Colorado Votes 2017

Douglas County’s politically charged, voucher-driven school board election explained

Douglas County school board candidates Chris Schor, left, Grant Nelson and Ryan Abresch chat before a candidate forum. Schor is a member of the "CommUnity Matters" slate, while Nelson and Abresch are members of the "Elevate Douglas County" slate. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

On a recent Thursday evening, the eight candidates running for a seat on the Douglas County school board gathered on the same stage for the last time before the suburban Denver electorate decides on Nov. 7 which path Colorado’s third largest school district will take.

On one side of the stage, seated in plush leather arm chairs, were the candidates known as the “Elevate Douglas County” slate. The group, backed by the county’s Republican Party and an independent political committee with high-profile donors such as businessmen Ed McVaney and Pete Coors, has promised to keep the philosophical vision of the current school board’s leadership alive, albeit with tweaks and a greater focus on community participation.

“We need to have a better conversation,” said Grant Nelson, a commercial real estate developer running to represent the areas of Castle Pines and Lone Tree. “We need to listen to one another.”

On the other side of the stage were their opponents, the “CommUnity Matters” slate. The four candidates, backed by a coalition of politically active parents and another independent political committee financed by the nation’s second largest teachers union, have promised to slow down or roll back many of the policy shifts the current school board has put in place during the last eight years.

“Our schools, teachers and students have faced unnecessary challenges,” said Krista Holtzmann, a lawyer running to represent northern Parker. “There are 68,000 students who need and deserve an advocate.”

Before the candidates could engage, one of the moderators explained the rules.

Passions are running high, said Jonathan Fung, one of the event’s organizers. Disruptions — applause, flash photography, anything to throw the candidates off — won’t be tolerated.

“We might ask you to leave,” he said.

So, how does a school board election in one of the nation’s wealthiest counties — the average household income is $109,292 — turn into a political melee involving soccer moms, the state’s political donor class and national interest groups?

The short answer is: private school vouchers. The long answer is more complicated.

It all started in 2009, with the election of a group of four candidates who had the unusual backing of the Douglas County Republican Party.

School board races in Colorado — and most other states — are nonpartisan. So when the county Republican Party inserted itself into the election, it raised eyebrows. At the time, the county chairman said his effort to influence the election was in direct response to the involvement of the county’s teachers union. Unlike political parties, teachers unions have a long history of participation in school board elections, as well as, at least nationally, an alignment with the Democratic Party.

Members of the CommUnity Matters slate from left, Krista Holtzmann, Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor, and Kevin Leung. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

“When you take money from unions in Douglas County, you can expect to hear from the Republican Party,” said John Ransom, then chairman of the Douglas County Republican Central Committee. Douglas County is a traditionally Republican stronghold in the Denver-metro area, with Republican voters outnumbering Democrats more than two-to-one.

The four candidates backed by the GOP, who ran on a platform of expanding the district’s charter school options and financial transparency, went on to win the election with more than 56 percent of the vote. What’s more, it was the highest off-year election turnaround in memory. The number of voters who cast a ballot in 2009 — 43,598 — was more than double that in 2007.

The board, which now had no registered Democrat, made several high profile moves within its first few years.

Its first move in 2010 was hiring Liz Fagen, an Arizona educator with little experience running a school district the size of the 67,000-student Douglas County. But the school board was won over by the then-35-year-old’s energy and attention to results.

Fagen quickly became a polarizing figure in the district, in part because she was carrying out the board’s agenda, which had stirred up a spirited resistance.

Another high-profile move by the school board in those early years included ending the collective bargaining agreement with the district’s teachers union. The board replaced the traditional salary schedule based on time served and education with a “market-based” system that paid teachers more in hard-to-staff subjects, such as high school math, than in popular subjects, such as history.

The board’s most controversial decision was creating a school voucher program, which is still tied up in courts today and is seen by many as the central tension in this year’s election.

In 2011 the board rolled out a new school choice system, which included a voucher program that would have allowed 500 Douglas County families to use tax dollars to attend participating private schools approved by the district.

