ballot set

Aurora school board up for possible big changes with only one incumbent seeking re-election

A student works at Tollgate Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Nic Garcia, Chalkbeat)

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that the district verified an additional candidate over the weekend, bringing the total to nine.

Nine people will vie for four seats on the board of education for Aurora Public Schools this November.

The school district confirmed the field Friday, the deadline for candidates to submit required petition signatures. One additional candidate had signatures verified over the weekend.

Eric Nelson, an Aurora school board member who was censured last year for exaggerating and fabricating his military service and his education degrees, among other things, is not running.

Only one incumbent, Barbara Yamrick, is running for re-election to the seven-member board. Board president Amber Drevon is not seeking a second term. Board member, JulieMarie Shepherd is term-limited.

Aurora’s current school board has generally supported superintendent Rico Munn’s reform efforts, though board votes aren’t always predictable.

Drevon said Friday afternoon she is pursuing other opportunities and said she feels proud of what has been accomplished during her time on the board.

“I feel really good about the position of the district, especially now having the district coming off the clock,” Drevon said, referring to Aurora scoring well enough on preliminary state ratings to pull itself off the state’s accountability clock for poor performance.

Candidates for the Aurora Public Schools board

  • Barbara Yamrick
  • Kyla Armstrong-Romero
  • Jane Barber
  • Kevin Cox
  • Debra Gerkin
  • Gail Pough
  • Marques Ivey
  • Miguel Lovato
  • Lea Steed

Eight candidates in addition to the incumbent turned in enough signatures to get on the ballot, according to the school district.

Among the candidates is Jane Barber, who previously served on the Aurora school board; Debra Gerkin, the former principal of Crawford Elementary School; and Kevin Cox, who was previously running for a seat on the Aurora city council, but dropped out to run for school board.

Five of the eight new candidates have cited an opposition to charter schools, either in interviews with Chalkbeat or in campaign material. The others either could not be reached or their positions were not immediately available.

At Munn’s urging, Aurora’s school board voted this summer to approve a charter application for DSST, a high-performing charter school network based in Denver. (Yamrick, the incumbent running for reelection, voted no).

Superintendent Rico Munn invited the charter school to apply while offering to provide half of the funding for a new building through money from a bond. Voters approved the bond request last November. Several teachers and some community members spoke to the board in the months prior, asking the board not to approve the charter school application.

The school district is now negotiating the contract for DSST and the school board must vote on it this month.

The next school board would have a chance to vote later on a contract for a second DSST sixth-through-12th grade campus.

The charter approved this year lays out certain requirements the charter school must meet for the school board to give final approval to the second campus that would open in 2021.

The new school board also will face decisions about the district’s budget and facilities. Although some schools in southeast Aurora are crowded because of new city development, the district overall has been experiencing a historic decline in enrollment.

Aurora school board candidates are all at-large members. Voters will select four of the nine names and the four candidates with the most votes will win a seat.

The district will hold a drawing on Wednesday to determine the order of the names on the ballot.

Correction: This story has been updated to correct information about candidate Kevin Cox’s previous run for city council.

big gaps

Jeffco school board incumbents raise big money, challengers falling behind

The deadline for dropping off ballots is 7 p.m.

School board incumbents in Jefferson County have raised more money collectively than they had at this point two years ago, when the district was in the midst of a heated recall campaign.

The election this year has garnered far less attention, and only two of the three incumbents who replaced the recalled members face opponents in the November election.

Susan Harmon reported raising more than $45,000 and Brad Rupert reported almost $49,000 in contributions through Oct. 12. Ron Mitchell, the sole incumbent without an opponent, raised almost $33,000 during that period.

How much did candidates raise, spend?

  • Susan Harmon, $45,602.33; $30,906.48
  • Brad Rupert, $48,982.34; $30,484.98
  • Ron Mitchell, $32,910.33; $30,479.43
  • Matt Van Gieson, $2,302.39; $478.63
  • Erica Shields, $3,278.00; $954.62

In 2015, the October campaign finance reports showed they had each raised about $33,000.

