the race is on

Barbara O’Brien has three challengers for her DPS board seat so far — and one almost pulled a big upset two years ago

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
DPS board vice president Barbara O'Brien. left, and board president Anne Rowe.

A Denver father who narrowly lost a seat on the Denver Public Schools board to a well-known incumbent two years ago is running again this year, one of three candidates challenging another well-known incumbent, former Colorado lieutenant governor Barbara O’Brien.

O’Brien’s at-large seat is among four on the seven-member board up for grabs this fall. Incumbents are running in three of the four races, and every race is now contested.

The stakes are high: All seven current board members support district leaders’ brand of education reform, which includes closing low-performing schools. Victories by candidates who oppose those reforms would increase disagreement on a board that often votes 7-0. A sweep by those candidates could potentially change the direction of key district policies.

The field for the at-large seat is the biggest thus far. Of the three candidates vying to unseat O’Brien, Robert Speth is likely the most familiar to voters after his showing in 2015.

The father of two was a political unknown when he emerged late in the campaign to challenge former city councilwoman Happy Haynes, who at the time was president of the DPS board.

Haynes had recently been appointed head of the city parks department, which raised questions about whether it was a conflict for her to hold both that job and an at-large seat on the volunteer school board. The Denver Board of Ethics said it was not.

Robert Speth

But Speth called for an “absolute separation” between the two roles. He also criticized the district’s embrace of charter schools and co-locating different schools in the same building, arguing that DPS often ignored the wishes of family and community members.

On Election Day, he lost to Haynes by 913 votes.

Speth, 45, said he’s been watching the board for past two years and doesn’t agree with its approach to closing low-performing schools. It was “just heartbreaking,” he said, to hear parents and teachers at three schools the board voted to close last year begging for another chance.

“School closure has got to be viewed as an absolute last resort,” Speth said. “Now the way we’re operating, it’s, ‘Sure, no problem.’”

If elected, he said he’d also work to rein in the number of standardized tests students take, slow the pace of new charter school approvals and increase community engagement. Having children in DPS schools sets him apart from his opponents, he said.

Speth has the formidable task of trying to unseat O’Brien, 67, who recently stepped down as president of Catapult, a development program for leaders of low-income schools.

She is well-known in Colorado politics, having served as the state’s lieutenant governor from 2007 to 2011. Before that, she was the longtime president of the Colorado Children’s Campaign and helped create the Colorado Preschool Program for at-risk children.

O’Brien said she’s running for re-election to continue to push for gains in the areas she’s most passionate about, including getting young learners off to a good start and ensuring that high school graduates can afford college or vocational training.

O’Brien is most proud of the increased autonomy the district has granted school leaders during her tenure on the board, how it’s empowering teachers to coach other teachers and how leaders worked with a community organization to craft a policy that limits suspensions and expulsions for students in preschool through third grade, she said.

She voted for the recent school closures, explaining that while the district should do all it can to help a school improve, it also can’t let children languish in programs that aren’t working.

“Sometimes you just need a fresh start,” O’Brien said.

Candidates Julie Banuelos and Jo Ann Fujioka are also vying for the at-large seat.

Banuelos, 44, spent her early childhood in northeast Denver, where she attended an elementary school that later was turned into a magnet school for gifted students. Until this past October, Banuelos was a DPS teacher, working with Spanish-speaking elementary school students, and was on the board of directors of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association union.

She said “a lot of frustration with the reform that is taking priority in DPS” caused her to leave her job. She called the criteria the board uses to close low-performing schools “flimsy” and said the district’s school choice system should be reworked to ensure it’s providing equal opportunity to low-income families who can’t drive their children to schools across town. And she’d like the district to pause on approving new charter schools with strict behavior policies.

“They promote values that don’t reflect our community,” Banuelos said.

Fujioka is a former Jeffco Public Schools nurse and administrator who oversaw special education in a lower-income area of the suburban district. She’s also a North High School graduate whose daughter graduated from DPS, as well, and she has been active for years in the Denver Democratic Party. Fujioka is Japanese American, and she and her family were in an internment camp when she was a toddler, she said.

She disagrees with closing low-performing traditional schools and said the expansion of charter schools in Denver has created “a system of unequal education where it does depend on where you live and if you have the means to really choose and get your student there.”

Fujioka said she thinks DPS should shift funding away from administrative staff and into classrooms to lower class sizes and provide more professional development for teachers.

The other seats in play represent the southwest, northeast and central east parts of the city.

Incumbent Mike Johnson is running for re-election to represent central east Denver. DPS teacher Carrie A. Olson told Chalkbeat she intends to run against him. Olson is a social studies and English language development teacher at West Leadership Academy.

Incumbent Rachele Espiritu is running to continue representing northeast Denver. She has two challengers: recent high school graduate Tay Anderson, and Jennifer Bacon, an attorney and community organizer who works for Leadership for Educational Equity, a nonprofit organization that trains educators to advocate for education policy changes.

The board member who currently holds the seat representing southwest Denver, Rosemary Rodriguez, is not running again. But she has endorsed one of the candidates: former DPS teacher Angela Cobian. DPS parent Xochitl “Sochi” Gaytan is also running for the seat.

