Colorado Votes 2017

What’s different about this year’s Denver school board election? Betsy DeVos, for one

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Election judge Josie Flanagan takes ballots from a voter at the drive-through ballot drop-off outside the Denver Elections Division.

In many ways, the storylines of this year’s Denver school board election feel familiar. Those who embrace the district’s policies, and those who remain resistant. Those who welcome charter schools against those who see them as forces of privatization. Candidates willing to consider closing low-performing schools versus those dead-set against it.

But as candidates who oppose the reforms that have brought national recognition to Denver Public Schools in the last decade once again battle to gain a foothold on a board that unanimously backs the district’s direction, some factors are different this time around, said several longtime district observers.

Among the most glaring, they said, is how shifts in the national political climate — and the divisiveness surrounding U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos — are permeating local races.

“In the aftermath of Trump, the Democratic party, which is dominant in Denver, has moved pretty hard to the left,” said Eric Sondermann, a political analyst who is supporting the incumbent candidates. “…And among many of those activists, opposition to reformers and to charters has become more and more the holy grail.”

Four of the seven board seats are up for election Nov. 7. All of the seats are contested and each race includes at least one candidate who disagrees with the district’s direction. If those candidates sweep the election, they’ll have the political power to change key policies.

At rallies and in interviews and campaign literature, groups pushing for DPS to reverse direction are seeking to tie the district to DeVos, whose brand of education reform, which includes private school vouchers, has been aggressively disavowed by the district and its school board.

But critics point to certain decisions the board has made in the last two years. They include the further expansion of high-performing charter networks and the adoption of a school closure policy that uses strict criteria to determine when to replace low-performing schools and leaves little room for impassioned pleas to keep them open.

After more than a decade of such strategies in Colorado’s largest school district, the evidence of whether they’re working or not is piling up. Yet in what is perhaps a sign that the local debate is growing more polarized, the two sides interpret it differently.

“I think the district is suffering from a lack of proof that their reforms are working,” said a former board member, Jeannie Kaplan, who supports candidates who want to see a change.

Mary Seawell, a former board president who favors Denver’s reforms, said the opposite.

“What makes this election different than the past three is that we have so much more independent data showing the improvements happening districtwide,” said Seawell, citing a recent laudatory report by an education nonprofit that praised Denver for effectively managing schools with different governance structures and showing high rates of academic growth.

“We have proof and evidence,” she said, “that a lot of this is really working.”

It’s true that Denver students made more academic progress on state tests last year than ever before and that the percentage reading and doing math at grade-level moved to within a few points of the statewide average, a big feat for a district that historically lagged far behind. But reform opponents point out that only 39 percent of third-graders scored at grade-level in English.

The district’s four-year graduation rate increased from 52 percent in 2010 to 67 percent in 2016, mirroring a national trend. However, of the 10 largest districts in Colorado, only neighboring Aurora graduates a lower percentage of its students in four years.

And while 85 percent of incoming kindergarteners got into their first-choice schools this year, critics argue that not providing transportation to all students who want to attend a school outside their neighborhood presents a hollow choice for families who can’t drive their kids across town.

That the two sides can’t agree on the facts is hampering debate, said Van Schoales, whose organization, A Plus Colorado, favors many district policies but doesn’t endorse candidates.

“On one hand, we hear the district is being privatized by profiteers,” a characterization that isn’t true, he said. “On the other side, we hear the district is great and made more improvement than any other district in the country.

“Yeah, it’s improved, but it’s far from where it needs to be,” Schoales added. “In previous elections, there was more of a rich debate around, how do you get from (here to there)?”

Other factors are in play. School board elections are historically low-turnout. And observers on both sides wonder aloud whether the reformers can rally the support needed to continue the winning streak that has resulted in a 7-0 board in favor of the district’s direction or whether their opponents can marshal the necessary votes to tip the board’s balance of power.

“The question is: Is that opposition gaining strength?” Sondermann said, “Or is it just the same minority point of view that it’s been for the last half-dozen, dozen years?”

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.