A former district administrator and a teacher of teachers is running to represent the western Denver suburbs on the Colorado State Board of Education.

Karla Esser is the director of graduate programs for practicing teachers at Regis University and worked for many years in the tiny Sheridan district as the director of curriculum and instruction. She also worked as a principal consultant in Denver. She’s seeking the District 7 seat currently held by Jane Goff, who is barred by term limits from running again.

The election takes place in November 2020.

District 7, analogous to Congressional District 7, includes Lakewood, Arvada, Westminster, and Golden, as well as Commerce City, where the Adams 14 district has become the first in the state to be ordered to turn day-to-day operations over to an external manager due to persistent low test scores.

Esser said she has qualms about the selection of a for-profit manager, MGT, to work with Adams 14, even as she acknowledged the state board had limited choices. She wants the state to develop a broader range of approaches to change the direction of long-struggling schools and districts, including intensive support from experts within the Colorado Department of Education. The state education department does provide some guidance to struggling schools currently, but when test scores don’t improve after five years, the state board can order more significant intervention.

“There have to be many more options on the table,” she said.

Esser said she would like to see the board explore an accountability system that is less dependent on test scores and takes other factors into consideration. A group of mostly rural districts have been testing such a system, but they are not used to make decisions about school ratings or interventions.

She also said the state board should do everything it can to make sure teachers have the resources they need, to increase school funding, and to protect schools from unfunded mandates from the legislature.

The state board does not have control over school budgets. The Colorado General Assembly sets education spending in the state budget each year.

Karla Esser
PHOTO CREDIT: Courtesy Meg Brown

But Esser said she would be a vocal advocate. Along those lines, she sees a role for the state board to play in an ongoing debate around school safety.

“It’s something that they need to discuss thoroughly and see if there is not something they can bring to the table,” she said.

Esser, a Democrat like Goff, plans to seek the endorsement of the Colorado Education Association. Right now, she’s the only declared candidate in the race, but with roughly equal numbers of Republican, Democratic, and unaffiliated voters, District 7 has the potential to be competitive.

Republicans controlled the State Board of Education for nearly 50 years, until 2016 when the election of Rebecca McClellan in District 6 gave Democrats the majority. Democrats need to hold District 7 to maintain that majority.

State board members serve six-year terms. In addition to approving improvement plans for struggling schools, the state board appoints the commissioner of education, sets state standards, and handles charter school appeals, requests for waivers from state regulations, teacher licensure, and the administration of many grants approved by the legislature.