the choice

Divided community panel picks district-run option over charter to replace closing Denver school

PHOTO: Roy Barnett/McGlone
A McGlone first grader practices her reading.

A group of community members tasked with recommending which of two applicants should take over low-performing Amesse Elementary in far northeast Denver when it closes next spring is backing an application submitted by leaders of nearby McGlone Academy.

McGlone’s plan to “restart” Amesse, submitted under the name the Montbello Children’s Network and written with input from Amesse teachers and parents, received three votes at the group’s final meeting Wednesday, said Jennifer Holladay, head of the Denver Public Schools department that authorizes new schools.

The other plan, submitted by local charter network STRIVE Prep, received two votes.

That only five people voted is notable. The community review board for Amesse originally included 12 members, plus a facilitator. However, one parent was asked to leave the board after showing up at a Denver school board meeting as part of a large group giving public comment in support of the Montbello Children’s Network application, leaving 11 members.

The district asked the review board to discuss the low turnout for Wednesday’s vote in its official recommendation report, Holladay said. That report is expected Monday and will also include the group’s rationale for choosing the Montbello Children’s Network. The review board members deliberated for nearly six hours, Holladay said.

It’s not clear whether the low turnout will play a role in what happens next in the process.

STRIVE founder Chris Gibbons said in a statement that the network appreciates the time and energy spent by the board and was “impressed with the robust discussion and thoughtful consideration from each member.”

However, he added, “we are concerned that no (community review board) members who are current … Amesse parents were present for (Wednesday) night’s vote.”

McGlone’s leader could not be immediately reached for comment Thursday.

Also expected Monday is a report from a second community review board tasked with recommending an applicant to restart Greenlee Elementary in west Denver. That board had just one to choose from: a plan submitted by the current Greenlee principal that builds on gains already underway. The review board chose that plan by consensus, Holladay said.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg previously said that “absent significant anomalies” in the community review board process, the boards’ recommendations would be his recommendations to the Denver school board, which has the final say. Boasberg is scheduled to make his recommendations to the school board Monday. The board is set to vote June 19.

If the school board follows the review boards’ recommendations, it would mean that both school “restarts” would go to district-run programs, not charter school operators. The district’s dual roles of both school operator and authorizer has caused tension in this year’s process, with charter school operators questioning whether the playing field is level.

The community review boards were created to give parents and community members a central role in the process of choosing new schools to replace closing ones, in part to counter a long-standing criticism that district decisions don’t take community opinions into account.

The Denver school board voted in December to close Amesse, Greenlee and another low-performing elementary school, Gilpin Montessori. In February, the district solicited applications from district-run schools, charter networks and others to restart Amesse and Greenlee. The school board chose not to restart Gilpin due to declining enrollment.

Shortly afterward, the leaders of four charter networks, including STRIVE, delivered an open letter to DPS leadership asking the district to let them open more new schools in the coming years to help meet ambitious goals to improve the city’s schools.

None of those charter operators applied to restart Greenlee. But two did apply for Amesse: STRIVE, which currently operates 11 schools throughout the city, and University Prep, which currently operates two. However, University Prep was removed from the running after DPS staff found its plan for teaching English language learners did not meet requirements.

big gaps

Jeffco school board incumbents raise big money, challengers falling behind

The deadline for dropping off ballots is 7 p.m.

School board incumbents in Jefferson County have raised more money collectively than they had at this point two years ago, when the district was in the midst of a heated recall campaign.

The election this year has garnered far less attention, and only two of the three incumbents who replaced the recalled members face opponents in the November election.

Susan Harmon reported raising more than $45,000 and Brad Rupert reported almost $49,000 in contributions through Oct. 12. Ron Mitchell, the sole incumbent without an opponent, raised almost $33,000 during that period.

How much did candidates raise, spend?

  • Susan Harmon, $45,602.33; $30,906.48
  • Brad Rupert, $48,982.34; $30,484.98
  • Ron Mitchell, $32,910.33; $30,479.43
  • Matt Van Gieson, $2,302.39; $478.63
  • Erica Shields, $3,278.00; $954.62

In 2015, the October campaign finance reports showed they had each raised about $33,000.

The two conservative opponents, Matt Van Gieson and Erica Shields, have raised far less. Van Gieson reported $2,302 while Shields reported $3,278.

The three incumbent school board members have considerable contributions from the teacher’s union. Former Jeffco superintendent Cynthia Stevens donated to Rupert and Mitchell. Former board member Lesley Dahlkemper contributed to all three incumbents. And State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, contributed to Rupert and Harmon.

Van Gieson and Shields both have donations from the Jefferson County Republican Men’s Club.

The next reports will be due Nov. 3.

Follow the money

Groups with a stake in Colorado’s school board elections raise $1.5 million to influence them

The nation's second largest teachers union is spending $300,000 to support a slate of candidates running for the Douglas County school board. Those candidates posed for pictures at their campaign kick-off event are from left, Krista Holtzmann, Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor, and Kevin Leung. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Union committees and various political groups have raised more than $1.5 million so far to influence the outcome of school board elections across the state, according to new campaign finance reports.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, and organizations such as Democrats for Education Reform, a political nonprofit, are spending big in an effort to help elect school board members that represent their positions.

