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Lisa Escárcega wins primary for Colorado State Board of Ed seat

Colorado Department of Education
Nicholas Garcia/Chalkbeat

Lisa Escárcega, the former head of the Colorado Association of School Executives, has defeated retired education data analyst Donna Morganstern in the race to represent Denver on the State Board of Education.

With 160,000 votes counted as of Wednesday morning, Escárcega had 72% of the vote to Morganstern’s 28%.

Escárcega, who has extensive connections in the education policy world, had important endorsements, including the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. She promised to bring a “strong, informed, and unapologetic PK-12 voice back to the board,” while Morganstern said her primary focus would be equity for students.

Both women have had long careers in education and broad experience with the accountability system the board oversees. Escárcega previously served as chief accountability officer for Aurora Public Schools. Morganstern, who retired from the Colorado Department of Education last year, previously helped Douglas County School District set up a new accountability system under the federal No Child Left Behind legislation, before going to work for the state.

The winner of the Democratic primary faces Republican Sydnnia Wulff, as well as two third-party candidates, in November. However, with Democratic dominance in Denver, Tuesday’s winner stands a very high chance of replacing incumbent Val Flores on the State Board of Education.

Flores, a retired educator, had planned to run for a second term but failed to make the ballot earlier this spring.

District 1 corresponds to the First Congressional District and includes Glendale, Englewood, Sheridan, and Cherry Hills Village, as well as Denver.

State board members serve six-year terms. The state board appoints the commissioner of education, sets state standards, and handles charter school appeals, requests for waivers from state regulations, teacher licensure, and the administration of many grants approved by the legislature.

The state board also oversees improvement efforts in districts and schools that have struggled to raise student achievement for years.

The state board also now faces the job of shepherding Colorado schools through unprecedented challenges related to teaching during a pandemic, including school closures and hybrid learning models.

Escárcega said districts should get as much flexibility as they need, with waivers from many state requirements, and support to make up for lost learning time.

The contest was expensive. Morganstern spent more than $65,000, including $53,000 of her own money, as of the most recent campaign finance filing on Monday. Escárcega spent more than $49,000, including $20,000 of her own money. That brings the total spending, including in-kind donations, to at least $118,000. By comparison, six years ago the two candidates for the seat spent a combined $58,000.

#FollowtheMoneyCO contributed to this story. #FollowtheMoneyCO is a project of the Colorado News Collaborative (COLab), with support from The Colorado Sun and Colorado Media Project.

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