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.

Colorado Votes 2017

How Colorado’s teachers unions claimed school board victories Tuesday

The nation's second largest teachers union is spending $300,000 to support a slate of candidates running for the Douglas County school board. Those candidates posed for pictures at their campaign kick-off event are from left, Krista Holtzmann, Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor, and Kevin Leung. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Building on recent successes, Colorado’s teachers unions sharpened their political operation and took advantage of an unsettled national electoral climate to score victories this week in some of the state’s largest school districts.

Slates of school board candidates backed by teachers unions won majorities in Aurora, Douglas and Jefferson counties. And in Denver — where the union has been unable to stop or slow the school district’s reform strategies — two candidates supported by the union won seats on the city’s seven-member board.

The political and education policy circumstances differ in each of the four school districts — the dynamics look much different in Denver, for example, than in Douglas County.

But with some differences, teachers unions have during the past two local school board election cycles adopted and refined a playbook to counter the money and influence of their policy foes.

National, state and local unions spent more time engaging their members and other labor organizations, recruited and groomed better candidates most places, and devoted considerable financial resources to ensure wins. Unions also loosely aligned themselves with vocal parent groups in some districts, and pushed a variety of messages — both local and national, positive and negative — on doorsteps and in voters’ social media streams and mailboxes.

The time was ripe for such strategies to pay off. Civil rights groups and factions of the Democratic Party have ramped-up their criticisms of charter schools. And then there is the controversy over Donald Trump’s presidency and his tapping of billionaire Betsy DeVos as education secretary.

Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, emphasized the unions’ attempts to join forces with like-minded groups.

“I think we’ve gotten better, chiefly at talking to the community,” she said. “It’s not teachers alone. It’s parents and other community organizations working together. It’s been particularly grassroots in that regard. It has to be.”

Van Schoales, CEO of A+ Colorado, which monitors and critiques reform efforts in Denver and Aurora, said the election should be a wake-up call for reformers who favor strategies such as giving schools more autonomy and holding schools accountable for performance.

“The union did a much better job than they’ve done in the past,” he said. “This should be a message to folks that there is a lot of work to be done to engage the community” before Election Day about how the reforms are improving schools.

Perfecting their game 

Months before the November election, the Douglas County Federation of Teachers rented classrooms to hear the frustrations of their members and to encourage them to participate in this year’s election. 

The message to teachers from their leaders was clear: Talk to your parents, talk to your family, talk to your neighbors about the candidates you support. In an off-year election, consistent and sustained outreach — not attack mailers — is key, union leaders said.

And with no statewide ballot issue to compete with, teachers could more easily capture voters’ attention.

But during the run-up to Nov. 7, those teachers fanned out across the district and walked with members of the Douglas County Parents political committee, in addition to making more than 30,000 phone calls to voters — far more than they’ve ever made.

Particular emphasis was put on turning out the 19,000 union members living in Douglas County.

Similar mobilization efforts played out in Aurora and Denver. While union leaders there are still tallying up totals, anecdotally they believe they made more contact with voters than in recent years.

“We extend our greatest thanks and appreciation to the hundreds of educators who gave their time and talent to participate in neighborhood walks, phone banks and all other forms of support,” said Henry Roman, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association. “We have seen a great deal of participation, so that has been exciting.”

Teachers were trained to discuss in person and on the phone hyper-local and poll-tested messages, union officials said. In Aurora, the school district with the largest concentration of black and refugee students, teachers discussed career and vocational training. In Douglas County, one of the nation’s wealthiest counties, they discussed how higher teacher turnover driven by the school board’s policies was leading to lower academic achievement.

Opponents of the teachers unions were busy contacting voters in the lead up to the election as well. Americans for Prosperity, a free-market advocacy organization, spent six-figures in September to promote charter schools and the Douglas County private-school voucher program.

Multiple messages

While teachers and parent volunteers were knocking on doors, independent political committees fueled by donations from the teachers unions were hitting mailboxes across the Denver-metro area with advertisements — sometimes delivering a more divisive message.

Some of those mailers and other voter outreach attempts came under fire.

