getting to know you

Meet the Colorado lawmakers on the state legislature’s education committees

PHOTO: Denver Post File
Then state Rep. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, on the House floor in 2015. Priola was elected to the state Senate and will serve on that chamber's education committee.

Plenty of familiar faces — and political fault lines — are returning next year to the state legislature’s education committees.

State Sen. Owen Hill, a Republican from Colorado Springs, and Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Democrat from Lakewood, will return as chairs of their respective committees.

Many topics the committees and the rest of the General Assembly will wrestle with next year should be familiar: the state’s testing system, funding for charter schools, and teacher hiring and training. New issues likely to surface include how some districts and schools are given waivers from some state policies, and how the state may respond to the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The Senate Education Committee is made up of Capitol veterans deeply entrenched in their respective ideological camps. The committee’s hearings could be fiercely partisan.

Republicans joining Hill on the Senate committee will be Sen.-elect Kevin Priola of Henderson, who previously served on the House Education Committee; Sen.-elect Bob Gardner of Colorado Springs, who previously served in the House until 2014, when he was term limited; and Sen. Tim Neville of Littleton. Neville served on the Senate committee last session.

Joining the four Republicans are three Democrats: Sen. Michael Merrifield of Colorado Springs, Nancy Todd of Aurora, and Sen.-elect Rachel Zenzinger. Both Merrifield and Todd served on the committee last session. Zenzinger served on the committee between 2012 and 2014 before losing her Senate seat to Laura Woods. Zenzinger beat Woods in a hard-fought race last month that captured the state’s political interest.

Because Republicans control the Senate, they get more seats on the committee. Likewise, Democrats have control of the House and are able to appoint more members to that chamber’s committees.

It’s less clear how policy debates may develop on the House Education Committee, in part because of the high number of new members. Six of the 13 — yes, 13 — members are new to the committee. And of the six, three Democrats are entirely new to the General Assembly.

The House committee is more racially and geographically diverse than the Senate’s, which is made up of entirely white lawmakers from the Front Range.

The House committee includes Rep.-elect Barbara McLachlan, a Durango Democrat, and Rep. Jim Wilson, a Republican from Salida. Rep. Janet Buckner, an Aurora Democrat, is black, and Rep. Clarice Navarro, a Pueblo Republican, is Hispanic.

The first day of the legislative session is Jan. 11.

Here’s the full list of members for both education committees. Members who were not on the committees last session are noted with an asterisk:

Senate Education
Sen. Owen Hill, Chair, R-Colorado Springs
Sen.-elect Kevin Priola, Vice Chair, R-Henderson*
Sen.-elect Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs*
Sen. Tim Neville, R-Littleton
Sen. Michael Merrifield D-Colorado Springs
Sen. Nancy Todd D-Aurora
Sen.-elect Rachel Zenzinger D-Arvada*

House Education
Rep. Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood, chairwoman
Rep. Janet Buckner, D-Aurora, vice chairwoman
Rep. Alec Garnett, D-Denver
Rep. Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs
Rep.-elect Jeff Bridges, D-Greenwood Village*
Rep.-elect Tony Exum Sr., D-Colorado Springs*
Rep.-elect Barbara McLachlan, D-Durango*
Rep. Jim Wilson, Ranking Member, R-Salida
Rep. Justin Everett, R-Littleton
Rep. Tim Leonard, R-Evergreen*
Rep. Paul Lundeen, R-Colorado Springs
Rep. Clarice Navarro, R-Pueblo*
Rep. Lang Sias, R-Arvada*

Follow the money

In Denver school board races, incumbents outpacing challengers in campaign contributions

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver school board vice president Barbara O'Brien speaks at a press conference at Holm Elementary.
Donations to Denver school board candidates as of Oct. 12
    Barbara O’Brien, At-Large: $101,291
    Angela Cobián, District 2: $94,152
    Mike Johnson, District 3: $81,855
    Rachele Espiritu, District 4: $73,847
    Jennifer Bacon, District 4: $59,302
    Robert Speth, At-Large: $38,615
    “Sochi” Gaytán, District 2: $24,134
    Carrie A. Olson, District 3: $18,105
    Tay Anderson, District 4: $16,331
    Julie Bañuelos, At-Large: $7,737

Three Denver school board incumbents brought in more money than challengers seeking to unseat them and change the district’s direction, according to new campaign finance reports.

Board vice president Barbara O’Brien has raised the most money so far. A former Colorado lieutenant governor who was first elected to the board in 2013 and represents the city at-large, O’Brien had pulled in $101,291 as of Oct. 12.

The second-highest fundraiser was newcomer Angela Cobián, who raised $94,152. She is running to represent southwest District 2, where there is no incumbent in the race. The board member who currently holds that seat, Rosemary Rodriguez, has endorsed Cobián.

Incumbent Mike Johnson, who is running for re-election in central-east District 3, brought in far more money than his opponent, Carrie A. Olson. In a three-way race for northeast Denver’s District 4, incumbent Rachele Espiritu led in fundraising, but not by as much.

