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

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.

money matters

In election of big spending, winning Aurora candidates spent less but got outside help

Four new board members, Kyla Armstrong-Romero, Marques Ivey, Kevin Cox and Debbie Gerkin after they were sworn in. (Photo courtesy of Aurora Public Schools)

A slate of Aurora school board candidates that won election last month were outspent by some of their rival campaigns — including in the final days of the race — but benefited from big spending by a union-backed independent committee.

Outside groups that backed the winning slate spent more overall during the campaign, but wound down as pro-education reform groups picked up their spending in the last period right before the election. Those efforts were not enough to push their candidates to victory.

According to the last campaign finance reports turned in on Thursday and covering activity from Oct. 26 through Dec. 2, Gail Pough and Miguel Lovato spent the most from their individual contributions.

Together Pough and Lovato spent more than $7,000 on calls, canvassing and consulting fees. Both candidates were supported by reform groups and had been reporting the most individual contributions in previous campaign finance reports.

But it was the slate of candidates endorsed by the teachers union — Kevin Cox, Debbie Gerkin, Kyla Armstrong-Romero and Marques Ivey — that prevailed on election night.

How much did candidates raise, spend?

  • Gail Pough, $12,756.32; $12,328.81
  • Lea Steed, $1,965.00; $1,396.16
  • Kyla Armstrong Romero, $7,418.83; $3,606.12
  • Kevin Cox, $2,785.54; $2,993.07
  • Miguel Lovato, $16,856.00; $16,735.33
  • Jane Barber, $1,510.32; $1,510.32
  • Debbie Gerkin, $4,690.00; $4,516.21
  • Marques Ivey, $5,496.50; $5,638.57
  • Barbara Yamrick, did not file

The slate members spent varying amounts in the last few days before the election. For instance, Cox, who won the most votes, spent $403 while Ivey who recorded the fewest votes of the four winning candidates, spent $2,056.

Most of the slate candidates’ spending went to Facebook ads and consulting fees.

The four also reported large amounts in non-monetary contributions. Collectively, the slate members reported about $76,535 in non-monetary contributions, mostly from union funds, to cover in-kind mail, polling, office space and printing. All four also reported a non-monetary contribution in the form of a robocall from the Arapahoe County Democratic Party.

Other financial support for candidates, through independent expenditure committees, showed that the group Every Student Succeeds which was backed by union dollars and was supporting the union slate, spent less in the last days than the reform groups Raising Colorado and Families First Colorado which were supporting Pough and Lovato.

Overall, the independent expenditure committee groups spent more than $419,000 trying to sway Aurora voters.

Incumbent Barbara Yamrick failed to file any campaign finance reports throughout the campaign.

This story has been updated to include more information about in-kind contributions to the union-backed candidates.