One piece of mail in Denver attempted to connect candidate Angela Cobián, a daughter of Mexican immigrants who ran in support of many of the changes Denver schools were making, to Trump and DeVos.

“The union capitalized on legitimate fears of Colorado families that Trump and DeVos are causing incredible harm to our communities,” said Jen Walmer, state director for the political action committee Democrats for Education Reform, which through an affiliate spent more than $345,000 to influence the Denver elections. “What I find deplorable is that in Denver the union used the Trump playbook to slander progressive Democrats, including immigrants and women of color, who are running to continue the education legacy of Barack Obama.”

Union officials declined interview requests before the election to discuss campaign mailers and the overall tone of the campaign. This week after the returns were in, union leader Dallman told Chalkbeat that she had not seen the southwest Denver mailer before it was sent out, and she questioned whether it focused on the right issues.

“I think it’s important for school board races to focus on the issues, and I think that the issue here was the support of unfettered charter school growth without adequate accountability and transparency,” she said this week. “I don’t know that issue was clear in the mailers.”

In Douglas County, some voters received text messages sending them to a website created by a committee backed by the teachers union that depicted the union’s opposition as swamp creatures with green skin and glowing red eyes. The committee, which received $300,000 from the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers union, used the Trumpian slogan to encourage voters to “Drain the Swamp.”

A spokeswoman for the “Elevate Douglas County” slate, the target of the website, called the attacks “mind-blowingly ironic,” and an attempt “to confuse and suppress Republican voters who have not yet turned in their ballots.”

Lessons for reformers

The school reform movement is far from monolithic. In liberal Denver, Democratic-inspired strategies target the district’s large population of disadvantaged students. One of the tenets is universal school choice, and a “portfolio” of district-run, charter and other types of schools.

In wealthy Douglas County, Republican-backed candidates who won control of the board in 2009 brought market-based philosophies including a private school voucher program. That drew national attention in part because most voucher programs target low-income students.

Aurora Public Schools, meanwhile, is trying to forge its own distinctive reform path, including recruiting high-performing charter schools and revamping its principal hiring process.

Union officials and their policy allies sought to blur those lines during the 2017 election, labeling the different reform factions as cut from the same “corporate reformer” cloth.

Max Eden, a senior fellow at the free-market think tank Manhattan Institute who has spent time studying the Douglas County school district, said policymakers who want to improve the system must gauge the willingness of their community.

“The former (Douglas County school) board never stopped to think about what the parents wanted,” he said. “The reforms in Douglas County ran into the ground because teachers and principals felt it was something being done to them.”

Some reform advocates are rethinking the value of attempting to sway school races.

Tyler Sandberg, a co-founder and senior policy advisor for Ready Colorado, a conservative education reform nonprofit, said his group did not invest heavily in school board elections this year because he said they are shifting their focus to the state.

“When we helped pass the bill that got charter equity funding, we didn’t have to go and fight 178 school boards,” Sandberg said. “School boards, they have become a place where unions have a stacked deck. At the state legislature, you have a much more level playing field.”

Local school districts that are ahead of the state in implementing reforms, can still serve as “labs” Sandberg said, for demonstrating how something would work.

“But ultimately, it’s gotta be a Colorado-wide solution,” Sandberg said. “ We can’t have a patchwork of unequal policy.”

Marty West, associate professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said supporters of reform efforts — especially Democrats — need to do a better job of explaining why they back certain policies, especially now that Obama has left office.

“There are signs in the national election results this week that Democrats may make significant headway at the state and local level next year when many more seats are in play,” he said. “And that typically makes it harder to pursue the traditional reform agenda. That really places a sense of urgency for reformers to reach out to Democrats to convince them of the merits of their ideas.”

Both CEA’s Dallman and DFER’s Walmer said after the election that they saw potential for common ground on some issues of relevance before the 2018 elections.

“A common interest is funding,” Dallman said. “Our communities are continually forced to make up a shortfall in state funding and in doing so, we perpetuate the system of choosing winners and losers. Organizations that believe in public education have to work together to solve the school funding problem.”

