The most closely-watched school board election in Colorado this year just may be who wins a crucial fourth seat on the Douglas County Board of Education. The board is currently split 4 to 3, with pro-voucher conservatives, backed by some of Colorado’s wealthiest donors, holding sway.
The four seats held by the more conservative board members likely will be up for grabs. Three of the incumbents have yet to file paperwork to run and the fourth is term-limited. In the meantime, a slate of four new conservative candidates has emerged. And big money is expected to play a role, although we won’t know just how much until 24 days before the election, since the first campaign finance report isn’t due until Oct. 17, the day after county clerks can start mailing out ballots.
The stakes are high among those watching the debate over vouchers. The district has attempted to implement a scholarship program that would grant DougCo students taxpayer-funded vouchers of about $6,400 a year to attend the private school of their choice, whether it be religious or secular, in Douglas County or not. The program has been blocked by the state Supreme Court and was appealed to U.S. Supreme Court — an effort backed by the Daniels Fund and the Walton Family Foundation, which together donated $1.8 million to pay for the legal tab. The Supreme Court recently returned the case to a lower court for further consideration. It’s unclear when a new ruling might come down or whether it would happen before the election.
But if conservatives hold their slim majority, the legal battle likely would continue. And if opponents to the voucher program take just one of the four seats, the board would likely drop the voucher program altogether, rendering the legal case moot.
For that reason, former Lt. Gov. Gail Schoettler, who lives in Douglas County, called this year’s election “the most important school board election in the country.”
The new school board members would help dictate policy for the third largest district in the state in the fifth wealthiest county in the nation. The district serves 67,000 students, with just under 12 percent in 2016-17 receiving free or reduced price lunches (FRL), a national indicator of poverty. Only Pitkin County (Aspen) has a lower percentage of students qualifying for subsidized lunches.
Douglas County historically has been one of the highest-achieving in the state, but over the last two years, its school board has been riven by battling between conservative education reformers and those referred to as “pro-public school.” The district, in the words of one candidate, is facing a financial crisis, with a backlog of nearly $300 million in school building repairs.
“Our school district has become a test for the national [school choice} agenda, while at the same time losing its accreditation with distinction rating from the Colorado Department of Education,” another school board candidate, Kevin Leung, told The Colorado Independent this week.
In the past two years, following the election of three pro-public school members, board meetings in Douglas County have often turned into free-for-alls. The complaints levied by parents, teachers, students and community members include:
• that board chair Meghann Silverthorn and vice-chair Judith Reynolds attempted to intimidate a local high school sophomore into canceling a protest over teacher turnover (the protest went forward as planned). An investigation into the allegation cost the district more than $163,000. The investigation cleared the two board members because the district’s anti-bullying policy applied only to students, not school board members.
• that the conservative majority hired a divisive superintendent, Liz Fagen, who some claimed marched in lockstep with the board on its agenda, including the voucher program.
• that teachers are leaving in droves in part because pay isn’t comparable to neighboring school districts, despite the fact that Douglas County is the state’s wealthiest county. The Colorado Department of Education, in its 2016-17 survey of teacher salaries, found DougCo pays on average $52,044 per year to its teachers; the Cherry Creek district, just north of the county line, pays $69,110 and Littleton Public Schools, another DougCo competitor, pays $64,917, on average. In addition, 62 percent of DougCo teachers surveyed in late 2015 said they would not recommend Douglas County as a place to teach. The district’s teacher turnover, according to the Colorado Department of Education, was 19 percent between 2015-16 and 2016-17. For non-teacher instructional staff, it was even higher, at 35.8 percent. The statewide averages are 16.88 percent and 24.8 percent, respectively.
The conservative majority’s most notable achievement is the Choice Scholarship Program, the controversial voucher program. The program, initially approved by the board in 2011, was blocked by Denver District Court, appealed by DougCo to the Colorado Supreme Court and then U.S. Supreme Court, which on June 27, sent it back it the Colorado Supreme Court for further review.
On Monday, the Colorado Supreme Court sent the case back to Denver District Court “for further consideration.”
Who’s running and where they stand
Three of the four pro-voucher incumbents are up for re-election this year, but to date, not one of them has filed to run. The deadline for entering the race is Sept. 1, according to the Secretary of State’s elections calendar.
Two incumbents, Reynolds and Dr. Jim Geddes, were first elected in 2013. Steven Peck was appointed to his seat last year by Silverthorn, and can run for a full term in November. Silverthorn is the only board member who is term-limited.
Peck told The Independent last month he was taking a “wait and see” approach on whether he would seek his first election. “I enjoy serving on the board but there are many talented people in the district with good ideas and useful experience,” he said.
So far, eight candidates have filed to run for the four seats. The eight have divided themselves into two groups of four and are running as slates, a model employed successfully by Jefferson County two years ago.
Four candidates are associated with the slate known as Elevate Douglas County. The four include former State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel, who lost a close re-election bid last year for the Sixth Congressional District state board seat. The other three are Ryan Abresch, a legal analyst; Randy Mills, an electrician and commercial builder and Grant Nelson, a commercial real estate investor and developer. All four share the same website.
