Who Is In Charge

A ‘told you so’ about breakaway school districts leaves out urban district left behind

PHOTO: Jim Weber / The Commercial Appeal
Students, teachers and parents gather for the Pledge of Allegiance outside Lakeland Middle Preparatory School during a dedication ceremony for the new school.

“About time for suburbs to chant ‘Told you so’ to doubters of municipal school districts,” reads a headline from The Commercial Appeal column “Outside the Loop.”

The column points to several success stories from the six districts that pulled out of Shelby County Schools in 2014, especially the new school buildings going up in the growing districts.

But the column’s focus on how the districts overcame opposition leaves out important context — and some readers took issue with measuring success in infrastructure without taking into account how the exodus affected the urban school district left behind.

“The Commercial Appeal measures success by the number of buildings built, not the real harm done to children across the community, so by that measure, suburban schools are a success,” Wendi C. Thomas, a longtime Memphis journalist, said in a Facebook post linking to the column.

The columnist, Clay Bailey, who is also a reporter covering Bartlett and other suburban areas, wrote:

And whether naysayers agree with the enabling legislation creating municipal districts or court rulings opening the way or agreements that secured the bulk of the campuses within the suburban boundaries, the districts are preparing to start their fourth school year after secession from Shelby County Schools.

And quite successfully, despite the resistance from outside forces.”

There were many questions and concerns following the pullout of those six districts. But those largely focused on how the “de-merger” would affect the large school district left behind — not whether or not the more wealthy suburbs could financially make it on their own.

The suburban districts believed they could in part because there is more tax revenue concentrated in the suburbs.

That’s been a flashpoint for years. In recent decades, as property values increased in the suburbs, legacy Shelby County Schools — the now-nonexistent suburban district that included the six municipalities — was sending more and more of its revenue to Memphis schools, irking suburban officials who sought a way to keep those dollars local.

Their solution was to create a new, special school district — which prompted city school leaders to give up their charter to merge with the suburban district, and then the six districts to secede in response.

And though Shelby County Schools is headed into a new era of relative financial stability, district leaders still say the six-district pullout is one of many factors that have chipped away at resources available to the schools left behind.

That’s the history. More recently, the six municipal school districts were recently cast into the national spotlight as the “most egregious example” of more wealthy mostly white suburban districts seceding from urban districts of poorer minority students in a national report in June.

Bailey’s column faced some tough criticism online.

“Of course a segregated district is thriving,” said activist and educator Tami Sawyer in a Facebook post linking to the article. “Don’t act like y’all won the academic bowl. You’re thriving because due to white privilege you removed yourself from the ‘urban’ district and yet still get windfall from being formerly connected. Not to mention, no one was naysayers in the vein of thinking it couldn’t be done. They were naysayers in saying this is racially motivated and wrong.”

The triumphant tone from the reporter who regularly covers municipalities for the local newspaper did not sit will with Mark Hansen, chairman of the Collierville school board.

The column also drew praise from members of a few Facebook groups dedicated to discussing suburban school issues.

PHOTO: Facebook

Bailey declined to comment.

Correction, Aug. 4, 2017: A previous version of this story said Clay Bailey is an editor overseeing suburban coverage. As of March, Bailey was no longer an editor. 

Follow the money

In Denver school board races, incumbents outpacing challengers in campaign contributions

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver school board vice president Barbara O'Brien speaks at a press conference at Holm Elementary.
Donations to Denver school board candidates as of Oct. 12
    Barbara O’Brien, At-Large: $101,291
    Angela Cobián, District 2: $94,152
    Mike Johnson, District 3: $81,855
    Rachele Espiritu, District 4: $73,847
    Jennifer Bacon, District 4: $59,302
    Robert Speth, At-Large: $38,615
    “Sochi” Gaytán, District 2: $24,134
    Carrie A. Olson, District 3: $18,105
    Tay Anderson, District 4: $16,331
    Julie Bañuelos, At-Large: $7,737

Three Denver school board incumbents brought in more money than challengers seeking to unseat them and change the district’s direction, according to new campaign finance reports.

Board vice president Barbara O’Brien has raised the most money so far. A former Colorado lieutenant governor who was first elected to the board in 2013 and represents the city at-large, O’Brien had pulled in $101,291 as of Oct. 12.

The second-highest fundraiser was newcomer Angela Cobián, who raised $94,152. She is running to represent southwest District 2, where there is no incumbent in the race. The board member who currently holds that seat, Rosemary Rodriguez, has endorsed Cobián.

Incumbent Mike Johnson, who is running for re-election in central-east District 3, brought in far more money than his opponent, Carrie A. Olson. In a three-way race for northeast Denver’s District 4, incumbent Rachele Espiritu led in fundraising, but not by as much.

O’Brien, Cobián, Johnson and Espiritu had several big-money donors in common. They include former Denver Center for the Performing Arts chairman Daniel Ritchie, Oakwood Homes CEO Pat Hamill and Denver-based oil and gas company founder Samuel Gary. All three have given in past elections to candidates who support the direction of Denver Public Schools, which is nationally known for embracing school choice and collaborating with charter schools.