Walmer echoed Dallman’s conciliatory tone looking ahead to the 2018 midterm elections.

“There is someone to fight here,” she said, “and it isn’t each other.”

— Chalkbeat reporters Melanie Asmar and Yesenia Robles contributed

Big wins

Local voters approved several big money measures for schools this election — including in places you might not expect

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

At least three Colorado school districts whose voters have a history of avoiding tax increases passed ballot measures on Tuesday, providing victories to advocates who ran robust grassroots campaigns amid a growing awareness about the impact of school funding shortfalls.

Voters in Mesa County Valley District 51, based in Grand Junction, passed a $118.5 million school bond and a $6.5 million annual property tax increase. Colorado Springs 11 voters approved a $42 million annual property tax increase and Greeley-Evans District 6 voters approved one worth $14 million a year.

In all three districts, more than half of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, an indication of poverty. In both Colorado Springs and Greeley-Evans, the wins came a year after voters rejected tax increases for schools.

Statewide, 23 of 34 school tax measures passed, according to the Colorado School Finance Project, which tracks school ballot initiatives. Observers said they were encouraged by the broad support for education measures this year, including among districts that don’t easily pass tax hikes.

Lisa Weil, executive director of the school funding advocacy group Great Education Colorado, said the overall trend on local school ballot measures was encouraging, but noted that some district funding initiatives failed, including in Brighton, Montezuma-Cortez and Sterling.

“It shows the importance of a statewide solution,” she said. District-level ballot measures “still do not address the statewide inequities that occur because of the structure of our school funding system.”

That said, Weil, who is a graduate of Greeley Central High School, said she was thrilled about that district’s success this year.

So was Greeley-Evans Superintendent Deirdre Pilch, who described the failure of a similar tax measure last year as “devastating.” The defeat meant cuts to busing for students, outdated materials and employee wages well below those of other northern Colorado districts.

Proceeds from the mill levy override passed Tuesday will boost lagging wages for hourly employees, help the district start an elementary summer school program and pay for security, technology and curriculum updates, Pilch said.

The reason voters agreed to support the tax measure this time was twofold. Besides a more concerted effort to inform voters how the money would be spent, the district created a citizens oversight committee for extra accountability, she said.

In Colorado Springs District 11, officials asked for voter feedback after last year’s defeat and subsequently moved from two tax measures to one and simplified the ballot language. The money will be used to boost teacher salaries, add counselors and upgrade buildings.

Devra Ashby, spokeswoman for the district, credited the committee that led the ballot campaign for its on-the-ground efforts — 80,000 phone calls, 40,000 homes visits and 30,000 pieces of campaign literature.

In Mesa County, supporters of the bond and mill levy override that passed on Tuesday say the same kind of door-to-door campaign, along with funding requests for only the most critical needs, helped win voters’ support.

Sarah Johnson, the parent of a ninth-grader in the district, said there hasn’t been a successful school tax measure since before her daughter started kindergarten.

“This has been a long time coming,” she said. “We’re a really low-tax county. We have a history of really rarely passing tax increase measures.”

Johnson said the new dollars will pay for crucial things such as building repairs, but she’s particularly excited about curriculum updates.

For years, district teachers have done the best they could with limited financial support but, “They’ve been pulling their hair out,” she said

One example comes from her daughter’s Advanced Placement Human Geography class. The teacher worried that her textbooks were so outdated the school was at risk of losing its AP accreditation for the class, she said.

Sarah Shrader, a Grand Junction parent who owns a company that designs zip line and ropes courses, said she’s been part of discussions for years about “how hard it is to recruit executives and talent … because of the condition our schools are in,” she said.

The list of problems is long: broken heating systems, crumbling roofs, ancient carpeting and old teaching materials. The Mesa County Valley district has the middle of five state ratings — “Accredited with Improvement Plan.”

Shrader, who served on the campaign steering committee, said she sees the new tax measures as an investment that will boost economic development in the area.

“I want to see this community thrive and I think we have to invest in our schools,” she said. “This is just the beginning.”