Union-backed challengers leading in two of four hard-fought Denver school board races

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

Two school board candidates who agree with the direction of Denver Public Schools and two who want the district to change its trajectory were leading early Wednesday 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. As of late Tuesday, only one of the races remained close: a two-person contest in central-east Denver’s District 3.

Challenger Carrie A. Olson, a teacher at West Leadership Academy, was edging incumbent Mike Johnson, 51.5 percent to 48.5 percent, as of 11:30 p.m. Olson was endorsed by the union, while Johnson was supported by pro-reform groups.

In the most heated race, a three-candidate contest to represent northeast Denver’s District 4, challenger Jennifer Bacon was leading incumbent Rachele Espiritu, 43 percent to 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, had 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.”

Espiritu’s campaign manager said late Tuesday she was not available for comment.

In southwest Denver’s District 2, the only race without an incumbent, Angela Cobián, a former teacher supported by pro-reform groups, was leading 54 to 46 percent 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, was leading in the three-candidate race to represent the city at-large with 43 percent of the vote. Challenger Robert Speth, a DPS parent endorsed by the union, had won 36 percent of the vote, while former Denver teacher Julie Bañuelos had garnered 21 percent.

Those results reflected the fourth round of returns, which the Denver Elections Division posted at 11:30 p.m. It was unclear how many ballots remained uncounted.

Espiritu, Johnson and O’Brien watched the early returns 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 about her lead.

“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 is 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 past several days, 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.

Chalkbeat reporter Ann Schimke contributed information to this report. 

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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