campaign 2017

Why this year’s Denver school board election has become so combative

Voting day 2014 in Denver (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post).

The Denver school board election has grown more contentious in its waning days, with accusations flying about the influence of outside money and attempts to tie candidates who back the district’s agenda to unpopular Republicans.

Although past Denver school board races have been marked by rancor, observers and participants alike agree that the tone this year is different — closer in tenor to the heated 2015 Jeffco school board recall and this year’s divisive Douglas County school board race.

Several factors are at play: the controversial tenure of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, long-simmering divides within the Democratic party over education policy, a more aggressive teachers union, and the growing influence of outside groups responsible for a torrent of mailers and digital advertising that can prove powerful in low-turnout elections.

At stake is control of a board that is 7-0 lockstep in support of Denver Public Schools’ strategies, which include offering families a choice among different schools including charter schools, rating schools with a system that heavily weights student progress on standardized tests, and closing schools that are persistently low-performing.

Four of the board’s seven seats are in play this election. Opponents of the district’s current path are running for all four seats. Mail ballots went out more than two weeks ago, and voting ends Tuesday on Election Day.

For several years now, school boards have been battlegrounds for factions trying to get a foothold on local politics and influence how public schools run, said Robert Preuhs, an associate professor of political science at Metropolitan State University of Denver.

“Those things continue to play out now and may be more amplified or feel more amplified because of this extra dose of polarization we’ve seen post-2016 election,” he said.

Denver’s school board campaigns have grown more sophisticated and expensive, setting the stage for more combativeness when the conditions are right.

While candidates themselves raise varying amounts of money, independent groups that are prohibited from coordinating with the candidates have emerged as big players. Both teachers unions and supporters of education reform are backing such efforts in Denver.

The biggest money player in Denver is Raising Colorado, an independent expenditure committee. On the scene since 2014, the group is connected to a web of organizations that includes Democrats for Education Reform, a political action committee with a Colorado office.

This election cycle, Raising Colorado has spent more than $350,000 to support maintaining the 7-0 margin on the DPS board, according to the recent campaign filings. The sole contributor to the committee this year: New York-based Education Reform Now Advocacy.

The organization carries out both non-political and political activity. However, as a 501(c)4 tax-exempt social welfare organization that is not a private foundation, Education Reform Now Advocacy is not required to publicly disclose its donors — and it does not. The group has contributed about $2 million to Raising Colorado since its founding.

“It could be $2 million coming from one person,” said Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, which was formed as a counterweight to education reform groups, opposes charter schools and using test scores to evaluate teachers, and is affiliated with a 501(c)4 group that endorses candidates. “You have no idea who is giving to campaigns and what their vested interests might be.”

Robert Speth, a candidate in the Denver at-large race seeking to unseat incumbent Barbara O’Brien, has spoken out about the vast sums coming into the race, which he describes as coming from “out-of-state hedge fund managers.”

“I don’t feel like Denver is actually in control of its political outcomes at this time, and it’s really disturbing,” Speth said.

The privacy veil for donors is in a statutory rule that dates to litigation in the 1950s and 1960s, when a Alabama state investigating committee was seeking names of members of the NAACP, said Marcus Owens, a Washington lawyer and former director of the IRS’s tax exempt division.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that members’ names did not need to be released because of the likelihood of retaliation. Now, 501(c)4 groups at “both ends of the political spectrum make use of that non-disclosure of donors,” Owens said.

Jen Walmer, the registered agent for Raising Colorado and Colorado state director of Democrats for Education Reform, has said the independent expenditure committee and all its affiliates are in full compliance with IRS regulations.

While outside money is not new in Denver school board races, this year has brought more attention to the tone and content of some of the election messaging it’s buying.

Two independent committees bankrolled with money from local and state teachers unions have produced mailers that try to portray supporters of DPS’s current direction as allies of President Donald Trump and Education Secretary DeVos, hugely unpopular figures in Denver.

One candidate targeted in the mailers, Angela Cobián, a former teacher and community organizer and the daughter of Mexican immigrants, assailed the attempt as a baseless attack on her identity, and an editorial in The Denver Post this week denounced the tactics.

The committee responsible for the mailers, called Every Student Succeeds, is supporting Cobián’s opponent, Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán.

Gaytán released a statement this week urging limits on contributions to local school board elections, calling the contributions “outrageous.” She said that she “did not approve of any independent expenditure committee literature or mailers,” and that her campaign mailers have focused on her platform. Gaytán has not responded to requests for an interview on the issue.

Here is a similar piece that landed last weekend in northeast Denver, where a three-person race is considered the most competitive and hard-fought among the four contested:

The committees behind the Trump-themed ads share the same political consultant: Steve Welchert, a seasoned Democratic strategist who said he has helmed eight DPS school board candidate campaigns in addition to his independent committee work.

Welchert defended the mailers’ tone and content. “I am comfortable with everything we have done with this campaign and will continue to be comfortable with it moving forward,” he said.

Colorado Education Association and Denver Classroom Teachers Association officials have declined interview requests to discuss the mailers and the recent tenor of the campaign. The committees are funded by union members who choose to contribute to such political efforts.

Candidates being targeted by the mailers and their allies are speaking out forcefully.

School board member and longtime civic leader Happy Haynes, who is not up for reelection this year, said the tactics are “dragging this school board race that should be about our best down into the gutter … The irony is that these are Trump-like tactics if ever there was.”

Rachele Espiritu, an appointed incumbent targeted by the more recent Trump-themed mailer, said she was extremely frustrated by the mailers given her numerous public statements in support of young immigrants and against the Trump and DeVos agenda.

“I’m disappointed these fliers continue to come out against me like this, and that my opponent hasn’t even taken a stance against them,” Espiritu said earlier this week. “To me, her silence is that she is confirming these messages. The negative campaigning takes away from the issues of our students, and that is frustrating to me.”

That opponent is Jennifer Bacon, whose candidacy the committee behind the mailer is supporting. Told of Espiritu’s comments, Bacon said Thursday that she is disappointed by the election’s negativity and that she has focused on running a positive, issues-based campaign.

“I believe people are allowed to have their opinions and voting is an expression of their own positions and research,” she said. “I’m not going to be in a place where I can speak for others and check everything everyone is saying right now.”

Most of Raising Colorado’s mailers have been in support of candidates, including several that have portrayed backers of the district’s agenda as strong voices fighting Trump and DeVos. Campaign finance reports show the group also paid for a mailer in opposition to Bacon.

Espiritu, too, voiced a desire to work on limiting contributions in school board elections. She also said she was excited to get support from different groups and individuals. That includes the backing her candidacy is getting from the Democrats for Education Reform affiliates.

“I don’t think there is really anything for folks to hide,” she said. “I have looked at the DFER website and their values and vision, and I think they are commendable and are things I stand by. Whoever is supporting them, I think they can stand tall knowing they are supporting a great organization that is leading the way to help our students get the best public education they can.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify background about the Network for Public Education. 

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.”