Off to the races

This Denver high school student is running for a school board seat. (Yes, he’s 18.)

PHOTO: Michael Reaves/The Denver Post
Tay Anderson leads a chant of 'black lives matter' with a crowd of protestors on July 7.

Auontai “Tay” Anderson is student body president of Manual High School, chair of the Colorado High School Democrats and command sergeant major of the Junior ROTC 5th Battalion.

Now he wants a seat on the Denver school board.

Anderson, 18, filed paperwork Friday with the Secretary of State to run for a seat to represent northeast Denver that is currently held by Rachele Espiritu.

“My youth gives me the benefit of both a fresh perspective and the first-hand experiences of the strengths and weaknesses of our school system,” Anderson said in a statement. “Together, we need to create more opportunities for students to step into their greatness, improve our schools, and put our students first — especially our students of color, which is a top priority for me.”

Last summer, Anderson took up a bullhorn and led a chant of “black lives matter!” at a protest in response to police shootings of African-American men. At the time, he told Chalkbeat he planned to run for the school board — and possibly for president some day.

Four of seven seats on the Denver school board are up for grabs this November. If any or all current board members lose their seats, it could mean a philosophical shift for the state’s largest district. All seven members now back Superintendent Tom Boasberg’s reform efforts.

Espiritu was appointed to her seat after MiDian Holmes, who was tapped to replace board member Landri Taylor, stepped aside after details of a misdemeanor child abuse conviction became public.

Follow the money

Groups with a stake in Colorado’s school board elections raise $1.5 million to influence them

The nation's second largest teachers union is spending $300,000 to support a slate of candidates running for the Douglas County school board. Those candidates posed for pictures at their campaign kick-off event are from left, Krista Holtzmann, Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor, and Kevin Leung. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Union committees and various political groups have raised nearly $1.5 million so far to influence the outcome of school board elections across the state, according to new campaign finance reports.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, and organizations such as Democrats for Education Reform, a political nonprofit, are spending big in an effort to help elect school board members that represent their positions.

It’s become a common storyline in school board elections in Colorado and across the country: On one side, teachers unions hoping to elect members that will improve working conditions and teacher pay, among other things. On the other, education reformers who generally back candidates who support expanding school choice for families, more autonomy for schools and accountability systems that measure school quality, usually based on test scores.

The complete fundraising and spending picture, however, is often murky and incomplete.

State law lays out different rules and disclosure requirements for different types of political committees. The most prevalent this election year appears to be independent expenditure committee, which can raise and spend an unlimited amount of money but are forbidden from coordinating with candidates. (Campaign finance reports for the candidates’ campaigns are due at midnight Tuesday).

Both the union and reform groups operate independent committees. Those committees must report donations and expenditures to the secretary of state. But the donations captured in campaign finance reports are often huge lump sums from parent organizations, which aren’t required to disclose their donations under federal law. (Dues collected out of teachers’ paychecks are often the source for political contributions from unions.)

Several groups are spending money in Denver, where four of the seven school board seats are up for election. The ten candidates vying for those four seats include incumbents who agree with the district’s direction and challengers who do not. The Denver teachers union has endorsed candidates pushing for change.

The Every Student Succeeds group, which has raised almost $300,000 in union donations, is spending the most on one Denver candidate, Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running for a seat in southwest Denver, and on a slate of four Aurora school board candidates endorsed by Aurora’s teachers union.

The group’s largest donations came from the Colorado Fund for Children and Public Education, a fund from the Colorado Education Association. Aurora’s teachers union contributed $35,000 to the committee. The DCTA Fund, a fund created by Denver’s teachers union, also contributed $85,000 to the committee.

Some of the group’s union money is also going to a slate of school board candidates in Mesa County and another in Brighton.

The Students for Education Reform Action Committee has spent equal amounts on two Denver candidates. One, Angela Cobián, is running in Denver’s District 2 against Gaytán and has been endorsed by incumbent Rosemary Rodriguez, who isn’t running again. The other is Rachele Espiritu, an incumbent running in northeast Denver’s District 4. The funds, which were collected during a previous campaign cycle and carried over into this one, have gone toward phone banking, T-shirts and campaign literature.

The group has endorsed Cobián, Espiritu and incumbent Barbara O’Brien, who holds an at-large seat. It did not endorse a candidate in the central-east Denver District 3 race, explaining that it prioritizes “working with communities that reflect the backgrounds and experiences of our members, which are typically low-income and students of color.”

Better Schools for a Stronger Colorado, a committee affiliated with the pro-reform Stand for Children organization, has spent a sizable portion of the more than $100,000 it’s raised thus far on online advertisements and mailers for O’Brien. It has also spent money on mailers for incumbent Mike Johnson, who represents District 3.

Stand for Children has endorsed O’Brien, Johnson and Cobián. The group chose not to endorse in the three-person District 4 race, explaining that both incumbent Espiritu and challenger Jennifer Bacon had surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Another big spender is Raising Colorado, a group reporting $300,000 in donations from New York’s Education Reform Now — the national affiliate of Democrats for Education Reform. That group is spending money on mailers and digital media for four candidates in Denver: Espiritu, Cobián, Johnson and O’Brien, as well as two candidates for Aurora’s school board: Gail Pough and Miguel In Suk Lovato.

In Douglas County, the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers unions has pumped $300,000 into a committee backing a slate of candidates that opposes the current direction of the state’s third largest school district.

The committee, Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids, has spent most of its war chest on producing TV, digital and mail advertising by firms in Washington D.C., and San Francisco.

The Douglas County arm of AFT lost its collective bargaining agreement with the district in 2012.

A group of parents that also supports the union-backed slate have formed a committee, as well. So far it has raised $42,750, records show. Unlike the union donation, most donations to this committee were small donations, averaging about $50 per person.

The parent committee has spent about $28,000 on T-shirts, bumper stickers, postage and yard signs, records show.

Colorado Votes 2017

We asked the 2017 Aurora school board candidates nine questions. Here are their responses.

PHOTO: Kathryn Scott/The Denver Post
AURORA, CO - AUGUST 29: Max Gonzalez, 4, center, Gunnar Riley, 4, left, and Brooklyn Jones, 4, take turns looking through a camera as they spend part of their first week getting to know their new friends at Beck Preschool inside the Beck Recreation Center on August 29, 2017 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Kathryn Scott/The Denver Post)

This fall, thousands of Coloradans will vote in dozens of local school board races across the state.

In many cases, their votes will determine the philosophical direction of their school districts. Should there be more charter schools? How much should the district pay teachers? How should the district boost learning for its most vulnerable students? These are just some of the policy questions school boards consider. And with majority control up for grabs on many boards, the stakes are especially high in 2017.

In order to help voters decide who to vote for, Chalkbeat surveyed candidates in some of the most hotly contested races. Below are their responses, which have been lightly edited for clarity.

To use our survey, readers can select specific races, then click on a candidate’s name to show or hide their responses.

For more information about this year’s election, click here for our previous coverage and click here for our campaign diary that’s filled with tidbits from the trail.

Interested in more than one school district? Click here for candidate surveys from Denver and Jefferson County.