O’Brien, Cobián, Johnson and Espiritu had several big-money donors in common. They include former Denver Center for the Performing Arts chairman Daniel Ritchie, Oakwood Homes CEO Pat Hamill and Denver-based oil and gas company founder Samuel Gary. All three have given in past elections to candidates who support the direction of Denver Public Schools, which is nationally known for embracing school choice and collaborating with charter schools.

Meanwhile, teachers unions were among the biggest contributors to candidates pushing for the state’s largest school district to change course and refocus on its traditional, district-run schools. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association Fund gave the most money — $10,000 — to candidate Jennifer Bacon, a former teacher who is challenging Espiritu in District 4.

It gave smaller amounts to Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running against Cobián in District 2; Olson, who is challenging Johnson in District 3; and Robert Speth, who is running in a three-person race with O’Brien. Speth narrowly lost a race for a board seat in 2015. A supplemental campaign filing shows Speth loaned himself $17,000 on Oct. 13.

The two candidates who raised the least amounts of money also disagree with the district’s direction but were not endorsed by the teachers union and didn’t receive any union money. Tay Anderson, who is running against Espiritu and Bacon in District 4, counts among his biggest donors former Denver mayor Wellington Webb, who endorsed him and gave $1,110.

In the at-large race, candidate Julie Bañuelos’s biggest cash infusion was a $2,116 loan to herself. As of Oct. 11, Bañuelos had spent more money than she’d raised.

With four seats up for grabs on the seven-member board, the Nov. 7 election has the potential to shift the board’s balance of power. Currently, all seven members back the district’s direction and the vision of long-serving Superintendent Tom Boasberg. Mail ballots went out this week.

The new campaign finance reports, which were due at midnight Tuesday and cover the previous year, show that several of this year’s candidates have already raised more money than the candidate who was leading the pack at this time in the 2015 election.

O’Brien’s biggest contributor was University of Colorado president Bruce Benson, who gave $10,000. Other notable donors include Robin Hickenlooper, wife of Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper; Lieutenant Governor Donna Lynne; and billionaire Phil Anschutz.

Several Denver charter school leaders, including Rocky Mountain Prep CEO James Cryan and KIPP Colorado CEO Kimberlee Sia, donated to O’Brien, Johnson, Espiritu and Cobián.

Political groups are also playing a big role in the election. The groups include several backed by local and state teachers unions, as well as others funded by pro-reform organizations.

Following the money

Douglas County slate that favors continuing school voucher court case is ahead in early fundraising, records show

Former State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. Scheffel is now running for the Douglas County school board. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A group of candidates that largely supports the direction of the Douglas County School District, especially its embrace of school choice policies, has raised nearly $100,000 in campaign contributions, new financial records show.

The group, which calls itself “Elevate Douglas County,” topped its competition, the “Community Matters” slate, by more than $30,000 in monetary contributions to committees for individual candidates.

A lot is at stake in the south suburban Denver school board contest. A majority of seats on the seven-member school board are up for grabs, putting the philosophical direction of the state’s third largest school district on the line.

For eight years, the school board has pushed a conservative education reform agenda that included developing a voucher program that would allow parents to use tax dollars to send their children to private school and establishing a market-based pay system for teachers.

While the Elevate slate has promised to reconsider and tweak many of the board’s most controversial decisions, such as teacher pay, the Community Matters slate has promised to roll back many of the previous board’s decisions.

The contrast between the two groups is most stark on the issue of the school district’s voucher program. Created in 2011, the voucher program has been tied up in courts ever since. The Elevate slate supports continuing the court case and, if there is community support, reinstating the program. The Community Matters slate staunchly opposes vouchers and would end the court case.

According to records, the Elevate slate raised a total of $98,977 during the first campaign reporting period that ended Oct. 12. Grant Nelson raised the most, $34,373. The three other candidates — Ryan Abresch, Randy Mills and Debora Scheffel — each raised about $21,000.

All four candidates received $6,250 from John Saeman, a Denver businessman and the former chairman of the Daniels Fund. The foundation has financially supported the school district’s legal battle over the voucher program.

Other major contributors to the Elevate team are Ed McVaney, the founder of JD Edwards, and businesswoman Chrystalla Larson.

The Community Matters slate raised a total of $66,692 during the same period. Candidate Krista Holtzmann led the pack, raising more than $21,000. Her teammates — Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor and Kevin Leung — raised between $13,000 and $15,000 each.

Among the major donors to the Community Matters slate are Clare Leonard and Herschel Ramsey. Both Parker residents gave $1,000 each to all four candidates.

The campaign finance reports that were due Tuesday tell only part of the story. Earlier this week, special interest groups working to influence the election were required to report their spending.

The American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers union, has pumped $300,000 into the race in an effort to support the Community Matters slate.

Meanwhile, Americans For Prosperity, a conservative political nonprofit, is running a “social welfare” issue campaign promoting school choice. Because the nonprofit is not directly supporting candidates, it is not required to disclose how much it is spending. However, the organization said in a statement the campaign would cost six-figures.

Correction: This article has been updated to better reflect the Elevate slate’s position on reinstating the school district’s proposed voucher program.