‘Reform’ candidates win local school board races

But definition of reform isn’t always so clear
The Colorado Statesman

So-called “reform” school board candidates swept to victory in three Front Range school district elections this odd-year election. But how one defines “reform” is a matter of location and political perspective.

In Denver, reformers won four seats, shifting the pro-administration’s one-seat majority to a tilted six-seat majority, thereby leaving the union-backed so-called “neighborhood” advocates with little voice on the seven-member board.

• Former Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien defeated northwest community organizer Michael Kiley for an at-large seat, 60 percent to 31 percent. Joan Poston garnered 9 percent in that race;

• Former Denver City Councilwoman Rosemary Rodriguez beat community organizer Rosario C. de Baca in District 2, 62 percent to 38 percent;

• School finance attorney Mike Johnson defeated Denver Public Schools parent Meg Schomp in District 3, 57 percent to 43 percent. Schomp is the daughter of Ralph Schomp, who started the well-known auto dealerships; and

• Denver Urban League chief Landri Taylor bested engineer Roger Kilgore in District 4, 66 percent to 34 percent.

Only incumbent Arturo Jimenez remains on the board as a voice opposing the current administration.

In Douglas County, two conservative pro-administration incumbents held onto office, while another two likeminded candidates were elected, thereby securing a conservative majority for the direction of the board, and further weakening the influence of the teachers’ union.

• Incumbent Doug Benevento defeated former Douglas County schools human resources officer Bill Hodges in District E, 52 percent to 48 percent;

• Incumbent Meghann Silverthorn beat public relations manager Ronda Scholting in District G, 53 percent to 47 percent;

• Stay-at-home mom Judi Reynolds bested finance director Julie Keim in District D, 52 percent to 48 percent; and

• Surgeon Jim Geddes defeated sales manager Barbra Chase in District B, 52 percent to 48 percent.

In Jefferson County, three conservative-leaning candidates were elected. But unlike Douglas County, the Jefferson County election likely changed the direction of the administration there by shifting it more to the right and rejecting a union-driven approach.

• Office manager Julie Williams defeated public policy analyst Tonya Aultman-Bettridge in District 1, 61 percent to 39 percent;

• Author John Newkirk beat counselor Jeff Lamontagne in District 2, 54 percent to 46 percent; and

• Information technology and business manager Ken Witt defeated retired education policy analyst Gordon “Spud” Van de Walter in District 5, 58 percent to 42 percent.

The national headlines read that Colorado voters backed a reform slate, despite widely rejecting a proposed $950 million tax increase to fund education reforms in the state.

Many of the races looked similar from the outside. They were backed by major dollars from outside political and education reform groups and individuals. But how those dollars were distributed reflected the unique districts.

In Douglas County, Americans For Prosperity, the conservative Koch brothers’ advocacy group, spent about $350,000. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, chairman of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, also donated $1,000 to each of the conservative candidates in Douglas County. Wealthy business leaders, including energy exec Alex Cranberg and health care facility owner Ralph Nagel, also donated more than $140,000.

On the other side, the American Federation of Teachers spent an estimated $200,000 in support of the union-backed candidates.

The conservative candidates themselves raised at least $165,000, compared to the union-backed candidates who raised about $60,000 in total.

Conservative Secretary of State Scott Gessler raised eyebrows when he also got involved by directing his campaign to suspend gubernatorial activities in order to work for the Dougco conservative reform slate.

Meanwhile, in the Denver school board race, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg contributed $75,000 to Great Schools Denver, a reform group that has supported the current administration’s direction. The expenditure committee collected at least $205,000 with significant help from Bloomberg, Education Reform Now Advocacy, Oakwood Homes, Davita Chief Executive Kent Thiry, and billionaire Philip Anschutz.

Disclosures filed just days before the election revealed that the reform candidates raised an estimated $600,000, while the neighborhood-oriented candidates — supported mostly by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association — raised at least $276,000.

That brings total contributions to the candidates themselves at more than $876,000. Observers believe contributions will total more than $1 million when the final disclosures are filed on Dec. 5, making it the most expensive school board campaign in state history.

