that people in the district really believe in public education, particularly in the Cherry Creek School District. … It’s not a trivial matter. I think people want to see their public schools preserved.”

Scheffel led in early returns Election Day, but McClellan pulled ahead as more ballots were counted.

Scheffel, reached by phone Friday, said she had not reviewed the results.

“I want to look at it,” she said. “Clearly, it was really tight and there was a lot of hard work put in by both sides. I just want to see if there are any other steps I may want to pursue.”

The tightness of the race set off a battle between Democrats and Republicans in the week following Election Day to make sure ballots set aside for signature problems and other irregularities ended up in the final count. The deadline to “cure” ballots was Wednesday.

The results released Friday that clinched McClellan’s win included cured ballots, provisional ballots and military and overseas ballots. All three counties released updated vote tallies. A little more than 100 ballots have yet to be counted in Douglas County, a county official said late Friday afternoon.

Although tight, the outcome is not close enough to trigger an automatic recount. Under state law, votes must be counted again if the difference between the candidates is be less than or equal to one-half of 1 percent of the winner’s total vote count.

Under the current votes counted, that would mean a margin of 898 votes or fewer.

The congressional district is among the most competitive in the state. It was redrawn in 2011 after Scheffel was elected. Prior to that, Republicans had a considerable edge in voter registration. Now the electorate is split nearly evenly among Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters.

The nail-biting election comes at a critical juncture. The board is about to begin addressing how to fix the state’s lowest performing schools, and the state will begin a review of its academic standards that include the politically controversial Common Core State Standards.

The state must also submit a plan to the federal government detailing how it plans to use federal funds to meet the expectations laid out in the nation’s new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.

It has been 46 years since Democrats last controlled the state board.

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.