Resident Cheryl Johnson demonstrated her opposition to a possible school voucher program in Douglas County. The Douglas County School Board heard a mix of support and opposition to school vouchers during a meeting Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2010 in Castle ...and more »
Big money and rigid partisanship are infusing at least one key area school board race and casting a shadow on others, including the 10-candidate contest in Denver.
In all, more than $1.5 million has been raised by political and union groups in hopes of swaying school board races across the state — and Douglas County is attracting a chunk of those funds as well as national attention.
Many say the future of the district’s controversial school voucher program depends on who wins the November election, and the results could have far-reaching influence on voucher movements across the country.
“It really has taken on a life of its own,” said Norman Provizer, professor of political science at Metro State University. “It keeps popping up all around the country that this local school board election could change the course of education in the nation.”
The sides are partisan and clearly drawn.
The Elevate Douglas County slate is composed of Randy Mills, Ryan Abresch, Deborah Scheffel and Grant Nelson. They are seen as part of a group of reformers that for eight years has promoted a market-based pay system for teachers and a voucher program that allows parents to use tax dollars to send their children to private schools.
The school district’s voucher program, created in 2011, has been ensnared in the courts. The program would provide publicly funded scholarships to 500 students who want to go to private schools, including those offered by churches. It appears that the Elevate candidates will try to keep vouchers alive in Douglas County, which is the state’s third-largest district with 67,000 students.
“If that happens, this could be a fight that could last for years,” Provizer said. “But what’s really interesting in all of this, is that no one is really talking about education. It’s clearly one side against another.”
Before 2015, reform candidates held all seven seats on the school board. But a group of candidates that opposed the changes occurring in the district ousted three of the reformers, leaving the board with a 4-3 split. The remaining reform-minded members of the board — Meghann Silverthorn, James Geddes, Judith Reynolds and Steven Peck — are not running for re-election.
The Elevate candidates say they are not beholden to any faction, they just want the district to return to stability and civility. “Our school district has seen a lot of vitriol and chaos in recent years,” Mills said. “It’s time for us to end the conflict, restore stability and get back to governing like responsible adults and role models.”
Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor, Kevin Leung and Krista Holtzmann are considered part of the Community Matters slate, also known as the Dream Team. This group opposes vouchers and if they are elected will likely end the court fight, Provizer said.
They also aim to end the hostility aimed at staff members and teachers, which has led some employees to flee the district over the past eight years, Dream Team backers said.
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“The Dream Team slate seems to more intimately understand what the district has gone through over the last eight years,” said David Ray, who was elected to the school board in 2015. “The Elevate slate candidates are not as well-versed or connected to the district.”
The American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second-largest teachers union, has pumped $300,000 into a committee backing the Dream Team. Meanwhile, the conservative Americans for Prosperity 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. But the group has said the campaign will run into six figures.
In Denver, 10 candidates are vying for four school board seats. The incumbents generally agree with the district’s push to expand school choice while opponents say the district hasn’t done enough to protect neighborhood schools from closure.
Every Student Succeeds has raised almost $300,000 in union donations and is spending most of that on one candidate for the Denver school board, Xochitl “Sochi” Gaytan. Various union groups have contributed to candidates in Denver and Aurora, and pro-reform organizations have spent heavily on candidates in the same races, according to the non-profit publication Chalkbeat.
Jefferson County School Board president Ron Mitchell, who is running unopposed this year, said the money being spent on school board races should be spent on helping schools instead of candidates and partisan groups.
“We should take that money and spend it on a new playground or library,” Mitchell said. “It’s a shame that’s where we are now.”
Four of the seven seats on the Douglas County School District Board of Education are up for election on Nov.7. The Elevate Douglas County slate is Ryan Abresch, Randy Mills, Grant Nelson, and Debora Scheffel. The Community Matters slate is Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor, Kevin Leung and Krista Holtzmann. Read more about the Douglas County school board candidates in this Chalkbeat Q&A.
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Four of the seven seats on the Denver Public Schools Board of Education are up for election on Nov. 7. In her bid for re-election, at-large incumbent Barbara O’Brien is running against Julie Banuelos and Robert Speth. The open District 2 race pits Angela Cobian against Zochitl “Sochi” Gaytan. District 3 incumbent Mike Johnson faces Carrie Olson. District 4 incumbent Rachele Espiritu is running against Tay Anderson and Jennifer Bacon. Read more about the Denver school board candidates in this Chalkbeat Q&A.
Four of the seven seats on the Aurora Public Schools Board of Education are up for election. The race includes incumbent Barbara Yamrick and challengers Kyla Armstrong-Romero, Jane Barber, Kevin Cox, Debra Gerkin, Marques Ivey, Miguel In Suk Lovato, Gail Pough and Lea Steed. Read more about the Aurora school board candidates in this Chalkbeat Q&A.
Three of the five seats on the Jeffco Public School Board are up for election. District 1 incumbent Brad Rupert faces Matt Van Gieson. The District 2 race pits incumbent Susan Harmon against Erica Shields. District 5 incumbent Ron Mitchell is running unopposed. The three incumbents are running as the Keep Jeffco Moving Forward slate. They all won board seats in a 2015 recall election. Read more about the Jefferson County school board candidates in this Chalkbeat Q&A.
Ballots for the Nov. 7 election were mailed last week. The U.S. Postal Service encourages voters who are mailing in their ballots to do so by Tuesday to ensure their ballots are counted by Nov. 7. Postmark dates alone don’t count, as ballots must be in the possession of county clerks by 7 p.m. on Election Day.
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