180 degrees

Two last-minute challengers emerge to two Jeffco school board incumbents

Denver Post file photo

Two years after the recall election of three conservative Jeffco school board members attracted big money and national attention, this November’s election promises to be much quieter affair.

Three incumbents are running for reelection this fall, and two of them are facing competition from two candidates who filed required signature petitions on Friday just before the deadline.

District officials have yet to certify the petitions as valid, so the field is not officially set.

Current board member Susan Harmon, representing the foothills in District 2, faces opposition from Erica Shields, while board member Brad Rupert, representing Arvada’s District 1, is being challenged by Matt Van Gieson.

Ron Mitchell, the board president, will face no competition for his seat on the five-member board.

“It is significantly different,” Mitchell said Friday. “I don’t think any of us knew what would happen this year.”

The deadline to turn in signatures to the school district was 4:30 p.m.

No campaign information from either Shields or Van Gieson was immediately available. A Matt Van Gieson was previously listed as the PTO president for Golden View Classical Academy, a charter school, on the organization’s website.

Shields posted online in February that she had been named precinct captain for the the Jefferson County Republican House District 22.

Last month, the Jefferson County Republican Party Facebook page posted a call for candidates to compete against the three incumbents. “Conservative candidates urgently needed,” it said. A Republican party official said Friday the call received no response.

Laura Boggs, a former Jeffco school board member and critic of the current board, said she believes there aren’t more candidates because people are intimidated.

“When special interest groups spend so much money and take local control away, it makes it tough for everyday folk to step up … They think they can’t compete,” Boggs said. “I don’t think it’s terribly surprising.”

In their two years as a board, the five current members hired a new superintendent, voted to close Pleasant View Elementary School after a failed bond and mill levy tax request, and raised teacher pay.

The board’s upcoming agenda includes overseeing the superintendent’s efforts to create a new process for school closures as they continue to deal with budget problems.

The other two board members, Ali Lasell and Amanda Stevens, will be up for re-election in 2019.

Follow the money

Groups with a stake in Colorado’s school board elections raise $1.5 million to influence them

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)

Union committees and various political groups have raised nearly $1.5 million so far to influence the outcome of school board elections across the state, according to new campaign finance reports.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, and organizations such as Democrats for Education Reform, a political nonprofit, are spending big in an effort to help elect school board members that represent their positions.

It’s become a common storyline in school board elections in Colorado and across the country: On one side, teachers unions hoping to elect members that will improve working conditions and teacher pay, among other things. On the other, education reformers who generally back candidates who support expanding school choice for families, more autonomy for schools and accountability systems that measure school quality, usually based on test scores.

The complete fundraising and spending picture, however, is often murky and incomplete.

State law lays out different rules and disclosure requirements for different types of political committees. The most prevalent this election year appears to be independent expenditure committee, which can raise and spend an unlimited amount of money but are forbidden from coordinating with candidates. (Campaign finance reports for the candidates’ campaigns are due at midnight Tuesday).

Other groups such as Americans For Prosperity work outside the reporting requirements altogether by spending money on “social welfare issues,” rather than candidates. The conservative political nonprofit, which champions charter schools and other school reforms, pledged to spend more than six-figures for “a sweeping outreach effort to parents” to promote school choice policies in Douglas County. The fight over charter schools and vouchers, which use tax dollars to send students to private schools, has been a key debate in school board races there.

Both the union and reform groups operate independent committees. Those committees must report donations and expenditures to the secretary of state. But the donations captured in campaign finance reports are often huge lump sums from parent organizations, which aren’t required to disclose their donations under federal law. (Dues collected out of teachers’ paychecks are often the source for political contributions from unions.)

Several groups are spending money in Denver, where four of the seven school board seats are up for election. The ten candidates vying for those four seats include incumbents who agree with the district’s direction and challengers who do not. The Denver teachers union has endorsed candidates pushing for change.

The Every Student Succeeds group, which has raised almost $300,000 in union donations, is spending the most on one Denver candidate, Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running for a seat in southwest Denver, and on a slate of four Aurora school board candidates endorsed by Aurora’s teachers union.

