home turf

Two candidates with southwest Denver roots battle to represent region on school board

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Teacher Jonell Tafoya works with student Liliana Lucero in 2011 at Gust Elementary in southwest Denver.

Two political newcomers are dueling for a wide-open school board seat in southwest Denver, a region of the city that has seen a multitude of school improvement efforts in recent years.

Angela Cobián, a former Denver teacher backed by pro-reform organizations and current board members, is facing off against parent and real estate agent Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who has the endorsement and the funding of the Denver teachers union.

In many ways, the race for the District 2 seat appears to follow a political storyline familiar to voters in the state’s largest school district: A candidate who disagrees with the district’s direction challenging one who supports it. Neither candidate is particularly well known, and both have compelling personal stories to tell as they introduce themselves to voters.

    This is the second of a series of articles profiling this year’s Denver school board races. You can read the first article here and about where candidates in all the DPS races stand on issues here, in Chalkbeat’s candidate questionnaire. Check out our coverage of the campaign’s first campaign finance reports here.

The Nov. 7 election has the potential to flip the school board majority. Four seats are up for grabs on a seven-member board whose current members unanimously back Denver Public Schools’ key policies, including its embrace of school choice and autonomy. Even if one challenger to the status quo prevails, a dissenting voice would shift board dynamics. The District 2 race is the only one this year that doesn’t feature an incumbent running for re-election.

Cobián and Gaytán both have roots in southwest Denver.

Cobián, 28, is the daughter of Mexican immigrants who bought a house there when she was in fifth grade, ending the frequent moves and school switches that marked her early education as an English language learner. When her mother got a job at an Englewood Head Start preschool, Cobián said she transferred to that city’s schools and graduated from Englewood High.

Cobián said she became the first in her family to go to college when she enrolled at Colorado College to study political science. Her goal was to get a PhD but she changed her mind after an experience she had while interning for an early childhood education organization.

She was at the home of a family in southwest Denver training a mom on how to help her young child develop literacy skills. The child’s grandmother was also there, and Cobián said she noticed the older woman was limping. When she asked why, she said the woman told her about a bungled surgery and an unapologetic doctor not willing to fix his error because he knew the woman was undocumented and would be too afraid to report him.

“I still feel like somebody punches me in the gut when I think about that moment,” Cobián said in a recent interview. “…You think about the success of that child and all of the different systemic barriers that trap them. That’s when I was like, ‘No way. I need to be a teacher.’”

Cobián joined Teach for America and spent two years teaching English language learners at Cole Arts and Science Academy, a low-income district-run school in northeast Denver. She left teaching to become a community organizer and now works for Leadership for Educational Equity, a nonprofit organization that trains educators to advocate for policy changes. School board candidate Jennifer Bacon, who is running in District 4, also works for the group.

Gaytán, 42, also grew up in Denver. She was born in Mexico and said the experience of being an undocumented child in the city’s public schools means she truly understands what it’s like for students who are “living on the edge of society.” DPS doesn’t collect immigration status information but estimates several thousand of its 92,000 students are undocumented.

Gaytán said she attended several schools in the western part of the city because her family moved frequently in search of affordable rent. She graduated from southwest Denver’s Lincoln High and went on to earn a business degree from Metropolitan State University. Gaytán, who said she became a U.S. citizen as an adult, works as a real estate agent and volunteers as president of her neighborhood association, the Harvey Park Improvement Association.

She has said she and her husband moved to that neighborhood in part because of the reputation of the local district-run elementary school. Gaytán has two children and said her family’s own experience with school closure influenced her views on the controversial topic.

When they were getting ready to send their oldest son from Doull Elementary to Kunsmiller Middle School just blocks from their house, the school board voted to close it. Gaytán knew Kunsmiller was low-performing but said she felt confident her family could be part of an effort to turn things around. The announcement that it would close was “last-minute,” she said, and sent her and her husband scrambling to find a new middle school for their son.

In the end, they chose one about 10 miles away and adjusted their work schedules so one of them could drop him off and the other could pick him up. But it was a big sacrifice, she said, and left her wondering how less advantaged families were managing.

In addition to complicating logistics, she said the school closure left her community hurting.

“The message is, ‘You’re no good. Your child is no good. Your child is not performing. Therefore, we’re closing you down,’” Gaytán said. “It’s such a detriment to our community.”

As a school board member, Gaytán said she’d look to provide the social and emotional “wraparound services” that many struggling schools need instead of closing them.

DPS in recent years has closed schools based on poor performance, and the school board in 2015 adopted a policy that includes strict criteria for when to do so. Gaytán has campaigned as the candidate who will keep open her alma mater, Lincoln High, which is one of several schools in danger of meeting those criteria next year.

Her opponent, Cobián, said she’s “not out to close Lincoln or any schools, by extension.” But she said that if the district has provided resources to help a struggling school improve and students still aren’t showing at least a year’s worth of academic growth every year, the board should intervene, which could include closing or restarting that school.

The two candidates also disagree over the district’s strategy to cultivate a “portfolio” of traditional district-run schools, publicly funded but privately run charter schools, and district-run innovation schools, which have more autonomy than traditional schools but less than charters.

Gaytán has called for a moratorium on new charter schools, the number of which “has grown too fast, too soon” in southwest Denver, she said. While some charter schools post high test scores, she questioned whether they’re meeting students’ non-academic needs and criticized the district for not having a clear way to determine that for all schools.

“I would support our charters that are in our neighborhoods now. I support what’s working for our families now,” she said. “I don’t want to shut them down. I just want them to simply be working.”

The five-color scale DPS currently uses to rate schools is a poor measure, Gaytán said, because the criteria for quality have changed over the years and because the formula too heavily weights academic growth, which she has said can “create a misconception … that schools with very low proficiencies are doing well because they are growing.”

Cobián is not calling for a charter moratorium, but agreed that “it’s not a real portfolio model if all you have is no-excuses charter schools.” Such schools generally have dress codes, strict discipline policies, a commitment to using data and a focus on preparing kids for college.

Cobián said the district should strive to open a variety of options in all neighborhoods so families can choose the schools that are right for their students. DPS should also do a better job of asking community members what kinds of schools they want and making sure all schools are equitably funded and “equitably excellent,” she said.

“There are no silver bullets,” Cobián said. “… Every community is different.”

As of Oct. 11, when the first campaign filing period ended, Cobián had raised nearly four times more money than Gaytán: $94,152 compared to $24,134.

Cobián’s big contributors included businessmen and philanthropists who have donated large sums to pro-reform school board candidates over the years, while Gaytán’s largest investments came from the Denver and statewide teachers unions.

Both candidates also have benefitted from the support of independent expenditure committees. A union-funded group called Every Student Succeeds spent $110,000 on Gaytán, which was the most it spent on any union-backed candidate. Meanwhile, two groups spent a total of $52,234 on Cobián.

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.