The other four candidates, backed by several parent and community groups, is known as the Dream Team. They include Chris Ciancio-Schor, a former principal at Castle Rock Elementary; Anthony Graziano, who works in the software industry; Krista Holtzmann, an attorney and child advocate, and Leung, a small business owner and former IT professional who is also one of the plaintiffs in the voucher lawsuit, along with Taxpayers for Public Education. All four are opposed to vouchers.
The Independent reached out to all eight current candidates, with five of the eight responding. All candidates were asked the same question: why are you running for the school board, what’s at stake in this election, and what about vouchers? Responses are listed in alphabetical order.
Graziano (Dream Team): Graziano has raised two daughters, both who either graduated from or are currently attending DougCo public schools. He and his wife chose to live in Douglas County for the excellent schools. “I am running for school board with the promise to listen closely, understand issues and seek solutions through responsible service. I commit to working collaboratively to serve our county to ensure our public schools live up to the greatness of Douglas County.”
Graziano believes eight years of “failed reforms” is enough. The district needs to focus on five core issues, he said: fiscal responsibility and transparency with regard to the budget; a board that functions as a stable unit; hire and retain the best teachers in the wake of high turnover that he says is “not sustainable,” help the district find the funds to repair aging school buildings, and to make DougCo the leading district for school choice through thoughtful planning and sufficient financial support. However, he says that the voucher program “undermines this concept of choice by diverting funds away from our public schools into the private sector and religious institutions. We must [be] vigilant stewards of public monies and protect taxpayers ensuring every dollar allocated promotes the public education of all students.”
Holtzmann (Dream Team): Hotzmann has raised two sons, both who have graduated from DougCo public schools. “That’s given me a lot of time to volunteer” for their schools, but with them heading off to college, she is looking for the next step and believes that DougCo children need an advocate.
“This is the community’s time to decide if they feel committed to providing an excellent public education to all students in Douglas County” and if they are committed to supporting teachers, which she said is the most important school-based factor in a child’s achievement. The district also needs $300 million to repair school buildings, and she said the district is in a crisis, financially.
Holtzmann said she believes parents should be able to make the best choice for their children. “I’m all for it,” but added that taxpayer money should not subsidize private education. “When our public funds go to private schools we lose accountability,” which taxpayers should demand, she said. Holtzmann also noted that the voucher money in the Choice program is not enough to pay for a private education, so that program may represent false hope to some parents.She pointed out she’s a faith-based person, but said that if public dollars go to religious schools, she believes eventually the government will enter in and regulate those schools, and she said that’s not something that those schools will want.
Leung (Dream Team): Leung says he is running to give back to the country and community that he has lived in for the past 27 years. Leung has volunteered on a number of accountability groups, both for the county school district and at the statewide level. He is the only DougCo parent on the State Advisory Council for Parent Involvement in Education, a group mandated by state law and which is run by the Colorado Department of Education. He has three children, two who have graduated from the county’s public schools and a third who is in a DougCo middle school.
Leung said he moved to the United States from Hong Kong for the best education. When he first came to Douglas County, he said the schools were top-rated for academic achievement. That’s no longer the case. “In the past eight years, the district has had huge fights from the so-called reformers instead of focusing on local issues, such as how to educate in the best way.”
He also raised concerns about teacher and principal turnover, both of which are higher than the state average. And he pointed out that despite the county’s population growth, not one new school has been built since 2010, and the district has a huge repair bill for schools coming due.
Mills (Elevate Douglas County): Mills’ two daughters both graduated from DougCo schools. “That experience has been very positive,” he said. “I hope to bring a visionary and innovative look at what we can do in Douglas County,” especially with vocational education. “DougCo has done good things, but it’s not to say we couldn’t reach higher,” and pointed to successes with partnerships between the schools and private business that include work study and internships.
He believes the voucher issue is a constitutional question that is heading to resolution. Both sides are passionate, he said, and deserve resolution. He is confident the state Supreme Court will come up with “the correct finding,” whatever that may be.
Nelson (Elevate Douglas County): Nelson has three children in DougCo neighborhood and charter schools and is a proud third-generation graduate of CU-Boulder. Nelson is running to “try and settle the debates and political rhetoric and get back to work and run the school board the way it should be run. With 67,000 kids whose futures are at stake, we need to stop the politics and petty arguments and bring respect and civility to the board” for the community and teachers.
He believes the first step has already been taken, to get rid of Fagen, who left last year to go to a small school district outside of Houston. “Her departure was the best first step, but we still need to recover from her tenure,” which he said wasn’t good for the district. “My skill set will allow me to come in and work with people and hear what everyone wants and find a middle ground for everyone.”
Nelson said that he has great faith in the American judicial system and in whatever the courts decide with regard to the voucher lawsuit. But “we need to find a result to the 140-year old legal battle [over the Blaine amendment, which forbids taxpayer funds from going to religious schools].” We need to find a resolution to this one way or the other.”