Jefferson County did not see the massive outside spending that was observed in Denver and Douglas counties, though it still garnered a total of $142,636, as of the last filing before the election. Unlike Douglas County, the conservative reform candidates actually raised less than the union-backed candidates.

The union candidates raised about $116,684, as of the last filing, compared to the conservative candidates, who raised about $22,669.

The Dec. 5 filing, however, is expected to show more spending on the conservative candidates. Cranberg was a member of a host committee for a fundraiser held in support of the conservative candidates in that county. They raised about $30,000 for Jefferson County Students First — which has opposed the current direction of the administration.

Also, an independent committee, Believe in Better Schools, reported spending $22,804 in support of the Republican candidates, though the money came from Jeffco Students First.

Douglas County paving the way?

While all the elections saw impressive fundraising, the reform movements in the three counties are remarkably different from one another.

In Douglas County, the winning candidates had supported a privatized system in which the county would provide vouchers to students to attend participating private schools. The program is caught in legal limbo after an appellate court upheld its legality. The Colorado Supreme Court must still decide whether to hear the case.

The Douglas County board has also gone to war with the teachers’ union, ending collective bargaining and establishing a merit-based pay system that is one of the most aggressive in the country, rewarding teachers based not only on performance, but also on the value of subjects taught.

Such ideas would be considered politically toxic in Democratic-leaning Denver.

Reynolds downplayed the union versus Republican aspect of the race, saying voters simply backed candidates who are capable of instituting successful reforms.

“Voters said by relatively tight margins that they approve of the things that have happened in the district over the last few years,” said Reynolds.

“In Douglas County, there is no doubt that taxpayers are happy that the union is no longer in the district,” she continued. “I think that the people like the idea of those closest to their kids being the ones that are the decision-makers for their children, and that we do a significant amount of budgetary and decision-making at the individual schools in the form of site-based control.”

Reynolds does not believe she and her colleagues are headed towards the corporate privatization of schools: “I see this as allowing parents to make the best educational choices for their children, and I guess if that’s seen as privatization, then I’m confused as to what privatization is,” she said.

Americans For Prosperity seemed to agree, applauding Douglas County voters for embracing a free market approach to education.

“Residents prioritized our school children and decided to keep the district’s schools moving forward, rather than sliding back,” said Dustin Zvonek, state director for AFP. “No meaningful change comes without controversy or without pushback from entrenched interests. But it’s a credit to residents that they could see past the personal attacks and keep their eyes on what really matters, which are the measurable benefits they’ve seen with reform.

“The failure of union interests to win the debate, or rollback reform, has positive ramifications well beyond Douglas County lines, since it hopefully will encourage other districts across the state to be equally creative, bold and innovative,” he continued.

Former Gov. Bush, who could be a presidential hopeful in 2016 when education reform may play a key role, offered a similar statement, suggesting that Douglas County is paving the way for the rest of the nation.

“Douglas County is doing what few other school districts in the nation have aspired to,” Bush said in a statement. “The school board… decided that striving to be the best in Colorado no longer was sufficient. Instead, they set a goal of competing against the highest-performing states in the nation and countries across the globe.

“Reform is often associated with turning around failing schools. But in Douglas County, it is being used to turn good schools into great schools,” Bush continued. “What’s happening in this school district is special, and is the result of strong, innovative leaders. Douglas County is a national model for how local leaders can drive and achieve transformational change.”

But candidates on the other side of the debate are fearful that a model set by Douglas County could set the nation on a slippery slope to the corporatization of public schools.

“Reform is truly a mentality that thinks education can be done better and cheaper through privatization,” said Keim, who challenged Reynolds. “I have seen what this has done to other parts of our society, and I do not believe a for-profit or non-profit company will have the same best interests of all students in their public education.

“Our neighborhood schools are being starved of the resources necessary to meet the basic needs of our students, not to mention implementing processes, procedures, systems, evaluations and innovative strategies for unproven educational reform experiments,” Keim continued.

She believes the loss is not necessarily reflective of a mandate on education reform, pointing to the David versus Goliath fight against big spending by groups like AFP. Keim also pointed out that Douglas County is heavily Republican leaning, suggesting that voters sided with conservative candidates over the issues.

