Why the still-undecided state board of education race matters

One of the last races to be decided from last week’s election is who will represent Congressional District 6 on the Colorado Board of Education. The district, which includes Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties and the city of Aurora, is currently represented by Republican Debora Scheffel of Parker.

However, Democratic challenger Rebecca McClellan of Centennial is ahead in the race; as of this writing on Wednesday, McClellan’s lead is at 1,062 votes. The race could go to a recount if the margin drops much below 900 votes.

There are furious efforts by both Republicans and Democrats in the district to help voters whose ballots were rejected for technical reasons — say, a missing signature — fix the problem so all ballots cast will be counted.  Today, Wednesday, is the deadline for voters to “cure” their ballots.

Related: Could Colorado Dems win a board of ed seat in a post-election ballot chase?

The state Board of Education makes decisions about public policy in education and also hires the commissioner of education.

And that’s one of the big decisions facing the current board: In the past 18 months, the state has gone through three education commissioners, and is on its fourth, interim commissioner, Katy Anthes. The last permanent commissioner, Rick Crandall, quit after less than five months on the job, citing family commitments and the demands of the job.

Until about two years ago, the board operated more or less quietly. That changed in January 2015, after the addition of two new board members: one Democrat, Val Flores of Denver; and one Republican, Steve Durham, a former state lawmaker, powerful lobbyist at the state Capitol from Colorado Springs and well-known conservative. Durham is the current chair of the board.

Durham, who won reelection last week to a full four-year term, described himself in a Colorado Springs Gazette profile in June as a “change agent” although others called him divisive. As a member of the “House crazies” in the 1970s, The Gazette reported, Durham advocated against vaccinations for school children and bilingual education for minorities. Today, he’s a strong opponent of common core standards and “high-stakes testing,” and favors school vouchers.

Durham won his reelection in a landslide, beating his Democratic opponent by 34 percent in Republican-stronghold El Paso County. He did not return a call for comment.

The board has clashed along political lines on issues such as whether students benefit more from charter schools and funding for early-childhood education for at-risk students.

In June 2015, the board’s then-chair, Marcia Neal, suddenly announced her resignation, citing a dysfunctional board that had ceased to work on issues such as helping students prepare for college or careers. “Unfortunately, I do not see that the current board is interested in working together and reaching consensus,” she wrote in her resignation letter. At almost the same time, the department of education saw at least four top members of the executive team resign, pointing, in part, to board politics.

Should McClellan win the seat, the seven-member board would change from a Republican majority to a Democratic one, which would almost certainly mean a new chair.  Democrat Angelika Schroeder is the current vice-chair  and she won her position with the backing of Neal, who was a Republican. That move created more contention on the board. 

In addition to hiring a new commissioner of education, the board must also continue to monitor implementation of the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) which replaced No Child Left Behind. Both dealt with teaching quality, testing, and low-performing schools.

McClellan points out that if elected, she would be the only board member with children in public schools in Colorado.

Scheffel has taken a strong stand on boosting data privacy for students and also has called for a review of state education standards.

Ballot cures turned in to county clerks by close of business Wednesday and by email through midnight Wednesday will be processed Thursday, according to the Secretary of State’s office.

An automatic recount would take place if the margin between the two candidates is a half percent or less than the number of votes cast for the winning candidate. If the margin is greater, the losing candidate can ask for a recount, but must pay for it, getting a refund only if the count results in a new winner.


Photo credit: Kodak Views, Creative Commons, Flickr