The field will not be set until Sept. 1, the deadline for filing petition signatures to qualify for the November ballot.

dotting the i's

Group that supported Douglas County anti-voucher candidates fined in campaign finance case

The Douglas County school board on Monday voted to end the district's voucher program and directed the district to seek an end to the protracted legal case. (Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A political committee that supported a slate of anti-voucher candidates in the Douglas County school board race has been ordered to pay a $1,900 fine related to campaign finance violations.

Back in the fall, the group Campaign Integrity Watchdog filed a complaint against Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids that alleged the group failed to properly report donations and expenditures.  Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids is an independent political committee, which can spend an unlimited amount of money to advocate for candidates.

The Douglas County race was one of the most high-profile school board races in the state, and outside money from all sides flowed into the campaigns. The union-backed CommUnity Matters candidates won all four open seats, and as promised, they promptly ended the school district’s years-long defense of a controversial voucher program.

An administrative law judge ruled that some of the allegations in the complaint were not actually violations and that others were mistakes that the independent expenditure committee quickly corrected. For the most part, there was no intent to deceive the electorate, the judge found, and interested voters had ample opportunity to learn that teachers unions had donated to Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids and that the group had spent money on campaign materials.

But in one instance, the judge found that Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids waited too long to report spending on digital communications sent in the weeks right before the election. That’s the violation for which the group must pay a $50 a day fee, adding up to the $1,900.

The complaint from the elections watchdog group, which has previously filed complaints against Democrats and Republicans, alleged that Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids:

  • Failed to report a $1 donation used to open a bank account
  • Failed to report a $300,000 donation from American Federation of Teachers Solidarity
  • Failed to disclose more than $50,000 spent on campaign mailers within the 48-hour window required when money is spent in the last 30 days before an election

The judge found that the failure to disclose the $1 donation for the bank account was not a violation at all because the amount was so small. The $300,000 donation, meanwhile, was reported as coming from American Federation of Teachers. According to the judge’s ruling, when someone on the union side tried to correct the entry, they accidentally made a new entry for American Federation of Teachers Solidarity, giving the appearance of an additional unreported donation. While the failure to report the full correct name was a technical violation, the judge wrote that little harm was done, and the mistake was quickly fixed.

The purpose of campaign finance law is transparency, the judge wrote, and that was accomplished “by disclosing the key fact that a large national union of teachers was attempting to influence the election.”

On the spending side, the independent committee erred, the judge ruled, in not reporting expenditures on mailers within 48 hours of obligating the money. However, most of the spending was reported soon after the committee received invoices and again more than a week before the election. And because the committee’s name appears on the mailers, there was little concern that voters would have been deceived, the judge wrote.

However, in one instance involving roughly $1,800 for digital communications, the group did not disclose until its final campaign finance report in December, well after the election. It was this violation that prompted the judge to impose the fine.

Follow the money

Final Denver school board campaign finance reports show who brought in the most late money

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Victoria Tisman, 8, left, works with paraprofessional Darlene Ontiveros on her Spanish at Bryant-Webster K-8 school in Denver.

Final campaign finance reports for this year’s hard-fought Denver school board elections are in, and they show a surge of late contributions to Angela Cobián, who was elected to represent southwest Denver and ended up bringing in more money than anyone else in the field.

The reports also showed the continued influence of independent groups seeking to sway the races. Groups that supported candidates who favor Denver Public Schools’ current direction raised and spent far more than groups that backed candidates looking to change things.

No independent group spent more during the election than Raising Colorado, which is affiliated with Democrats for Education Reform. In the week and a half before the Nov. 7 election, it spent $126,985. That included nearly $57,000 to help elect Rachele Espiritu, an incumbent supportive of the district’s direction who lost her seat representing northeast Denver to challenger Jennifer Bacon. Raising Colorado spent $13,765 on mail opposing Bacon in that same period.

Teachers union-funded committees also were active in the campaign.

Individually, Cobián raised more money in the days before the election than the other nine candidates combined. She pulled in $25,335 between Oct. 30 and Dec. 2.

That includes a total of $11,000 from three members of the Walton family that founded Walmart: Jim, Alice and Steuart. The Waltons have over the years invested more than $1 billion in education-related causes, including the creation of charter schools.

Total money raised, spent by candidates
  • Angela Cobián: $123,144, $105,200
    Barbara O’Brien: $117,464, $115,654
    Mike Johnson: $106,536, $103,782
    Rachele Espiritu: $94,195, $87,840
    Jennifer Bacon: $68,967, $67,943
    Carrie A. Olson: $35,470, $35,470
    Robert Speth: $30,635, $31,845
    “Sochi” Gaytan: $28,977, $28,934
    Tay Anderson: $18,766, $16,865
    Julie Bañuelos: $12,962, $16,835

Cobián was supported in her candidacy by donors and groups that favor the district’s brand of education reform, which includes collaborating with charter schools. In the end, Cobián eclipsed board vice president Barbara O’Brien, who had been leading in contributions throughout the campaign, to raise the most money overall: a total of $123,144.

The two candidates vying to represent central-east Denver raised about $5,000 each in the waning days of the campaign. Incumbent Mike Johnson pulled in $5,300, including $5,000 from Colorado billionaire Phil Anschutz. Teacher Carrie A. Olson, who won the seat, raised $4,946 from a host of donors, none of whom gave more than $500 during that time period.

The other candidates raised less than $5,000 each between Oct. 30 and Dec. 2.

O’Brien, who staved off two competitors to retain her seat representing the city at-large, spent the most in that period: $31,225. One of her competitors, Julie Bañuelos, spent the least.