Another issue that played into the school board race, also especially in Jefferson County, was a rejection of Amendment 66. Candidates who were perceived to support the school funding tax increase did not bode well in the elections.

“Combine that voting demographic with the misused ‘union’ label and the tax increases proposed by Amendment 66, and you have a formula for getting the conservative vote out,” said Keim. “We nearly beat the money machine. I know we were a better, more informed and public interest-focused group of candidates. However, when the reform candidates have somewhat unlimited funds and unethical politicians spreading lies and deceit, anything is possible.”

Hodges agreed with his likeminded colleague, suggesting that the politicking doomed what was supposed to be a race about nonpartisan school issues.

He said that while he and the other candidates opposed to the current school board did not solicit the union’s help, he has no regrets about accepting it.

“Playing to the far right Republican wing, them tagging us with being union endorsed, played in their favor, even though I don’t agree with that,” said Hodges.

He believes that there will be an exodus of teachers in the coming years, as few will want to deal with reform strategies that include neutering teacher representation.

The Douglas County Federation of Teachers does not believe that the vote was representative of a backlash to unions, as their opponents would like citizens to believe.

“The vote totals were close in spite of the makeup of the electorate — instead of voting how their political party told them to vote, many voters worked to inform themselves on the issues facing Douglas County School District and voted for what is best for kids,” said Brenda Smith, president of the Douglas County Federation of Teachers.

“Unfortunately, this same electorate includes many, many voters who still have no idea what’s going on in the district,” she added.

Democratic political strategist Craig Hughes, who helped propel U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and President Barack Obama to crucial victories in Colorado, cautioned against extrapolating any sort of reform message from the Douglas County race.

He was hired to independently consult those opposed to the current Douglas County board, though he did not meet the candidates. Hughes also consulted the four “reform” candidates in Denver.

As the former superintendent of Denver Public Schools, Bennet launched much of the reform effort in the district. But Hughes points out that the reform efforts in Douglas County and the reform efforts in Denver were quite different. While some have lumped the reform efforts together, it would be disingenuous to say that the efforts are similar, said Hughes.

“Reform is everybody’s own personal Rorschach test. You fill it in how you want,” explained Hughes. “But I think Douglas County is far from what I would consider reform.

“For a lot of people it’s easy to take sides on reform or non-reform, or reform or union, and the actual issues are actually far broader than that,” he continued.

Denver sets its own tone

Perhaps the clearest difference between the campaigns in Denver and Douglas and Jefferson counties came in the form of partisanship. In Douglas and Jeffco, the partisanship was clear — the elections came down to those leaning more to the left against those leaning more to the right.

But in Denver, the distinction was not as clear. In the hugely Democratic-leaning district, almost all of the candidates claim to lean more to the left. The election in Denver was much more issue driven, focused on a neighborhood-oriented approach versus a pro-administration reform slate.

Hughes said the “reformers” in Denver demonstrated “rational government,” while the “reformers” in Douglas County “went beyond what’s traditionally called reform.”

He pointed out that while he consulted those fighting the so-called “reformers” in Douglas County, he assisted “reformers” in Denver because the movements are so radically different.

“I don’t think you can make sweeping generalizations on the 2013 elections about what it means in terms of long-term shifts,” opined Hughes. “It’s a lot more about individual candidates and individual districts and individual points of time… I don’t think you can interpret a movement towards any one ideology at this point… It’s all very, very, very local.”

Former Lt. Gov. O’Brien would agree, having experienced the difference firsthand. O’Brien was attacked during the campaign for having supported a voucher program in 2003. As then-president of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, O’Brien supported a proposal to provide vouchers for students to attend non-public schools. But she said there were few reforms to experiment with in the state at the time, and she clarified on multiple occasions that she does not currently support vouchers.

As a reform candidate in Douglas County, O’Brien would have been popular for having supported a voucher program. But in Denver, the issue was potentially damaging.

“It’s been absolutely driving me crazy,” O’Brien said of how the reform issues have been tied together.

