There is no such thing as an off-year election when it comes to education.
Fall ballots in odd-numbered years are absent of presidential and congressional candidates but chock full of school board races. This year is no different, and if anything it is exceptional thanks to a certain battle playing out in the Denver suburbs you may have read something about.
School-related money measures are fewer this cycle, but there are developments to monitor on that front, too.
Weeks of campaigning come to an end Tuesday night when ballots in the all-mail election are counted. With the hours counting down, here is our take on the five major education storylines that bear watching:
1. Jeffco — of course
Two years of political unrest in the state’s second largest school district come to a head Tuesday night. The outcome could carry significance beyond setting the course for Jefferson County Public Schools over the next two years.
The hotly contested recall election of three conservative school board members coupled with the regular election of two open seats puts the entire Jeffco school board in play. Come Wednesday, Jeffco could have five new board members.
At the same time, Jeffco voters besieged by protests on busy boulevards, campaign literature in their mailboxes and commercials on television will embolden one of two predominant voices in the national education policy debate: teachers unions or conservative education reformers.
At odds between the two forces — locally and nationally — are how teachers are evaluated and paid, the role of charter schools and paying for early childhood education.
As of Monday morning, voters in the political swing county had cast more than 113,000 votes. That’s about two-thirds of the 2013 vote total that resulted in the school board majority coming to power. Recall supporters were energized early with a strong showing from Democrats in ballot returns. Since then, Republicans have taken the lead.
But the school board race is nonpartisan. And given Jeffco’s large bloc of independent voters, turnout by political parties tells only part of the story.
While the recall has been a study in contrasts in the education reform debate, it has also provided Jefferson County voters with two different styles of campaigns.
Jeffco United, the organization behind the recall, has put most of its money behind mailers and organizing volunteers to knock on doors every weekend since September.
By comparison, the organizations opposing the recall, such as the Independence Institute, banked its strategy on television and online advertising.
Which side reached and convinced more voters? We will know in a few short hours.
2. Shifting battlegrounds in Denver?
For much of campaign season, the most closely watched Denver school board race has been in the northwest part of the city, where Lisa Flores and Michael Kiley are vying to represent District 5.
The race is a classic Denver showdown between a union-backed candidate, Kiley, and Flores, whose views align with the district’s philosophy of school reform.
The seat is wide open; incumbent Arturo Jimenez — who is often the lone dissenting voice on the board — is term-limited. Groups and donors on both sides of the debate have poured money into the race. As of Oct. 25, the candidates had raised a combined $220,000.
But more recently, attention has turned toward the at-large race, which features many of the same political dynamics.
In late summer, board president Allegra “Happy” Haynes had seemingly little to worry about. As candidates running to represent the northwest and southeast parts of the city staked out positions, Haynes didn’t even have an opponent.
Robert Speth, a northwest Denver father of two who is critical of DPS’s direction, announced his candidacy in late August.
The most recent campaign finance reports show Speth with strong backing from the teachers union, and Haynes’ campaign awakening. In two weeks in October, Haynes more than quadrupled the amount of money she’d raised in the previous year and spent big on mailers, Facebook ads and robocalls.
Haynes is a former city councilwoman who worked for Gov. John Hickenlooper when he was mayor of Denver. She was recently appointed by current Mayor Michael Hancock to head the city’s parks and recreation department — an issue Speth has highlighted in media interviews and debates (but not campaign literature).
Speth’s campaign recently invested in a mailer asking voters, “Are you a Democrat? Then please vote like a Democrat!” and noting that he was “endorsed by the people,” including the teachers unions.
Last week, Democrats for Education Reform sent a press release rebuffing implications that Haynes’s values don’t line up with the party. The statement listed 24 prominent Democrats who’ve endorsed her, including Hickenlooper, Hancock and Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia. Hickenlooper also sent an email in recent days reiterating his support for Haynes.
A third Denver school board race hasn’t drawn as much money or attention. In southeast Denver, newcomer Kristi Butkovich is running against incumbent Anne Rowe to represent District 1.
Because just three seats on the seven-member board are up for grabs, the election won’t fundamentally shift the board’s pro-reform direction. But it will determine whether there continues to be at least one dissenting voice on the dais.
3. Let’s not forget Aurora
While local and national media attention has been focused on the suburbs west of Denver, the struggling Aurora Public Schools to the east has an interesting election in its own right.
Seven candidates, including two incumbents, are battling it out for three seats. While the at-large seats won’t constitute a new majority on the seven-member board, some observers believe if two conservative candidates win, it could be enough to shake up the district.