The group’s largest donations came from the Colorado Fund for Children and Public Education, a fund from the Colorado Education Association. Aurora’s teachers union contributed $35,000 to the committee. The DCTA Fund, a fund created by Denver’s teachers union, also contributed $85,000 to the committee.

Some of the group’s union money is also going to a slate of school board candidates in Mesa County and another in Brighton.

The Students for Education Reform Action Committee has spent equal amounts on two Denver candidates. One, Angela Cobián, is running in Denver’s District 2 against Gaytán and has been endorsed by incumbent Rosemary Rodriguez, who isn’t running again. The other is Rachele Espiritu, an incumbent running in northeast Denver’s District 4. The funds, which were collected during a previous campaign cycle and carried over into this one, have gone toward phone banking, T-shirts and campaign literature.

The group has endorsed Cobián, Espiritu and incumbent Barbara O’Brien, who holds an at-large seat. It did not endorse a candidate in the central-east Denver District 3 race, explaining that it prioritizes “working with communities that reflect the backgrounds and experiences of our members, which are typically low-income and students of color.”

Better Schools for a Stronger Colorado, a committee affiliated with the pro-reform Stand for Children organization, has spent a sizable portion of the more than $100,000 it’s raised thus far on online advertisements and mailers for O’Brien. It has also spent money on mailers for incumbent Mike Johnson, who represents District 3.

Stand for Children has endorsed O’Brien, Johnson and Cobián. The group chose not to endorse in the three-person District 4 race, explaining that both incumbent Espiritu and challenger Jennifer Bacon had surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Another big spender is Raising Colorado, a group reporting $300,000 in donations from New York’s Education Reform Now — the national affiliate of Democrats for Education Reform. That group is spending money on mailers and digital media for four candidates in Denver: Espiritu, Cobián, Johnson and O’Brien, as well as two candidates for Aurora’s school board: Gail Pough and Miguel In Suk Lovato.

In Douglas County, the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers unions has pumped $300,000 into a committee backing a slate of candidates that opposes the current direction of the state’s third largest school district.

The committee, Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids, has spent most of its war chest on producing TV, digital and mail advertising by firms in Washington D.C., and San Francisco.

The Douglas County arm of AFT lost its collective bargaining agreement with the district in 2012.

A group of parents that also supports the union-backed slate have formed a committee, as well. So far it has raised $42,750, records show. Unlike the union donation, most donations to this committee were small donations, averaging about $50 per person.

The parent committee has spent about $28,000 on T-shirts, bumper stickers, postage and yard signs, records show.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include more information about Americans for Prosperity’s Douglas County plans. 

Colorado Votes 2017

We asked the 2017 Aurora school board candidates nine questions. Here are their responses.

PHOTO: Kathryn Scott/The Denver Post
AURORA, CO - AUGUST 29: Max Gonzalez, 4, center, Gunnar Riley, 4, left, and Brooklyn Jones, 4, take turns looking through a camera as they spend part of their first week getting to know their new friends at Beck Preschool inside the Beck Recreation Center on August 29, 2017 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Kathryn Scott/The Denver Post)

This fall, thousands of Coloradans will vote in dozens of local school board races across the state.

In many cases, their votes will determine the philosophical direction of their school districts. Should there be more charter schools? How much should the district pay teachers? How should the district boost learning for its most vulnerable students? These are just some of the policy questions school boards consider. And with majority control up for grabs on many boards, the stakes are especially high in 2017.

In order to help voters decide who to vote for, Chalkbeat surveyed candidates in some of the most hotly contested races. Below are their responses, which have been lightly edited for clarity.

To use our survey, readers can select specific races, then click on a candidate’s name to show or hide their responses.

For more information about this year’s election, click here for our previous coverage and click here for our campaign diary that’s filled with tidbits from the trail.

Interested in more than one school district? Click here for candidate surveys from Denver and Jefferson County.