“It’s completely different for every community, and to lump what’s going on in Douglas County or Jefferson with what Denver has been doing… I just think it does a disservice to each of the communities to lump us all together because they’re so different. It really doesn’t reflect what the community is saying through their ballots about what they want for their schools,” O’Brien continued.

In Denver, the issues on school reform revolved mostly around weeding out under-performing neighborhood schools and teachers, while creating high-performing charter and innovation schools. It’s an advancement of the so-called “Denver Plan.”

The neighborhood-oriented candidates, however, placed more of an emphasis on turning around traditional neighborhood schools, with less of a focus on creating new public-private schools. They spoke more about empowering parents, teachers and communities to fix existing schools.

Issues around cutting out the union and privatizing schools through a free- market, competitive approach rarely came up during the Denver school board race.

O’Brien said it’s “dangerous” to link the elections together.

“When you have people around the country who are looking to Denver for a model of how to create change in an urban school district… it’s just a terrible source of confusion,” she said.

“I think that the word ‘reform’ has many, many meanings to many different people, and I think that you need to be specific about what we’re doing in Denver,” added Johnson, who won as a reform candidate in Denver.

Johnson also has issues with comparing the “reform” candidates in Denver to “neighborhood” candidates.

“The real issue isn’t neighborhood versus something else,” he said. “The real question is do you just leave the traditional school model in place, or do you try some different things?”

Johnson has been calling for a 7-0 majority on the school board so that reformers can make progress without a blockade. But he believes there will still be disagreement between the reformers themselves.

“I predict you’re going to see some real disagreement on this board among the six, but not disagreement over personalities and political disagreements… It’s going to be on whether plan A is better than plan B for increasing achievement.”

For his part, Denver Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg is pleased with the outcome of the recent election. He also believes the reform majority will be a boon for the district.

“We’re going to see much more collaboration, a much stronger school board that works very well together and focuses on how do we strengthen opportunities for the kids in Denver,” Boasberg told The Colorado Statesman.

“Too often the discussions weren’t about kids, and… it’s so important for us to be effective that we focus on what kids need and how we make the improvements we need to best serve our kids,” Boasberg added.

He believes the recent election was in fact a referendum on the direction of the current school board, suggesting that voters approve of the changes that have been taking place.

“We’ve been very clear and very forceful that our number one goal is equity. How do we create better opportunity for all of our kids?” said Boasberg.

He pointed to improvements within the district. The on-time graduation rate in Denver was 58.8 percent last year, a 2.7 percentage-point increase over the year before. The rate has improved 20 percent over the last five years. The district’s dropout rate has also fallen to 5.7 percent from 11.1 percent in 2006.

“There’s a sense that dramatic improvement is happening and the direction is the right direction,” said Boasberg.

“We’ve had an extraordinarily rich and in-depth set of discussions with our parents, with our teachers, with our community members, over the last several years. Our community members and our educators believe they have a voice,” added the superintendent. “Their voice is being listened to, and the discussions are ones with integrity that are about kids.”

Stand for Children Colorado, a pro-reform organization that advocated for the pro-administration slate in Denver, agrees that Denver has become a leader.

“Denver is a leader for education reform for the entire state, and one thing that is critical is having a school board that is going to support policies to change options for kids here,” said Sonja Semion, executive director of Stand for Children Colorado.

“It’s been a tense board,” she added. “So, really, the direction has been held steady by one vote. In our eyes, that doesn’t leave enough room for conversation abut the ‘how’ of policy, not just the ‘what.’”

But for Jimenez, the lone opponent to the administration, the next couple of years will prove to be an exercise in patience. He does not plan on going quietly.

“I’m ready for a fight,” he said. “That will be the difficulty, to try to bring forth the issues. It depends on how our board functions. My voice could be cut out, or I could have the opportunity to raise the issues, which I hope to have.”

Jimenez said he will likely end up playing defense: “It appears the board has fallen into an ideological box right now, and a lot of things depend on how they react to having unbridled power… the superintendent having six unencumbered votes and only one of dissent,” he said.

Schomp, who lost her race to Johnson, is fearful for what the future holds. She believes that with the recent election, Denver is headed on a straight path towards the corporatization of schools.