Meanwhile, teachers unions were among the biggest contributors to candidates pushing for the state’s largest school district to change course and refocus on its traditional, district-run schools. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association Fund gave the most money — $10,000 — to candidate Jennifer Bacon, a former teacher who is challenging Espiritu in District 4.

It gave smaller amounts to Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running against Cobián in District 2; Olson, who is challenging Johnson in District 3; and Robert Speth, who is running in a three-person race with O’Brien. Speth narrowly lost a race for a board seat in 2015. A supplemental campaign filing shows Speth loaned himself $17,000 on Oct. 13.

The two candidates who raised the least amounts of money also disagree with the district’s direction but were not endorsed by the teachers union and didn’t receive any union money. Tay Anderson, who is running against Espiritu and Bacon in District 4, counts among his biggest donors former Denver mayor Wellington Webb, who endorsed him and gave $1,110.

In the at-large race, candidate Julie Bañuelos’s biggest cash infusion was a $2,116 loan to herself. As of Oct. 11, Bañuelos had spent more money than she’d raised.

With four seats up for grabs on the seven-member board, the Nov. 7 election has the potential to shift the board’s balance of power. Currently, all seven members back the district’s direction and the vision of long-serving Superintendent Tom Boasberg. Mail ballots went out this week.

The new campaign finance reports, which were due at midnight Tuesday and cover the previous year, show that several of this year’s candidates have already raised more money than the candidate who was leading the pack at this time in the 2015 election.

O’Brien’s biggest contributor was University of Colorado president Bruce Benson, who gave $10,000. Other notable donors include Robin Hickenlooper, wife of Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper; Lieutenant Governor Donna Lynne; and billionaire Phil Anschutz.

Several Denver charter school leaders, including Rocky Mountain Prep CEO James Cryan and KIPP Colorado CEO Kimberlee Sia, donated to O’Brien, Johnson, Espiritu and Cobián.

Political groups are also playing a big role in the election. The groups include several backed by local and state teachers unions, as well as others funded by pro-reform organizations.

Following the money

Douglas County slate that favors continuing school voucher court case is ahead in early fundraising, records show

Former State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. Scheffel is now running for the Douglas County school board. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A group of candidates that largely supports the direction of the Douglas County School District, especially its embrace of school choice policies, has raised nearly $100,000 in campaign contributions, new financial records show.

The group, which calls itself “Elevate Douglas County,” topped its competition, the “Community Matters” slate, by more than $30,000 in monetary contributions to committees for individual candidates.

A lot is at stake in the south suburban Denver school board contest. A majority of seats on the seven-member school board are up for grabs, putting the philosophical direction of the state’s third largest school district on the line.

For eight years, the school board has pushed a conservative education reform agenda that included developing a voucher program that would allow parents to use tax dollars to send their children to private school and establishing a market-based pay system for teachers.

While the Elevate slate has promised to reconsider and tweak many of the board’s most controversial decisions, such as teacher pay, the Community Matters slate has promised to roll back many of the previous board’s decisions.

The contrast between the two groups is most stark on the issue of the school district’s voucher program. Created in 2011, the voucher program has been tied up in courts ever since. The Elevate slate supports continuing the court case and, if there is community support, reinstating the program. The Community Matters slate staunchly opposes vouchers and would end the court case.

According to records, the Elevate slate raised a total of $98,977 during the first campaign reporting period that ended Oct. 12. Grant Nelson raised the most, $34,373. The three other candidates — Ryan Abresch, Randy Mills and Debora Scheffel — each raised about $21,000.

All four candidates received $6,250 from John Saeman, a Denver businessman and the former chairman of the Daniels Fund. The foundation has financially supported the school district’s legal battle over the voucher program.

Other major contributors to the Elevate team are Ed McVaney, the founder of JD Edwards, and businesswoman Chrystalla Larson.

The Community Matters slate raised a total of $66,692 during the same period. Candidate Krista Holtzmann led the pack, raising more than $21,000. Her teammates — Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor and Kevin Leung — raised between $13,000 and $15,000 each.

Among the major donors to the Community Matters slate are Clare Leonard and Herschel Ramsey. Both Parker residents gave $1,000 each to all four candidates.

The campaign finance reports that were due Tuesday tell only part of the story. Earlier this week, special interest groups working to influence the election were required to report their spending.

The American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers union, has pumped $300,000 into the race in an effort to support the Community Matters slate.

Meanwhile, Americans For Prosperity, a conservative political nonprofit, is running a “social welfare” issue campaign promoting school choice. Because the nonprofit is not directly supporting candidates, it is not required to disclose how much it is spending. However, the organization said in a statement the campaign would cost six-figures.

Correction: This article has been updated to better reflect the Elevate slate’s position on reinstating the school district’s proposed voucher program.