Following the money

Douglas County slate that favors continuing school voucher court case is ahead in early fundraising, records show

State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. (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.

Who Is In Charge

How one Memphis school is caught in the crosshairs of state and local improvement efforts

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson visits students at American Way Middle School on the first day of school.

Five months after the Tennessee Department of Education threatened a state takeover of American Way Middle School if Shelby County Schools did not hand it over to a charter organization, the future of that chronically low-performing school remains in limbo.

The state is reviewing the district’s plan for American Way and has not yet decided whether it will be subject to a takeover, according to a state spokeswoman.

Shelby County Schools started the school year with American Way as its newest addition to the Innovation Zone. The district has high hopes that its proven school improvement model will turn things around for the Memphis middle school.

“We’re going about our business not thinking about the state,” Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said, standing in American Way’s entryway on Aug. 6, the first day of school. “All of our students deserve to have a great school and that’s our mindset here. … We have a strong record of success in the iZone.”

The fate of American Way speaks to a larger question in Tennessee: What is the best way to boost learning at schools with high concentrations of students living in poverty and students of color?

One track is the iZone, a local district-led program that has resulted in significant improvement on state tests. Another is the state-run Achievement Schools District, which relies heavily on charter organizations to improve schools. However, the schools it has taken over are doing no better than low-performing schools that were left out of both programs, researchers say.

In February, state education officials introduced a third option: turn American Way over to a nonprofit charter organization that would be overseen by the local district. If Shelby County Schools refused, the state-run district would take it over. But Shelby County Schools chose instead to add the school to its own iZone, something leaders had been considering for at least 10 months.

Making the decision more complicated: If the state decides to take over the school, the department of education would be rejecting a plan devised by Sharon Griffin, the leader who was later hired by the state to promote school improvement statewide.

Sharon Griffin

When Griffin was chief of schools for Shelby County Schools, her team planned American Way’s transition into the iZone, which involves replacing the school leader, some teachers, and adding an extra hour to the school day along with resources like food pantries and clothes closets for low-income families.

The state tapped her in May to lead the Achievement School District and to oversee strategies to boost low-performing schools across the state.

Additionally, the state’s options for American Way were a result of a shift in strategy to be more collaborative with districts. The less heavy-handed approach was evident in the state’s improvement plans for 21 schools announced in February. American Way was the only school slated for takeover after years of taking over several at once with barely any recourse for the district.

Hopson said that under Griffin’s leadership, he expects the state would “certainly be open to giving us the time we need to turn the school around.”

“Parents are buying in, faculty is buying in,” he said. “So, we think given our track record with the iZone, we certainly deserve a shot to turn this school around.”

Hopson said as much in March, when he sent a letter asking the state to hold off on the takeover. He also said he was unaware of charter organizations that have been successful at improving middle schools.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
American Way Middle School

This is not the first time American Way Middle has been targeted for state takeover. The school has been eligible to enter the state-run Achievement School District since 2012, when it appeared on the state’s “priority list” of schools performing in the bottom 5 percent, statewide.

But after adamant pushback from hundreds of parents and students, an advisory group recommended American Way stay under Shelby County Schools control in 2014. The charter organization originally slated to take over the school, YES Prep, eventually backed out of another school at the eleventh hour.

Without any sort of intervention, American Way’s test scores have not been growing as fast as students who posted similar scores around the state. There was some improvement last year in English and science, but fewer than 5 percent of students tested at grade level in math.

The school did, however, show enough progress in 2015 to escape state takeover under a state law to shield schools that showed significant growth.

The state spokeswoman said there is “no specific timeline” on when a decision would be made about its involvement in American Way.

election 2019

College student, former candidate jumps into Denver school board race – early

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Tay Anderson speaks to students at Denver's South High School in May 2017.

A Denver college student who as a teenager last year unsuccessfully ran for a seat on the district’s school board announced Wednesday that he plans to try again in 2019.

Tay Anderson, 20, said he will run next November for the board seat currently occupied by Happy Haynes. Haynes, a longtime Denver politician who is executive director of the city’s parks and recreation department, does not represent a particular region of the school district. Rather, she is one of two at-large members on the board. Haynes was first elected to the school board in 2011 and is barred by term limits from running again.

Haynes supports the direction of Denver Public Schools and some of its more aggressive improvement strategies, such as closing low-performing schools. Anderson does not.

He is the first candidate to declare he’s running for the Denver school board in 2019. Haynes’ seat is one of three seats that will be open in 2019. There is no school board election this year.

In 2017, Anderson ran in a heated three-way race for a different board seat representing northeast Denver. Former teacher Jennifer Bacon won that seat with 42 percent of the vote.

Anderson, a vocal critic of the district, campaigned on platform of change. He called for the district to improve what he described as weak community engagement efforts and to stop approving new charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Bacon also questioned some of the district’s policies. The Denver teachers union endorsed her over Anderson, who raised the least amount of money of the three candidates. Bacon was one of two new board members elected in 2017 who represent a more critical perspective. The 2019 election is likely to involve many of the same debates over education reform.

Anderson is a graduate of Denver’s Manual High School. He is now a student at Metropolitan State University, where he is studying education. He said he also works at Hinkley High School in neighboring Aurora, helping with the school’s restorative justice program, a method of student discipline that focuses on repairing harm rather than doling out punishment.

Anderson posted his campaign announcement on Facebook. It says, in part:

After a lot of thought, prayer, and seeking guidance from mentors, I decided this is the path I need to pursue to fulfill my commitment to the students, teachers, and community of Denver. I learned many valuable lessons during my campaign in 2017 and I know that I need to prepare and ensure that I have the adequate time to be in every part of Denver to connect with as many voters as possible, which is why I am getting to work now!

My dedication to Denver Public Schools has always been deeply personal and this campaign is reflective of that. As I gear up for another campaign, I am once again driven and motivated by my grandmother, who was an educator for over 35 years. Her tenacity to never give up is what drives my passion for the students in Denver Public Schools. I am determined to follow in her footsteps. I have organized students around school safety and more importantly impacted students’ lives in Denver Public Schools and Aurora Public Schools. These students have a voice and I am prepared to fight for their agency in their education.