By Melanie Asmar, Chalkbeat
When new members are sworn in later this month, the Denver school board will gain something it hasn’t had, to any significant degree, in two years: dissenting voices.
Two candidates who disagree with some of Denver Public Schools’ more controversial improvement strategies won seats Tuesday, according to final unofficial returns posted Thursday night, in a hard-fought election that featured more negativity than usual. Two candidates who agree with the district’s direction also won seats, meaning the seven-member board will retain its majority in favor of policies such as universal school choice and collaborating with charter schools.
Superintendent Tom Boasberg sounded a positive note about the results, emphasizing the winning candidates’ similarities instead of their differences.
“A natural and healthy part of elections is for folks to have a real vigorous competition of ideas,” he said. “An equally important, if not more important, part is that after the elections, folks come together, continue to debate and discuss very vigorously and recognize there’s lots in common.”
He added that “so much of what (the district is) doing — around early literacy, teacher leadership and social justice — I think you’ll see a very high degree of support for.”
School board president Anne Rowe said she believes the prevailing candidates “care deeply about our kids and want to work hard to continue to push this district forward.”
“I see us continuing forward on the path we are on,” she said. “And when you talk about the values and what we all care about, I think folks would be in agreement on those things.”
The four candidates who won Tuesday’s election include one incumbent, Barbara O’Brien, and three newcomers: Jennifer Bacon, Angela Cobián and Carrie A. Olson. While the three hold differing policy opinions, they have one thing in common: They’ve all been at the front of a classroom. Bacon and Cobián are former teachers, while Olson is a current teacher.
Olson and Bacon were endorsed by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, which has pushed back against a district policy to close low-performing schools and called for a moratorium on new charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.
Cobián was not endorsed by the union. She and O’Brien were backed by groups that support the district’s strategy, which includes cultivating a “portfolio” of traditional district-run schools and more autonomous schools — and encouraging families to choose between them.
Tuesday’s election was a reversal of fortunes for the union, whose political influence had eroded over the years. In 2009, the board was split between a vocal three-member minority backed by the union and a four-member majority who supported the district’s direction. By 2013, the union had lost two seats, resulting in a board split 6-to-1. And in 2015, no union-backed candidates won. For the past two years, the board has frequently voted 7-0 in support of DPS proposals.
Union president Henry Roman said that in this year’s election, “Denver voters affirmed their commitment to public education and their support for our students.”
Backers of the district’s strategies faced a challenging electoral environment: Donald Trump’s election, and his elevation of Betsy DeVos as education secretary, enlivened progressive activists and voters — a bloc that includes members and supporters of labor unions.
Parker Baxter, the director of the Center for Education Policy Analysis at the University of Colorado Denver, said the major takeaway is not that union-backed candidates won two seats on a seven-member board, but that the pro-reform members hung onto their majority.
“The opponents of that agenda needed to win all-out here,” Baxter said. That they didn’t, he said, means the debates may be more heated but the outcomes will be the same.
Jeani Frickey Saito, the executive director of Stand for Children Colorado, a pro-reform group that endorsed O’Brien and Cobián, said the organization is pleased overall with the election results and doesn’t expect “a significant shift in where the district is headed.” An independent expenditure committee affiliated with Stand spent money to elect pro-reform candidates.
On the other side, Scott Gilpin, a parent active in a community group called Our Denver, Our Schools that opposes the district’s portfolio strategy, said the election didn’t turn out as he’d hoped. Just one of the candidates the group endorsed, Olson, prevailed.
An independent expenditure committee affiliated with Our Denver, Our Schools spent money, too, to elect its candidates, though its war chest was nowhere near the size of those of pro-reform groups, a factor Gilpin said “makes a huge difference.”
“We were hoping to win four seats; we won one seat,” he said. “I don’t consider that a victory.”
Olson, who has been a DPS teacher for 33 years and currently works at West Leadership Academy, faces a significant hurdle to joining the board. A district policy adopted in 1987 prohibits employees, including teachers, from serving because it would present a conflict of interest.
Olson said that “the first thing I’d like to do is speak with my six new colleagues about revisiting this 30-year-old policy and seeing if we can revise that, because I think the people have spoken very clearly that they want educators on the school board.”
The new board members are scheduled to be sworn in Nov. 27, and the board has two meetings scheduled before then. But board president Rowe said Wednesday the board is not scheduled to discuss the policy at those meetings.
“There is a precedent that employees of the district do not serve on a board of education,” Rowe said. “There are really sound reasons why that makes sense.”
The election attracted a degree of national attention given that Denver is known nationally for its reform strategies. Even though the board majority held, the outcome should be a lesson to supporters of school choice and charter schools that teachers unions and other opponents can effectively mobilize in a low-turnout election, said consultant and author David Osborne, who wrote admiringly of DPS’s strategies in a new book about reforming education systems.
“It just underlines what I think we all know, which is you have to keep your eye on the political ball and you have to win the political battle over and over and over,” said Osborne, director of the Washington-based Progressive Policy Institute’s Reinventing America’s Schools Project.
Echoing others, Osborne said he thinks the Trump presidency may make it more difficult for pro-reform candidates to prevail. “It may turn many Democrats away from charter schools because Trump supports them,” he said. “I do worry about that and it could be happening.”
Observers said it’s difficult to gauge the effectiveness of efforts to tie local pro-reform candidates to Trump and DeVos, who is unpopular in Denver. Union-backed political committees sent mailers depicting Cobián and incumbent Rachele Espiritu as Trump allies, a claim they vehemently rejected. Cobián won her race to represent southwest Denver, while Espiritu, an appointee running for re-election in northeast Denver, lost hers.
In the three-person race to represent the city at-large, the campaign of candidate Robert Speth sent a mailer comparing incumbent Barbara O’Brien to DeVos.
O’Brien benefited from having more than one opposition candidate challenging her: She won 40.5 percent of the vote, while Speth garnered about 35 percent and former teacher Julie Bañuelos won 23 percent. Bañuelos earned a significant share of the vote considering she ran a shoestrings campaign with no support from outside groups, including those funded by teachers unions.
The only race that didn’t feature such a mailer — or much drama at all — was the contest between Olson and incumbent Mike Johnson to represent central-east Denver. That race was the closest in early returns, but Olson’s lead kept growing as more ballots were counted and she ended up defeating Johnson 54 percent to 46 percent.
The Johnson-Olson race also attracted the least amount of money from independent political committees attempting to sway voters, according to campaign finance reports that tracked spending through Election Day, and less attention from organizations that marshal volunteers to knock on doors.
Students for Education Reform, which deploys high school and college students to canvass, sat out that race entirely. Though Johnson supports reform, the organization did not endorse any candidate in central-east Denver, a wealthier and less diverse part of the city. A spokeswoman explained it prioritizes “working with communities that reflect the backgrounds and experiences of our members, which are typically low-income and students of color.”
The Denver and statewide teachers unions weren’t very active in the race, either. Though the union endorsed Olson, it concentrated the bulk of its efforts on helping elect two other candidates: Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who lost to Cobián in southwest Denver, and Bacon, who defeated Espiritu and another challenger, Tay Anderson, in northeast Denver.
The region represented by the northeast Denver seat is large and includes neighborhoods with a wide range of income levels and racial diversity, including historically African-American neighborhoods and new developments that have attracted a lot of white families.
A map produced by the Denver Elections Division before the final unofficial results were posted showed Bacon won precincts in the far northeast neighborhoods of Green Valley Ranch and Montbello, where she lives, and in closer-in northeast neighborhoods including Northeast Park Hill. Espiritu won in precincts in the Stapleton neighborhood, where she lives.