“There’s a trajectory of the corporate reform movement that Denver is on,” said Schomp. “While we are not as close to vouchers as Douglas County is… the common thread here is a lot of outside money from outside of the state poured into all the elections. One has to question why those interests would want to be so involved in school board elections?

“I don’t think that Colorado voters sent a mandate,” added Schomp. “I think corporate reform sent a mandate.”

She is worried that Denver is headed the direction of Douglas County, which is to weaken the teachers’ union to the point where it has no voice.

“That’s one of the things this is all about, which is to try to break teachers down and to not allow teachers to organize …” opined Schomp.

Henry Roman, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, is not so concerned. He describes Denver as a liberal island compared to the rest of the state.

“[In Douglas County] there was a very explicit point of view that collaboration is not needed…” said Roman. “In Denver, there’s a huge emphasis on collaboration and working with different stakeholders.

“It seems to me that there are differences between Douglas County and Denver,” he added. “Those four candidates are pretty much very different than the ones we have here, they’re more the far right, tea party kind, and they definitely bring a very loyal view to their own principles and vote on a party line… It’s different in Denver, I just don’t think it’s the same.”

Jefferson County schools could shift to the right

But observers point out that in Jefferson County, the school board appears to be heading the way of Douglas County by moving more to the right.

With three conservatives winning over the pro-administration candidates, voters in Jefferson County seem to have called for a change in direction. Pro-administration candidate Lamontagne agrees that the tide is shifting.

“There’s a pendulum that swings in places like Jefferson County that are pretty evenly politically split across the spectrum, and I think we’re in a cycle right now where there’s frustration and some level of anger with a variety of different government institutions…” he said.

“Whether this is a permanent and complete desire for reform that the voters of Jeffco will affirm over the long term is, I think, really up to debate,” added Lamontagne. “I really don’t know the answer. But I’m not ready to conclude that it was either on the one extreme meaningless, or on the other extreme a permanent seismic shift.”

Adding to speculation that Jeffco is headed towards a more long-term shift in direction is the resignation of long-time Superintendent Dr. Cindy Stevenson, who announced her retirement days after the results of the school board race. She had served in the district for 41 years and was appointed superintendent in 2002. She will leave her post at the end of the year.

At first Stevenson said that her decision was not based on the outcome of the election. But she acknowledged to The Statesman that it played a role.

“Life has changed, and I think that there’s a time and a place for everything,” she said. “In my perfect world, would I have like to have stayed one more year? Absolutely. But I don’t live in my perfect world, and I… think strategically this is the best thing for Jeffco.

“It’s not so much about me,” Stevenson continued. “I could make it all about me. But it really isn’t. It really is about the school district. And I said from the moment I took this job that I will never be a flashpoint in this school district ever.

“There are people I’m sure who are cheering that I’m leaving, and there are people who feel abandoned,” she added. “I wasn’t going to make everyone happy in any decision I made. So, it just seemed like the right time.

“There’s going to be a transition period, and this way I can commit my full attention to transition…” Stevenson concluded. “Strategically for me, it doesn’t have to be about who should be superintendent, it’s about how we transition effectively for the organization.”

Ami Prichard, president of the Jefferson County Education Association, said she has some concerns about the change in leadership and what it will mean for the district’s teachers. But she believes there is a commitment to collaboration in the Jeffco community.

“There’s always a concern when you change leadership that things are going to change, but we have some important structures in place that we’ve used to work collaboratively within our district,” she said. “We hope that those will continue.”

Prichard said her union has already had meetings with the recently elected school board members.

“There are a lot of things we can agree on, putting our kids first and foremost…” added Prichard. “We have great hope that we can continue the traditions that have made Jeffco strong in the past.”

Newkirk said he is ready to put the election behind him and move on to the work of the district.

“The word ‘reform’ is something that I’ve never used. It’s not my term. It’s something that somebody else has said to me,” said Newkirk. “It sounds like reform schools, it sounds like something you’d threaten to spank little rascals with if they don’t behave.

“I’m just a dad with three kids in the public schools,” he added. “As far as the political stuff goes, that’s something that someone else has labeled.”

—Peter@coloradostatesman.com