ballot set

Aurora school board up for possible big changes with only one incumbent seeking re-election

A student works at Tollgate Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Nic Garcia, Chalkbeat)

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that the district verified an additional candidate over the weekend, bringing the total to nine.

Nine people will vie for four seats on the board of education for Aurora Public Schools this November.

The school district confirmed the field Friday, the deadline for candidates to submit required petition signatures. One additional candidate had signatures verified over the weekend.

Eric Nelson, an Aurora school board member who was censured last year for exaggerating and fabricating his military service and his education degrees, among other things, is not running.

Only one incumbent, Barbara Yamrick, is running for re-election to the seven-member board. Board president Amber Drevon is not seeking a second term. Board member, JulieMarie Shepherd is term-limited.

Aurora’s current school board has generally supported superintendent Rico Munn’s reform efforts, though board votes aren’t always predictable.

Drevon said Friday afternoon she is pursuing other opportunities and said she feels proud of what has been accomplished during her time on the board.

“I feel really good about the position of the district, especially now having the district coming off the clock,” Drevon said, referring to Aurora scoring well enough on preliminary state ratings to pull itself off the state’s accountability clock for poor performance.

Candidates for the Aurora Public Schools board

  • Barbara Yamrick
  • Kyla Armstrong-Romero
  • Jane Barber
  • Kevin Cox
  • Debra Gerkin
  • Gail Pough
  • Marques Ivey
  • Miguel Lovato
  • Lea Steed

Eight candidates in addition to the incumbent turned in enough signatures to get on the ballot, according to the school district.

Among the candidates is Jane Barber, who previously served on the Aurora school board; Debra Gerkin, the former principal of Crawford Elementary School; and Kevin Cox, who was previously running for a seat on the Aurora city council, but dropped out to run for school board.

Five of the eight new candidates have cited an opposition to charter schools, either in interviews with Chalkbeat or in campaign material. The others either could not be reached or their positions were not immediately available.

At Munn’s urging, Aurora’s school board voted this summer to approve a charter application for DSST, a high-performing charter school network based in Denver. (Yamrick, the incumbent running for reelection, voted no).

Superintendent Rico Munn invited the charter school to apply while offering to provide half of the funding for a new building through money from a bond. Voters approved the bond request last November. Several teachers and some community members spoke to the board in the months prior, asking the board not to approve the charter school application.

The school district is now negotiating the contract for DSST and the school board must vote on it this month.

The next school board would have a chance to vote later on a contract for a second DSST sixth-through-12th grade campus.

The charter approved this year lays out certain requirements the charter school must meet for the school board to give final approval to the second campus that would open in 2021.

The new school board also will face decisions about the district’s budget and facilities. Although some schools in southeast Aurora are crowded because of new city development, the district overall has been experiencing a historic decline in enrollment.

Aurora school board candidates are all at-large members. Voters will select four of the nine names and the four candidates with the most votes will win a seat.

The district will hold a drawing on Wednesday to determine the order of the names on the ballot.

Correction: This story has been updated to correct information about candidate Kevin Cox’s previous run for city council.

the race is on

Stand for Children chooses not to endorse in northeast Denver school board race

DENVER, CO - March 16: A Denver Public Schools emblem and sign on the Evie Garrett Dennis Campus that houses five separate schools with 1,600 students in Pre-K through 12th grade in Northeast Denver, Colorado on March 16, 2016. (Photo by Katie Wood/The Denver Post)

Stand for Children Colorado on Tuesday announced its candidate endorsements for this fall’s Denver school board races — and one notable non-endorsement.

The pro-education reform group chose not to endorse a candidate in the three-person race in District 4, which encompasses a diverse mix of northeast Denver neighborhoods. The group said both incumbent Rachele Espiritu and challenger Jennifer Bacon had surpassed the group’s “threshold for endorsement,” and that “Denver’s kids would be well served by either candidate.”  

Recent Manual High School graduate Tay Anderson is also vying for the seat.

With four of seven seats in play, this fall’s election could swing the balance of a school board that unanimously backs the school district’s education reform efforts.

Stand is a significant player in Denver school board elections. It donates money to candidates and helps marshal resources on the ground, including door-to-door canvassing.

Kate Dando Doran, a spokeswoman for Stand for Children Colorado, said in an email the group will not contribute financially to candidates in District 4. She said that families Stand works with in southwest Denver are supporting former teacher Angela Cobián’s campaign in that part of the city, and that Stand would focus its energy and resources there, too.  

Cobián has the support of incumbent Rosemary Rodriguez, who is not running again. Stand endorsed Cobián in her race against parent Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who has teachers union backing.

