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Fact checking five claims you’ll see on Denver school board campaign mailers

Several negative mailers sent by a teachers union-funded political committee mischaracterize Chalkbeat reporting. Here’s what’s wrong and what’s right about the claims in the mailers.

The mailers target three candidates — Alexis Menocal Harrigan, Diana Romero Campbell, and Tony Curcio — who were endorsed by advocacy groups that generally favor the education reform policies adopted by Denver Public Schools in the past decade.

Some of the more controversial reforms have included closing schools with low student test scores, and opening new schools that district officials thought could do better.

The mailers call Menocal Harrigan, Romero Campbell, and Curcio “the school shutdown squad,” and say the three

  • want to close neighborhood schools,
  • send tax dollars to “unaccountable, out-of-state companies,”
  • put unlicensed teachers in Denver classrooms, and
  • are supported by a wealthy Republican donor
  • and by Denver school board members who opposed the teacher strike.

The mailers cite several Chalkbeat stories as the source for that information.

Chalkbeat never reported that Menocal Harrigan, Romero Campbell, and Curcio want to close schools. All three have said school closure should be a last resort, and a decision made alongside parents, teachers, and students. That’s in contrast to the teachers union-backed candidates who have said they would not close schools under any circumstances.

Chalkbeat also never reported that Menocal Harrigan, Romero Campbell, and Curcio will send tax dollars to out-of-state companies or support having unlicensed teachers.

The mailers were sent by Students Deserve Better, an independent expenditure committee funded by the Denver and Colorado teachers unions.

Chalkbeat asked Students Deserve Better about these claims. A Denver teacher who identified himself only as Aaron sent a statement explaining them. Chalkbeat later confirmed that the statement came from Aaron Lowenkron, a math teacher at East High. It cited the three candidates’ support for charter schools as the basis for the claims.

Chalkbeat has reported that Menocal Harrigan, Romero Campbell, and Curcio support charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Teachers unions oppose charter schools because they say charters siphon students and funding from traditional schools. About a quarter of Denver’s more than 200 schools are charter schools, and they serve more than 20,000 Denver students.

“Unfortunately, some charter schools are run by out-of-state companies, including KIPP,” Students Deserve Better said in its statement.

Founded in Texas, KIPP is a national non-profit charter school network with local governance boards. KIPP Colorado Schools operates six schools in Denver.

Students Deserve Better also criticized charter schools for hiring unlicensed teachers. Charter schools can get a waiver from a state law that requires teachers to be licensed.

Although not previously reported by Chalkbeat, Curcio has said strong teachers can come both from traditional preparation programs and from programs like Teach for America, which seeks to help staff high-poverty schools and has a presence in Denver. Teach for America recruits college graduates to teach under temporary licenses while working toward full certification.

Other claims on the mailers are true — or at least partly so. The three candidates have gotten campaign contributions from wealthy Republican donors. For example, retired oil and gas executive Ronald Williams gave Menocal Harrigan, Romero Campbell, and Curcio $10,000 each in August.

And it’s true the three candidates are supported by some current Denver school board members.

The mailers claim those current board members are responsible for a teacher strike earlier this year. Denver school board members did not negotiate with the teachers union directly. That role was played by district officials and the superintendent, whom the school board oversees.

The first mailer dropped last week and was decried as racist by both the targeted candidates and their opponents. Students Deserve Better soon apologized for omitting two candidates’ Hispanic surnames. The committee said that with the exception of a second mailer already en route, it would use candidates’ full names in the future.

Chalkbeat has learned that at least two more mailers from Students Deserve Better have arrived at voters’ homes. Campaign finance reports indicate at least one more is coming.

Nine candidates are running for three open seats on the Denver school board. The election is Nov. 5. It is shaping up to be a big-money affair. Campaign finance reports filed last week indicated that more than $1.3 million had already been spent.

Here are links to the Chalkbeat stories cited on the mailers:
Here’s how much money each Denver school board candidate has raised, published 7/2/19
Find out how much Denver school board candidates have raised and spent, published 8/2/19
Education reform group endorses three candidates in Denver school board election, published 7/18/19
A single donor helped fill the coffers of these three Denver school board candidates, published 9/4/19 (The mailers erroneously say this story was published on 9/5/19)

Update: This story has been updated with the full name of Aaron Lowenkron, who spoke on behalf of Students Deserve Better.

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