It’s become a common storyline in school board elections in Colorado and across the country: On one side, teachers unions hoping to elect members that will improve working conditions and teacher pay, among other things. On the other, education reformers who generally back candidates who support expanding school choice for families, more autonomy for schools and accountability systems that measure school quality, usually based on test scores.

The complete fundraising and spending picture, however, is often murky and incomplete.

State law lays out different rules and disclosure requirements for different types of political committees. The most prevalent this election year appears to be independent expenditure committee, which can raise and spend an unlimited amount of money but are forbidden from coordinating with candidates. (Campaign finance reports for the candidates’ campaigns are due at midnight Tuesday).

Other groups such as Americans For Prosperity work outside the reporting requirements altogether by spending money on “social welfare issues,” rather than candidates. The conservative political nonprofit, which champions charter schools and other school reforms, pledged to spend more than six-figures for “a sweeping outreach effort to parents” to promote school choice policies in Douglas County. The fight over charter schools and vouchers, which use tax dollars to send students to private schools, has been a key debate in school board races there.

Both the union and reform groups operate independent committees. Those committees must report donations and expenditures to the secretary of state. But the donations captured in campaign finance reports are often huge lump sums from parent organizations, which aren’t required to disclose their donations under federal law. (Dues collected out of teachers’ paychecks are often the source for political contributions from unions.)

Several groups are spending money in Denver, where four of the seven school board seats are up for election. The ten candidates vying for those four seats include incumbents who agree with the district’s direction and challengers who do not. The Denver teachers union has endorsed candidates pushing for change.

The Every Student Succeeds group, which has raised almost $300,000 in union donations, is spending the most on one Denver candidate, Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running for a seat in southwest Denver, and on a slate of four Aurora school board candidates endorsed by Aurora’s teachers union.

The group’s largest donations came from the Colorado Fund for Children and Public Education, a fund from the Colorado Education Association. Aurora’s teachers union contributed $35,000 to the committee. The DCTA Fund, a fund created by Denver’s teachers union, also contributed $85,000 to the committee.

Some of the group’s union money is also going to a slate of school board candidates in Mesa County and another in Brighton.

Another union-funded group, called Brighter Futures for Denver, has spent all of its money on consultant services for one Denver candidate: Jennifer Bacon, who’s running in a three-person race in northeast Denver’s District 4. The Denver teachers union, which contributed $114,000 to the committee, has endorsed Bacon. The statewide teachers union also contributed money.

The Students for Education Reform Action Committee has spent equal amounts on two Denver candidates. One, Angela Cobián, is running in Denver’s District 2 against Gaytán and has been endorsed by incumbent Rosemary Rodriguez, who isn’t running again. The other is Rachele Espiritu, the incumbent running in District 4. The funds, which were collected during a previous campaign cycle and carried over into this one, have gone toward phone banking, T-shirts and campaign literature.

The group has endorsed Cobián, Espiritu and incumbent Barbara O’Brien, who holds an at-large seat. It did not endorse a candidate in the central-east Denver District 3 race, explaining that it prioritizes “working with communities that reflect the backgrounds and experiences of our members, which are typically low-income and students of color.”

Better Schools for a Stronger Colorado, a committee affiliated with the pro-reform Stand for Children organization, has spent a sizable portion of the more than $100,000 it’s raised thus far on online advertisements and mailers for O’Brien. It has also spent money on mailers for incumbent Mike Johnson, who represents District 3.

Stand for Children has endorsed O’Brien, Johnson and Cobián. The group chose not to endorse in the three-person District 4 race, explaining that both incumbent Espiritu and challenger Bacon had surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Another big spender is Raising Colorado, a group reporting $625,000 in donations from New York’s Education Reform Now — the national affiliate of Democrats for Education Reform. That group is spending money on mailers and digital media for four candidates in Denver: Espiritu, Cobián, Johnson and O’Brien, as well as two candidates for Aurora’s school board: Gail Pough and Miguel In Suk Lovato.

In Douglas County, the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers unions has pumped $300,000 into a committee backing a group of candidates known as the “Community Matters” slate that opposes the current direction of the state’s third largest school district.

The committee, Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids, has spent most of its war chest on producing TV, digital and mail advertising by firms in Washington D.C., and San Francisco.

The Douglas County arm of AFT lost its collective bargaining agreement with the district in 2012.

A group of parents that also supports the union-backed slate have formed a committee, as well. So far it has raised $42,750, records show. Unlike the union donation, most donations to this committee were small donations, averaging about $50 per person.

The parent committee has spent about $28,000 on T-shirts, bumper stickers, postage and yard signs, records show.

A group aligned with the state’s Republican party is also spending in Douglas County. The Colorado Republican Committee – Independent Expenditure Committee spent about $25,000 on a mail advertisement supporting the opposing slate, “Elevate Douglas County.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include more information about Americans for Prosperity’s Douglas County plans. It has also been updated to identify two other groups that are spending in Denver and Douglas County.