Nelson’s view about Fagen isn’t new. Last year, Justin Williams, a former conservative board member who was term-limited in 2015, said that the majority would not hold unless they cut ties with Fagen. In a YouTube video posted by the political committee Douglas County Parents on their Facebook page, Williams cited Fagen’s hiring as one of his greatest accomplishments during his time on the board. But since 2010, the board majority has lost support, he said. “There were people who supported us in this cause the last time [who] have switched over. I’ve come to the conclusion…that if we go forward in the next election in 2017 without a superintendent change, we’re going to lose.” The video was shot at a May 2, 2016, meeting of Liberty Libations, a conservative networking group in Douglas County. An political committee, under Colorado law, is one that supports or opposes candidates for elected office.
Fagen resigned later that month after being named superintendent of the Humble, Texas, school district, which is about a little more than half the size of the Douglas County school district.
Show me the money!
Big money has often played a big role in who sits on the DougCo board. In the 2009, 2011 and 2013 elections, three wealthy conservatives – Alex Cranberg, Ed McVaney and Ralph Nagel – poured at least $220,000 into the campaigns of Silverthorn, Reynolds, Geddes and their predecessors on the board.
While state campaign finance limits set strict limits on how much individual donors can give to a candidate for the General Assembly or other statewide offices, like governor, no such limits exist for school board races.
Outside money is also expected to play a role in the race. Two years ago, Americans for Prosperity, the conservative group backed by billionaires David and Charles Koch, paid for ads that encouraged viewers to contact the board and express their support for the “school choice” (i.e. voucher) decisions. Jesse Mallory, state director for AFP Colorado, said this week that his organization is “currently finishing up a statewide campaign promoting the benefits of school choice. We do our best to hold elected officials accountable – including school boards. We haven’t finalized exactly where that might be yet, but we are certainly committed to fighting for school choice over the long-term in Colorado.”
But money is already starting to show. The Elevate slate has as its campaign manager and spokesperson Michelle Balch Lyng, who handled communications for the Jefferson County School District while it was under the control of a conservative majority board. Campaign finance is being handled by Marge Klein of SWS Polifi, a campaign finance compliance firm. The slate’s website says it has been paid for by the four candidates’ committees, although we won’t know until October what that cost.
One issue that has surfaced in the past two years is the influence on the board by a conservative education program, the Leadership Program of the Rockies.
LPR has placed at least nine graduates on school boards in the past decade, including the three members of the JeffCo board who were kicked out of office by voters two years ago. The nine include three of the four incumbents on the DougCo board, as well as current superintendent Erin Kane.
And while none of the Elevate slate are LPR graduates, LPR’s ties to the Elevate slate are already evident. Klein graduated from the program in 2000 when it was known as the Republican Leadership Program. From 2002 to 2006, Klein worked for then-U.S. Rep. Bob Schaffer, the current board chair of LPR. Lyng’s husband, Ben, is also an LPR graduate who unsuccessfully ran for a state senate seat last year.
The program is valued among conservatives for teaching free market principles, but its greatest value may be in connecting its graduates to a statewide network of alumni and in at least several cases, wealthy board members. That includes LPR board member Cranberg, formerly of Greenwood Village, who now lives in Texas. Cranberg, a millionaire who owns Aspect Energy, was the biggest donor (at $25,000 a pop) to the 2013 campaigns of Silverthorn, Geddes, Reynolds and former member Doug Benevento, whom Peck replaced last year.
Cranberg also was a board member and donor to All Children Matter, a “school choice” advocacy group with an associated political action committee, both founded by Richard DeVos and his wife, Betsy, who is now the U.S. Secretary of Education. Betsy DeVos and Cranberg also both served on the board of the Alliance for School Choice, the nation’s top advocate for vouchers, and which was founded by Walton heir John Walton.
Cranberg told The Independent via email that he hopes “the [Washington] DC union money stays out of this local race, which is about quality schools and parents’ needs in Douglas County. “ He did not respond when asked if he intended to make donations to any of the candidates in this year’s election.
If past history is any indication, the Dream Team slate will likely rely most on individual donations. In the 2015 election that changed the makeup of the DougCo board, the largest donations were at about $1,000 each from individual donors. No donations were recorded in the Secretary of State’s database from the Douglas County Federation, the local teachers’ union, nor from its parent union, the American Federation of Teachers. The most raised by any one candidate in 2015 was just over $24,000, by now-board member David Ray.
Schoettler said this week that what’s at stake in this election is the future of public schools and not just in Douglas County, which she calls “the poster child for those who want to privatize public education.” She believes that the Elevate candidates wouldn’t be on the slate if they did not believe in vouchers and in giving taxpayer money to religious and private schools.
The key to success in the election, Schoettler said, is name recognition. “I expect big money to come in on the side of Elevate, and we won’t have that kind of money on our side,” she said.
She believes the changes made by the pro-voucher majority have done a lot of damage to the quality of DougCo schools, pointing to cuts in instructional funding, cuts to high school graduation requirements and class hours. “That’s reforming for greatness? That’s reforming for mediocrity. If you create mediocrity, you create a demand for something else.”