The two conservative opponents, Matt Van Gieson and Erica Shields, have raised far less. Van Gieson reported $2,302 while Shields reported $3,278.

The three incumbent school board members have considerable contributions from the teacher’s union. Former Jeffco superintendent Cynthia Stevens donated to Rupert and Mitchell. Former board member Lesley Dahlkemper contributed to all three incumbents. And State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, contributed to Rupert and Harmon.

Van Gieson and Shields both have donations from the Jefferson County Republican Men’s Club.

The next reports will be due Nov. 3.

More money

Aurora school board campaigns pulling in money from big names

Aurora's school board candidates at a candidate forum hosted by RISE Colorado. (Photo by Yesenia Robles)

New big names are stepping in to contribute to Aurora’s school board races this year, including some longtime contributors to some Denver school board candidates.

Daniel Ritchie, a Denver philanthropist, and Patrick Hamill, the founder and CEO of Oakwood Homes, contributed to some Aurora candidates this year, according to new campaign finance reports that were due Tuesday. State records show they had not in the past. Ritchie in 2012 did support an Aurora committee to pass a tax measure for the school district.

The contributions are further evidence of Aurora’s growing profile among education reform advocates. Over the last three years, the district’s school improvement work has attracted the attention of groups and think tanks that sense opportunity in a traditionally overlooked district with a large population of underserved students. A couple of Denver’s popular college-prep charter school operators, DSST and Rocky Mountain Prep, have put down roots in Aurora.

The new campaign finance reports show that eight school board candidates vying for one of four seats on the Aurora school board raised almost $50,000 so far. One candidate, incumbent Barbara Yamrick, had not filed a report as of Wednesday afternoon.

Because four of the school board’s seven seats are up for election, and only one incumbent is attempting re-election, November’s winners could align as a majority and point the district in a new direction.

The district’s profile has risen among education watchers as it attempts reforms of some of the lowest performing schools in the state. Its strategies include an innovation zone where five schools have new autonomy from district, union and state rules, and through an evolving new process for opening charter schools.

The candidates who have raised the most amount of money are Miguel In Suk Lovato, who reported $14,181 in donations, and Gail Pough, who reported $10,181.32.

How much did candidates raise, spend?

  • Gail Pough, $10,181.32; 6,533.24
  • Lea Steed, $1,355.00; 878.24
  • Kyla Armstrong Romero, $6,365.55; 3,019.81
  • Kevin Cox, $2,554.00; $2,291.93
  • Miguel Lovato, $14,181.00; $9,336.96
  • Jane Barber, $150.00; $988.10
  • Debbie Gerkin, $7,755.43; $2,350.24
  • Marques Ivey, $4,965.30; $2,791.84/li>
  • Barbara Yamrick, did not file

Both received donations from Ritchie, Hamill and Democrats for Education Reform. Lovato also reported donations from Linda Childears, the president and CEO of the Daniels Fund, and other Daniels Fund employees. Lovato works there as a senior grants program officer. Pough also reported donations from Denver school board candidate Jennifer Bacon, and Democratic state Rep. Rhonda Fields.

Candidate Lea Steed and Debbie Gerkin also received donations from Democrats for Education Reform.

The organization had contributed to Aurora candidates in the past, but on a smaller scale.

Union interests also have been active. Four candidates, Gerkin, Kyla Armstrong-Romero, Kevin Cox and Marques Ivey, are organized as a slate endorsed by Aurora’s teacher’s union. The Public Education Committee, which is a union funded committee, donated $1,125 directly to candidate campaigns. The same committee also reported in-kind donations, meaning non-monetary, of almost $3,000 to three of the slate members, for polling.

The candidates also reported their expenditures, which mostly consisted of consultant fees, advertising materials or yard signs and rental space or food for volunteers.
Reports filed earlier in the week from independent expenditure committees show Democrats for Education Reform and union groups have also spent money this year to advocate for some Aurora school board candidates on their own. Independent expenditure committees are not allowed to donate directly to candidates, but can campaign on their own for or against candidates. Their reports were due earlier this week.