Thirty-four private schools applied to participate in the voucher program. The school district approved 23 of those schools. Of the 23, 14 were located outside Douglas County and 16 taught religious doctrine.

The voucher program was modeled after other programs across the nation that have prevailed in court. But that didn’t matter. Before the program could launch, a Denver district court judge put a hold on it.

In 2015, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled the system was unconstitutional. The court said Colorado’s constitution prohibits tax dollars from being spent for religious purposes. The district and a group of parents whose children enrolled in the voucher program appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 2017 asked the state court to reconsider its decision in light of a similar decision known as Trinity Lutheran v. Comer.

Randy Mills, a member of the Elevate slate, addresses a crowd of Douglas County voters at a candidate forum. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

The state Supreme Court is expected to take up the case again later this winter.

That’s what makes this election so crucial to supporters and opponents of the voucher program — both in Douglas County and across the nation. If the Elevate slate wins, the district will continue to defend the program, likely all the way back to the U.S. Supreme Court.

A win for the Douglas County voucher program at the U.S. Supreme Court would set a national precedent, and likely strike down so-called Blaine Amendments in dozens of state constitutions. The amendments prohibit states from funding religious programs, including schools. It would clear the way for voucher programs, which are rare, to spring up across the U.S.

If the Community slate wins, they’ll surely end the lawsuit — and along with it the voucher program all together. That would be a major setback for the conservative education reform movement.

The debate over voucher programs is often philosophical and personal.

Vouchers supporters generally believe a couple of things. First, that vouchers empower parents to make better educational decisions for their students. And that vouchers — which are usually provided to students from low-income homes — offer an alternative to a public school that might not be providing the best education to all students. (Household Income was not a factor in the Douglas County voucher program.)

There is sometimes also a religious component: Parents believe they have a First Amendment right to use their tax dollars to educate students into a particular doctrine.

Opponents argue that vouchers are an attack on public schools and that siphoning off tax dollars from schools hurts more children than benefits a few. They believe the schools that lose the most funding are then the schools that need more financial resources, not less. Opponents believe that public schools should meet the needs of all students and their families. And that public schools are often the heartbeat of a community and a cornerstone of American democracy.

In case you were wondering whether vouchers make an educational difference for students, the research is mixed.

Here’s a close look that Chalkbeat published earlier this year.

There are a few other big issues the Douglas County school district is facing. Here’s a quick rundown and an idea of where each slate stands on the issues.

The first major decision the new look school board will need to confront is naming a permanent superintendent. After the Republican bloc on the board lost three seats in 2015 (while still maintaining the leadership), Fagen left the district. The board named Erin Kane, who helped found the American Academy charter school, as interim superintendent.

The Douglas County slates

Elevate Douglas County
Ryan Abresch, District B
Randy Mills, District D
Grant Nelson, District E
Debora Scheffel, District GCommUnity Matters
Anthony Graziano, District B
Chris Schor, District D
Kevin Leung, District E
Krista Holtzmann, District G

Both slates agree that Kane has done a tremendous job in calming some of the tensions between teachers, charter school leaders and parents. The Elevate slate is ready to name her the district’s permanent leader, but the Community slate wants a national search, though they would encourage Kane to apply.

Both sides agree that the district’s pay system for teachers needs an overhaul. The Elevate slate has forcefully denounced the district’s neutered teachers union and said they would not reinstate collective bargaining. The Community slate has stopped short of saying they would invite the union back to the negotiation table, but have signalled that they would follow the lead of district teachers.

Like most Colorado school districts, Douglas County’s budget is tight while new needs are emerging. Critics of the district worry that teachers aren’t being paid enough. Its school buildings are old, and hundreds of millions of dollars in capital needs have been identified.

One possible remedy is to ask residents for a tax increase. That’s something the current conservative majority has declined to do. The Elevate slate has not ruled out the possibility of asking voters for an increase, but the group has said that it must first win the trust of the public. The Community slate is in favor of asking voters for an increase.

To learn more about the candidates’ positions read our survey here.

Update: This article has been updated to clarify that household income was not a factor in the Douglas County voucher program. 

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.”