giving voice

In Aurora and Sheridan, differing visions of how school boards should represent

PHOTO: Cyrus McCrimmon, The Denver Post
First grader Julieta Galaviz-Montoya works with her highlighter at Alice Terry Elementary School on Oct. 2, 2012.

In Aurora Public Schools, all school board members represent the entire district, not particular neighborhoods or regions — an unusual arrangement for a district its size.

None of the seven current board members live in northwest Aurora, home of the district’s lowest performing schools and most-watched reform efforts. Candidates in this fall’s election face the daunting task of trying to run an effective campaign reaching all corners of the city.

In the tiny Sheridan School District, a different system of representation has taken root. Although the city is only 2.2 square miles, five board members each represent distinctive regions. That has come at a cost: One board seat has sat vacant for 12 years, and once again this fall no one has stepped up to run for it.

The two districts at different ends of the metro area stand at opposite ends of the spectrum in school board representation, and each face distinct challenges. School board members and candidates from both districts speak of the value of representing diverse interests. Efforts to change, meanwhile, are limited by state law and voter resistance to change.

November’s elections could usher in some changes to current dynamics in both districts. In Aurora, nine candidates are vying for four seats. Though the one Sheridan race has no candidates, three of the four other school board races are contested. Elections haven’t been held in the district for the past eight years because of a lack of candidates.

In Colorado, large metro area school districts generally draw director districts within their boundaries, according to records from the Colorado Association of School Boards. Of the state’s 10 largest school districts, Aurora is one of two that has exclusively at-large board representation, not requiring members to come from specific representation areas.

Small metro districts like Sheridan usually don’t draw boundaries within their school district to break up representation. But changing representation on school boards one way or the other requires voter approval, and that’s not always easy to get.

Kathy Shannon, legal and policy counsel for the association, fields calls from district officials who want to know about changing their representation. She gives them information, but says there is no best-practice advice because every community is different.

In one case, she said officials in a school district were frustrated after voters had turned down a measure to eliminate representative districts in favor of at-large representation and also turned down a ballot request to eliminate board term limits.

In Sheridan, voters did allow the board to eliminate term limits long ago. The board president has served for 16 years and the board vice president has served for 12 years.

Superintendent Michael Clough said officials this summer hand-delivered a letter signed by the board president to every home in the vacant district in hopes of finding someone interested in running. Principals are asked to reach out to parents, and digital signs on district buildings tell readers the district is looking for board members.

“We’ve worked very hard to try to get that vacant seat filled,” Clough said.

The area that has had a 12-year vacancy is in the central part of the city. It encompasses trailer parks including one for seniors. It’s diverse and aging, with an estimated 726 registered voters, but there are no schools within the boundaries.

Sheridan’s system came to be more than 50 years ago, when the district unified: There were five different elementary school districts, and officials promised residents board representation from them all.

Officials said there’s some hope now that three other board seats will be contested.

“I’m thrilled,” said board president Ron Carter. “I’m happy to see competition. I really hope after this election we may be able to draw someone out from that vacant district.”

Carter said the board was interested in having a mix of at-large and some geographic districts, as is the case in districts such as Denver Public Schools. But under state law, if a school district wants to have board members represent distinct areas, it must have at least five who do so, meaning the current vacant district would continue to need someone from that area to serve.

To have a mix of at-large and geographic representation, Sheridan would need at least six board members — and the district can’t even fill its current five seats.

“If all five people that live next door to each other sit on the board, then who’s going to represent the other side of town?” Carter said. “You need equal representation. There’s a huge difference between neighborhoods.”

Some candidates in Aurora believe the same applies there.

Aurora board candidate Miguel In Suk Lovato has been touting his background as a neighbor and graduate of Aurora Central High School, one of the district’s lowest performing schools, as reasons why he should be elected to the school board.

Lovato lives about a mile away from Aurora Central, just across the ZIP code boundary. Three other candidates — Gail Pough, Debbie Gerkin and Lea Steed — also live in the 80011 ZIP code, but Lovato is the closest to Central.

“I think it’s important to make sure that we have leaders from various parts of the city, who are able to bring a perspective from that part of town,” Lovato said. “Aurora is so diverse in many different ways. There are communities that don’t look all the same.”

While some of the new candidates come from 80011, the neighboring ZIP code area to Central, there are five other zip codes in the district where no candidates or current board members live, including 80010, where Central is located. The neighborhoods surrounding Central are some of the most diverse and lowest-income areas of Aurora.

The district’s seven board members come from three of the 11 ZIP codes in APS. Two of those ZIP code areas, where five board members live, have some of the highest median household incomes in the city, according to Census information.

Board president Amber Drevon said the school board once talked about the district’s representation plan, but said ultimately the board didn’t follow through to find out more about how to make a change, or to find out if it was necessary.

“We realized we all relatively lived close to each other,” Drevon said. “I do think it’s important to have representation from all parts of the city, but I can think of pros and cons for both so I’m not sure what the best plan is.”

All board members can and should be acting on behalf of students from the entire district, she said. “I don’t think that being just from one part of the city prevents you from having that.”

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.