Stand for Children’s other endorsements do not come as a surprise: incumbent Barbara O’Brien in the citywide at-large race that includes former Denver teacher Julie Bañuelos and parent Robert Speth; and incumbent Mike Johnson for District 3 in central-east Denver, who is facing English language development teacher Carrie A. Olson.

To be considered for Stand’s endorsement, candidates agree to answer a candidate questionnaire and to be interviewed by a committee of parents. Doran said O’Brien, Cobián, Johnson, Bacon and Espiritu went through the group’s process.

That Stand could not settle on an endorsement in District 4 adds to the drama in the three-person race. Opponents of the district’s reforms haven’t united on a pick, either. The Denver teachers union endorsed Bacon, a community organizer and former teacher. The advocacy group Our Denver, Our Schools and a progressive caucus of the teachers union are backing Anderson.

Local funding

Colorado school districts taking another shot at tax measures after past defeats

A student works on her geometry homework during class at Brighton High School in Brighton on Nov. 12, 2015. (Denver Post file photo)

Higher teacher pay, technology upgrades and better curriculum resources are topping the wish lists of Colorado school districts going to voters with tax measures this November.

The Brighton 27J school district is one of nearly 20 districts with money measures on local ballots, and the only one in the Denver metro area. Colorado Springs’ District 11 and Greeley 6 also are asking voters for increased funding.

“We need it,” said Brighton superintendent Chris Fiedler. “We desperately need it.”

With a long-term fix to Colorado’s school funding challenges proving elusive, districts are left to make up gaps with local tax measures. That has led to vast inequities, with some districts able to bank on local voters and others being turned down again and again.

Voters in Brighton approved a bond request two years ago on a third attempt. The district had already resorted to stretching out school days to fit the district’s growing number of students in existing buildings. Voters then approved the bond request to help the district make more space.

But bond requests in Colorado are only allowed for certain uses, such as buildings.

That’s why the district is back this year, asking for a $12 million mill levy override, a property tax increase. The district has asked for this type of tax increase five times since 2003, but has been turned down every time. The last mill levy request approved was in 2000.

The money this year would be used to increase salaries, add counselors to every elementary school and provide new curriculum and technology. The district is in such financial straits, it recently had to purchase new literacy resources on a three-year payment plan.

Superintendent Fiedler said the district’s needs have been identified since 2014, but that he waited to ask because he didn’t think voters would approve both a bond and mill levy request on the same ballot.

“In my mind, it’s long overdue,” Fiedler said.

In Greeley, the district also asked voters for an increase in local taxes last year and was turned down.

This time the district is seeking approval for a $14 million mill levy request that would go to pay teachers and staff more and to update curriculum, technology and add security cameras at the high school.

Terri Pappas, school board director and co-chair of the campaign for the ballot question, said people last year just wanted the district to be more specific about how the money would be used, and some needed more information about how school funding works.

“We did a lot of outreach and we’ve taken all of that feedback, all of that information and we’ve been working diligently since May coming up with a plan to reach voters,” Pappas said.

The difference between the no votes and yes votes last year was so close, Pappas said, that district leaders felt they had to use that momentum this year.

Glenn Gustafson, the chief financial officer of Colorado Springs School District 11, said district leaders there felt the same way.

District 11 is also just asking for a mill levy override this year, but has raised the amount to $42 million, up from last year’s unsuccessful $32.6 million mill levy request. The money would be used for salaries, facility improvements and for new school psychologists and counselors.

Gustafson said the low salaries are especially affecting the district’s ability to hire support staff. For instance, the district has 29 open positions for food workers, he said.

“We’re short on bus drivers every single day,” Gustafson said. “We have to pull people out of the office to help drive.”

Voters last approved a mill levy tax increase in District 11 in 2000. Voters in Greeley have never approved a property tax increase for school funding.

Brighton’s district leaders think there’s one more thing that might be able to make a difference in this year’s elections: the voter base.

Colorado voter registration records show Adams County has seen an increase of more than 37,000 voters since November of 2011, the last time Brighton asked voters for a mill levy override. In recent years, voter records show one of the biggest increases is among 18 to 25 year-olds.

“The vast majority of those folks are young families with kids,” Superintendent Fiedler said. “They have different perspectives.”

In District 11, Gustafson said a large challenge is reaching voters who don’t have children in schools. In Greeley, officials believe there are new young families in the district, but it remains a challenge to get them all to vote.

“We need to make sure we reach out to all of our voters,” Gustafson said. “And we’re pushing to get all of our parents involved.”