election day

Split decision: Two incumbents losing in Denver school board elections, two supporters of district policies prevail

PHOTO: Andy Cross, The Denver Post
Anaelle Dahourou, 9, right, listens while her teacher, Anne Ertman, reads to the third- grade class at University Park Elementary School in Denver in 2010.

Two school board candidates who agree with the direction of Denver Public Schools and two who want the district to change its trajectory were prevailing in a hard-fought election for control of the state’s largest school district.

Four seats on the seven-member Denver school board were up for grabs in Tuesday’s election.

In the contest in central-east Denver’s District 3. Carrie A. Olson, a teacher at West Leadership Academy, grew her lead over incumbent Mike Johnson to roughly four percentage points after unofficial updated returns posted Wednesday afternoon. Olson was endorsed by the union, while Johnson was supported by pro-reform groups. It’s unclear how many ballots remain uncounted, but a dramatic swing would be surprising.

In the most heated race, a three-candidate contest to represent northeast Denver’s District 4, challenger Jennifer Bacon won going away. Bacon defeated incumbent Rachele Espiritu, with Bacon getting 43 percent of the vote and Espiritu earning 33 percent.

Bacon was endorsed by the teachers union, while Espiritu was backed by pro-reform groups that support the district’s embrace of school choice and collaboration with charter schools. The third candidate, recent high school graduate Tay Anderson, captured 24 percent of the vote.

“I am really grateful for the support that I’ve gotten throughout all of this,” Bacon said. “I think the results show people are committed to finding solutions and doing something new.”

In southwest Denver’s District 2, the only race without an incumbent, Angela Cobián, a former teacher supported by pro-reform groups, prevailed over Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, a union-endorsed DPS parent and real estate agent.

Incumbent Barbara O’Brien, a former lieutenant governor who agrees with the district’s reforms, won the three-candidate race to represent the city at-large with 42 percent of the vote at last count. Challenger Robert Speth, a DPS parent endorsed by the union, had 36 percent of the vote, while former Denver teacher Julie Bañuelos had 22 percent.

Espiritu, Johnson and O’Brien watched the early returns Tuesday night at a joint party in the basement of the Irish Snug bar and restaurant. Supporters wearing “I Voted” stickers sipped beers and munched on fried fish, eggrolls and crudite.

Asked about the close early returns in his race, Johnson said, “The results weren’t as good as we were hearing on the phones and at the doors, and I don’t know why. But it’s not over yet.”

From her own watch party at the Bull and Bush Brewery, Olson said she was excited.

“It’s about the will of the people, not about money,” she said.

The three incumbents each raised more money than their challengers, according to the latest campaign finance reports, which tracked donations through Oct. 29. In District 2, where there was no incumbent, Cobián raised three-and-a-half-times more money than Gaytán.

At her election watch party at a Mexican restaurant in southwest Denver, Cobián was being hugged and congratulated by well-wishers including her parents and her middle school principal — who brought her flowers.

Cobián said she thought the “combination of both my experience in the classroom and also outside the classroom working as a community organizer” resonated with voters.

Gaytán was gathering with supporters at her own watch party in southwest Denver:

She later conceded the race.

Bañuelos, who raised the least amount of money of any candidate, sounded a positive note about her showing.

“For having been somebody who came at this unknown, having decided I needed to do this for our kids and our families and our teachers, we did pretty good,” Bañuelos said.

The DPS board election attracted a measure of national attention given that Denver is known across the country for its reform strategies, and the results could shake things up.

Political committees funded by local and state teachers unions produced mailers that tried to tie supporters of DPS’s current direction to President Donald Trump and his locally unpopular education secretary, Betsy DeVos. The candidates targeted by those mailers, including the incumbents, decried the attempts and denied any allegiance with DeVos.

Cobián was also targeted. As the daughter of Mexican immigrants, she called the political attack “a baseless and cruel assault on my public character.” Her opponent, Gaytán, who is herself an immigrant from Mexico, in prepared remarks sought to distance herself from the work of independent committees and emphasized she is trying to run a positive campaign.

In the last days of the election, more controversy erupted in the District 4 race over unsigned negative fliers attacking Espiritu and Anderson and urging voters to choose Bacon, and over text messages to voters from a Bacon supporter that spread what Espiritu said were lies about her.

Independent expenditure committees, such as those behind the Trump mailers, played a significant financial role in the races. The committees are allowed to spend an unlimited amount of money but are forbidden from coordinating with candidates. Union-funded committees spent big to support Gaytán and Bacon, while committees affiliated with Democrats for Education Reform and Stand for Children poured the most money into efforts to elect Espiritu and O’Brien, respectively.

Chalkbeat reporter Ann Schimke contributed information to this report. 

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.