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.”

the one to watch

Inside the three-candidate battle for northeast Denver’s school board seat

File photo of student at Marrama Elementary School in northeast Denver. (The Denver Post)

Of the Denver school board races on the November ballot, none packs more intrigue than the fight for District 4.

The three-person slate of candidates features an appointed incumbent who’s never run for office and supports the district’s current path, an outspoken recent high school graduate who sharply disagrees, and a former charter school educator with a more nuanced view and — in what on its surface may seem surprising — the endorsement of the teachers union.

The seat represents a large swath of northeast Denver with a wide range of income levels, including areas that are gentrifying quickly and others that have been home to some of the district’s most aggressive school improvement strategies.

The Nov. 7 election is high stakes. Four of the seven seats on the Denver school board are up for grabs. If candidates who disagree with Denver Public Schools’ direction win all four races, they’ll have the political power to change key policies in the state’s largest school district and one nationally recognized for its embrace of school choice and autonomy.

Tay Anderson is one of those candidates. The 19-year-old graduated from Denver’s Manual High School last year and is now a student at Metropolitan State University. On the campaign trail, he has doggedly criticized the district for what he describes as weak community engagement efforts and a move to “privatize” public education by approving more charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run (in Denver, by nonprofit operators).

He also has led the charge in attempting to tie the current school board and the incumbent candidates to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose stance on school choice — and especially private school vouchers, which DPS does not support — have made her a controversial figure.

    This is the first of a series of articles profiling this year’s Denver school board races. You can read about where candidates in all the DPS races stand on issues here, in Chalkbeat’s candidate questionnaire. Check out our coverage of the campaign’s first campaign finance reports here.

When DeVos came to Denver in July to give a speech to a group of conservative lawmakers from across the United States, Anderson organized a protest against her. In front of a crowd of hundreds, he called out the current Denver school board members.

“We can tell them, ‘Screw you. You’re fired in November!’” he said.

Anderson has a compelling personal story. The teenager struggled in high school before becoming a leader at Denver’s Manual High. He was student body president, chairman of the Colorado High School Democrats and a member of the Student Board of Education.

Anderson was also homeless for a time and has said his own challenges give him valuable insight into the lives of other Denver students living in difficult situations. About two-thirds of the district’s 92,000 students qualify for subsidized lunches, a proxy for poverty.

“I have had nobody in my corner when I was a homeless student and when I was in and out of foster care,” Anderson said at a recent televised candidate debate. “And now it is my turn to turn to our students and say, ‘I am going to be your champion.’”

His candidacy has attracted more local and national press attention than is usual for a school board race. But while Anderson has said his young age would bring a fresh perspective to the board, his opponents have questioned whether he has the experience to serve.

“It’s one thing to swing a hammer at a frustration, but it’s another to know where to swing it,” said candidate Jennifer Bacon, one of Anderson’s two opponents.

Anderson is running against Bacon, 35, and incumbent Rachele Espiritu, 48. Espiritu was appointed to fill a vacancy on the board in May 2016. The appointment process was long and marked by controversy. The first appointee, MiDian Holmes, stepped aside after details about a misdemeanor child abuse conviction and her mischaracterization of it came to light.

Both Espiritu and Bacon were among the finalists for the position. But Bacon withdrew, explaining at the time it was “in consideration of my need for growth and readiness for this position, as well as my interests in supporting the board.”

Asked recently to elaborate, Bacon said she withdrew because she sensed she wasn’t going to be appointed. She said she, too, had an arrest in her background: for stealing a necklace from Macy’s when she was in college. Bacon said the charge was dropped and she was not convicted. (No charges showed up in a background check done by Chalkbeat.)

Bacon, who attended college in Louisiana, said the arrest was a turning point at a time when she was struggling to find her purpose. She went on to join the Teach for America corps, teaching for a year in New Orleans and a year in Miami.

After teaching, she went to law school and then moved in 2010 to Denver, where she worked first as a dean for the city’s largest charter school network, DSST, and then in alumni affairs for Teach for America. She is now a regional director with Leadership for Educational Equity, a nonprofit organization that trains educators to advocate for policy changes.

Bacon said she wondered whether her positions on key issues also made her an unlikely appointee. For instance, she has said she’s not opposed to charter schools but believes Denver has reached its threshold and should focus on shoring up its traditional schools.

“People ask me if I’m pro-charter,” Bacon said in an interview. “I’m pro-community.”

Since Espiritu was appointed, she has largely voted in line with the rest of the school board. But she chafes at the idea that the board is monolithic or a rubber stamp for the administration. Much back-and-forth occurs before a decision, she said in an interview, and each board member brings a unique background and set of life experiences to the table.

Espiritu often says on the campaign trail that she’s the only immigrant to serve on the board in the last century. She was born in the Philippines and came to the United States as a toddler. She holds a PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Colorado Boulder and helped found a small business called Change Matrix that assists organizations with planning, putting into place and monitoring change. She and her family moved to Denver in 2012.

Espiritu has two sons. Her oldest goes to DSST: Stapleton High, a charter school. Her youngest goes to William (Bill) Roberts School, a K-8 district-run school. She has said that in choosing schools for her children, she focused on quality and not on type.

As a member of the board, Espiritu has paid particular attention to efforts to improve student mental health. She recently encouraged DPS to become a “trauma-informed school district.”

“I want us to be a district that addresses student and educator trauma in a proactive or preventative way that’s culturally sensitive and systematic in fashion,” she said at a September board meeting. “…We need to shift our thinking from asking what is wrong with a child to what happened with a child.”

Parts of northeast Denver have struggled academically. The region is home to the district’s biggest-ever school turnaround effort, as well as two of three schools the board voted unanimously last year to close due to poor performance.

The candidates’ disparate views on school closure offer a window into what differentiates them. Espiritu voted for the closures, though she noted at a subsequent board meeting that doing so was “a painful process … and such a difficult decision.”

Anderson has said he opposes closing any more traditional, district-run schools. Bacon, meanwhile, has said that while she doesn’t believe in “trapping kids in failing schools,” ideas about how to turn things around should originate with affected families.

Two local groups that traditionally endorse candidates and contribute large sums of money struggled this year with who to support in District 4. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association endorsed Bacon, but a progressive caucus of the union chose to separately support Anderson. The pro-reform group Stand for Children did not endorse any candidate, explaining that both Bacon and Espiritu surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Of the three candidates, Espiritu had raised the most money — $73,847 — as of Oct. 11, when the first campaign finance filing period ended. Bacon had raised $59,302, including $10,000 from the teachers union, while Anderson had raised $16,331.

Espiritu and Bacon have also benefitted from the support of independent expenditure committees. A union-funded group called Brighter Futures for Denver spent $139,000 on Bacon. Two other groups, Students for Education Reform and Raising Colorado, which is associated with Democrats for Education Reform, spent a total of $73,229 on Espiritu.

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.