The two conservatives, Grant Barrett and Monica Colbert, said in interviews with Chalkbeat they’re not interested in dividing the Aurora schools community in ways on display in Jefferson and Douglas counties. However, both said the district is in need of changes, which could include more charter schools and discussions about merit pay for teachers.
Colbert and Barrett won the support of the nonprofit Ready Colorado. The Littleton-based nonprofit, which has no apparent online presence, is run by conservative charter-school activist Margo Branscomb, according to documents with the secretary of state’s office. Ready Colorado has sent glossy mailers throughout Aurora supporting the two.
To rebuff Barrett and Colbert, an interesting alliance has formed between the Aurora teachers union and the Denver branch of Democrats for Education Reform. Both organizations endorsed incumbent Dan Jorgensen.
Other candidates backed by the teachers union include Billie Day and incumbent Cathy Wildman.
On the campaign trail, it’s been difficult to size up where most of the candidates differ on issues. All pledged their general support for Superintendent Rico Munn, the district’s new strategic plan, and the nascent plans for reforms at Aurora Central High School and a cluster of schools in the Original Aurora neighborhood that serve mostly low-income students.
This low-information election is likely going to come down to name recognition. That should give incumbents Jorgensen and Wildman, who along with Barrett won the endorsement of the Aurora Sentinel, the edge.
Regardless of the results, the Aurora school board will be faced with many tough decisions in the near future such as how to address the district’s overcrowding and improve a third of its schools before the state steps in.
4. Round 4 in Douglas County
The conservative majority in power on the Douglas County school board took office amid controversy in 2009, and the contentiousness has continued through every election since then, including this year’s contest.
As is the case in Denver, control of the board isn’t on the line this year because only three of seven seats are on the ballot. But the election is being closely watched to see if the board majority continues its winning ways.
The cast of characters on the board has changed somewhat since the 2009 election, but the philosophy has remained the same. Key policy initiatives have included creation of a pay for performance system, ouster of the teachers union and creation of a voucher system that includes religious schools.
Those steps have been both praised and fought by different segments of the Dougco community, and the voucher program has been blocked in court and now is being appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Board opponents regularly criticize it for a perceived lack of openness. That complaint has shown itself on the campaign trail this year over whether the district should conduct a comprehensive survey of community attitudes about the schools. Another issue this year is the board’s lack of interest in seeking a bond issue to pay for $250 million in estimated building needs.
Previous Dougco contests have been high spending affairs, but this year challengers have raised significantly more money that incumbents. But an unknown amount of outside money has been spent to promote the incumbents.
It remains to be seen how interested the public is in this races. Dougco turnout was 107,334, 49.3 percent, when four of the seven school board seats were on the ballot in 2013. This year 58,901 ballots had been turned in as off Monday morning.
The candidates are incumbent Craig Richardson and Wendy Vogel in District A, incumbent Kevin Larsen and Anne-Marie Lemieux in District C and incumbent Richard Robbins and David Ray in District F.
5. Brighton bonds, Denver scholarships and other money matters
Financial issues don’t have a high profile in this year’s district elections. Only one of the state’s 20 largest districts, 27J in Brighton, is asking voters for a property tax increase, while Denver voters face a proposal to raises sales taxes to fund college scholarships.
Despite losing a smaller bond issue plan by 90 votes last year, the 27J board decided to try again this year with a $248 million plan to build four new schools and renovate and expand five others.
The rapidly growing district felt it couldn’t wait and wanted to avoid indefinite continuation of split schedules at its two high schools and the possible use of year-round schedules at elementary schools.
The other large bond proposals on the ballot are $122 million plan in the Roaring Fork district and a hotly debated $92 million proposal in Steamboat Springs.
In Denver, city leaders are asking for a sales tax increase of 8 cents on a $100 purchase to raise $10.6 million a year for college scholarships.
The program wouldn’t operate like a traditional financial aid plan. In most cases the funds wouldn’t go to students but rather to organizations like the Denver Scholarship Foundation to help fund their scholarships and the support and counseling services they provide to students.
There’s opposition to the plan among a few city council members and within the city’s Democratic Party organization. Thanks to $150,000 from former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and money from other donors, a last-minute TV ad campaign launched last week to shore up support for the plan.
The only issue facing all voters statewide is Proposition BB, which would allow the state to actually spend $66 million collected in marijuana taxes. Even though voters approved taxes on recreational marijuana in 2013, this year’s election is required because of one of the many quirks in the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights constitutional amendment.