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.

dotting the i's

Group that supported Douglas County anti-voucher candidates fined in campaign finance case

The Douglas County school board on Monday voted to end the district's voucher program and directed the district to seek an end to the protracted legal case. (Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A political committee that supported a slate of anti-voucher candidates in the Douglas County school board race has been ordered to pay a $1,900 fine related to campaign finance violations.

Back in the fall, the group Campaign Integrity Watchdog filed a complaint against Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids that alleged the group failed to properly report donations and expenditures.  Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids is an independent political committee, which can spend an unlimited amount of money to advocate for candidates.

The Douglas County race was one of the most high-profile school board races in the state, and outside money from all sides flowed into the campaigns. The union-backed CommUnity Matters candidates won all four open seats, and as promised, they promptly ended the school district’s years-long defense of a controversial voucher program.

An administrative law judge ruled that some of the allegations in the complaint were not actually violations and that others were mistakes that the independent expenditure committee quickly corrected. For the most part, there was no intent to deceive the electorate, the judge found, and interested voters had ample opportunity to learn that teachers unions had donated to Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids and that the group had spent money on campaign materials.

But in one instance, the judge found that Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids waited too long to report spending on digital communications sent in the weeks right before the election. That’s the violation for which the group must pay a $50 a day fee, adding up to the $1,900.

The complaint from the elections watchdog group, which has previously filed complaints against Democrats and Republicans, alleged that Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids:

  • Failed to report a $1 donation used to open a bank account
  • Failed to report a $300,000 donation from American Federation of Teachers Solidarity
  • Failed to disclose more than $50,000 spent on campaign mailers within the 48-hour window required when money is spent in the last 30 days before an election

The judge found that the failure to disclose the $1 donation for the bank account was not a violation at all because the amount was so small. The $300,000 donation, meanwhile, was reported as coming from American Federation of Teachers. According to the judge’s ruling, when someone on the union side tried to correct the entry, they accidentally made a new entry for American Federation of Teachers Solidarity, giving the appearance of an additional unreported donation. While the failure to report the full correct name was a technical violation, the judge wrote that little harm was done, and the mistake was quickly fixed.

The purpose of campaign finance law is transparency, the judge wrote, and that was accomplished “by disclosing the key fact that a large national union of teachers was attempting to influence the election.”

On the spending side, the independent committee erred, the judge ruled, in not reporting expenditures on mailers within 48 hours of obligating the money. However, most of the spending was reported soon after the committee received invoices and again more than a week before the election. And because the committee’s name appears on the mailers, there was little concern that voters would have been deceived, the judge wrote.

However, in one instance involving roughly $1,800 for digital communications, the group did not disclose until its final campaign finance report in December, well after the election. It was this violation that prompted the judge to impose the fine.

Follow the money

Final Denver school board campaign finance reports show who brought in the most late money

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Victoria Tisman, 8, left, works with paraprofessional Darlene Ontiveros on her Spanish at Bryant-Webster K-8 school in Denver.

Final campaign finance reports for this year’s hard-fought Denver school board elections are in, and they show a surge of late contributions to Angela Cobián, who was elected to represent southwest Denver and ended up bringing in more money than anyone else in the field.

The reports also showed the continued influence of independent groups seeking to sway the races. Groups that supported candidates who favor Denver Public Schools’ current direction raised and spent far more than groups that backed candidates looking to change things.

No independent group spent more during the election than Raising Colorado, which is affiliated with Democrats for Education Reform. In the week and a half before the Nov. 7 election, it spent $126,985. That included nearly $57,000 to help elect Rachele Espiritu, an incumbent supportive of the district’s direction who lost her seat representing northeast Denver to challenger Jennifer Bacon. Raising Colorado spent $13,765 on mail opposing Bacon in that same period.

Teachers union-funded committees also were active in the campaign.

Individually, Cobián raised more money in the days before the election than the other nine candidates combined. She pulled in $25,335 between Oct. 30 and Dec. 2.

That includes a total of $11,000 from three members of the Walton family that founded Walmart: Jim, Alice and Steuart. The Waltons have over the years invested more than $1 billion in education-related causes, including the creation of charter schools.

Total money raised, spent by candidates
  • Angela Cobián: $123,144, $105,200
    Barbara O’Brien: $117,464, $115,654
    Mike Johnson: $106,536, $103,782
    Rachele Espiritu: $94,195, $87,840
    Jennifer Bacon: $68,967, $67,943
    Carrie A. Olson: $35,470, $35,470
    Robert Speth: $30,635, $31,845
    “Sochi” Gaytan: $28,977, $28,934
    Tay Anderson: $18,766, $16,865
    Julie Bañuelos: $12,962, $16,835

Cobián was supported in her candidacy by donors and groups that favor the district’s brand of education reform, which includes collaborating with charter schools. In the end, Cobián eclipsed board vice president Barbara O’Brien, who had been leading in contributions throughout the campaign, to raise the most money overall: a total of $123,144.

The two candidates vying to represent central-east Denver raised about $5,000 each in the waning days of the campaign. Incumbent Mike Johnson pulled in $5,300, including $5,000 from Colorado billionaire Phil Anschutz. Teacher Carrie A. Olson, who won the seat, raised $4,946 from a host of donors, none of whom gave more than $500 during that time period.

The other candidates raised less than $5,000 each between Oct. 30 and Dec. 2.

O’Brien, who staved off two competitors to retain her seat representing the city at-large, spent the most in that period: $31,225. One of her competitors, Julie Bañuelos, spent the least.