Why did Colorado voters change up their school boards?

In the days since Tuesday’s election, much has been written about the fact that voters instigated sweeping changes in two of the Front Range’s most contentious school board elections. What do the election results mean?


In the Douglas County Public School system, voters elected a Republican-backed, conservative, reform slate—enough to hold a voting majority. In the Denver Public School System, however, voters chose to hand their voting majority to candidates who have spoken out against the district’s reforms. (Though in a move that complicates the results, they also overwhelmingly elected reform candidate Mary Seawell.)

What’s missing from the post-election conversation is voters speaking for themselves. Since no one, including the Colorado Independent, appears to have questioned the people who turned in ballots, day-after-election news reports have focused heavily on spin from candidates or political party heads.

Winners and their backers read the election results as confirmation that voters agree with their view of education. At EdNews Colorado, for example, John Ransom, chair of the Douglas County Republican Party, which campaigned heavily for four “reform” candidates in Douglas County, spun the election this way:

The current board, as it was composed, was not in touch with the values of the community.

Meanwhile, in the Denver Post, candidate Andrea Merida, backed by the local union, had this spin on the Denver race:

Merida called her victory one for the neighborhood schools of southwest Denver.

“By having the neighborhood schools in the discussion, we will be able to reform the entire portfolio of schools instead of one segment,” she said.

Losers, in several cases, grumbled that many of the races fell into the “he who spends the most money wins” category. For example, union-backed Christopher Scott, in Denver, had this to say:

Scott’s campaign issued a press release on Tuesday congratulating Thomas W. Gamel, a Denver businessman who contributed more than $90,000 to [reform candidate Mary] Seawell’s campaign, on his “electoral win.”

“I hope Mr. Gamel is as personally committed to DPS and our children as he is financially,” Scott said. “As we like to say in the consulting business, ‘You buy it, you own it.’  We will hold Mr. Gamel accountable for the actions of the board members his money has supported.”

In Douglas County, Brenda Smith, president of the Douglas County teacher’s union also pointed to the amount of money spent by the Republican party, which opposed all the candidates backed by the teacher’s union. In an interview with EdNews Colorado she pointed out that “there was a lot of money spent.” “I don’t know how much,” she said, “but a lot more than we spent.”

Smith also pointed to what she claimed was misleading—but persuasive—rhetoric on the part of the Republican party:

I know they used the rhetoric of ‘the union is trying to take over the schools.’ And we’ve never, never had that in mind. We’ve never gone to a school board member that we’ve endorsed and requested them to do any favors for us.

Experts are also weighing in of course—though mostly just with the sense that voters were demanding change. Of some kind. Editor Alan Gottlieb at EdNews Colorado, for example:

If there’s one overriding lesson from last night’s school-related elections along Colorado’s Front Range, it’s that voters in some districts, for whatever reason, are not happy with the status quo, even, paradoxically, when the status quo is about change.

In the Denver Post, Piton Foundation education program manager Van Shoales had this to say about the Douglas County race:

“It’s hard to win on a reform platform in a district where kids are already performing above average,” Schoales said. “It suggests something is very broken.”

But his use of the word “something” leaves unclear whether he was referring to the district, the district’s relationship with the voters, or the electoral process.

So there’s the roundup of pundits and candidates. Any voters out there who want to explain what was really going on?

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Katie Redding

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