Election 2017

Teacher, school finance lawyer face off to represent east Denver on school board

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz, Denver Post
Steck Elementary students on the first day of school in 2011.

A bilingual English language development teacher is vying to unseat an incumbent Denver school board member, who is a school finance lawyer, to represent the central-east part of the city, where not a single school this year earned Denver Public Schools’ lowest rating.

Carrie A. Olson teaches second language learners in a higher-poverty neighborhood in west Denver. Olson, 54, emphasizes on the campaign trail how her 33 years teaching in various city schools gives her a boots-on-the-ground perspective missing on the board.

“It’s time to put an educator on the board of education,” she said at a recent debate.

District 3 incumbent Mike Johnson, meanwhile, is touting his experience as a father of three DPS graduates, his school finance expertise and his track record as a board member, especially his efforts to visit each school in his region multiple times and answer parents’ questions.

“My big priorities, I accomplished them,” Johnson, 66, said in an interview.

    This is the third of a series of articles profiling this year’s Denver school board races. You can read the previous articles here and here, and about where candidates in all the DPS races stand on issues here, in Chalkbeat’s candidate questionnaire.

Olson has the backing of the teachers union, while Johnson is being supported by civic leaders and groups in favor of the school district’s key policies, including school choice and autonomy. It’s a familiar narrative playing out in other Denver school board races this year, as well.

Four seats on the seven-member school board are up for grabs. All seven seats are currently held by members who agree with the district’s direction. On Nov. 7, voters have the option to stay the course or change the dynamic by electing candidates who disagree.

District policy prohibits employees, including teachers, from serving on the board. If elected, Olson said she would ask her fellow board members to reconsider that policy.

Olson said she was motivated to run because she thinks certain board policies, such as replacing low-performing schools, have had unintended, negative consequences. As a teacher, she said, she’s experienced how closing a school can traumatize a neighborhood.

Olson was teaching at Kepner Middle School in southwest Denver in 2014 when the district announced the low-performing school would be phased out and replaced.

The decision caused widespread instability, she said, and ended programs that had become “bedrocks of the community,” including the student trips to Washington, D.C. and Europe she had helped establish, the benefits of which she’d researched for her PhD dissertation.

“It’s so shattering that it takes a long time to come back from,” Olson said. “I can’t imagine a situation right now where I’d say school closure is a good idea.”

Olson ended up at West Leadership Academy, a district-run school with innovation status, which gives it more autonomy than a traditional school but less than a charter school. Olson said that while she’s not opposed to charter schools, which in Denver are publicly funded but run by nonprofit boards, the district should pause on approving more until it can ensure they’re serving all students, including those with special needs.

She also wants to ensure DPS is doing right by its English language learners. Olson keeps on her desk a dog-eared copy of the consent decree, a federal court order that dictates how the district must serve them. When President Trump announced he was ending a program that protects young undocumented immigrants, she accompanied her students on a walkout and advocated for the Spanish-speaking teenagers who wanted a turn with the bullhorn.

Olson, who has a daughter who graduated from DPS, also has raised concerns that “high-stakes standardized testing is out of control” and that the district’s finances are so opaque, it’s difficult to figure out exactly how DPS is spending its billion-dollar budget.

For his part, Johnson said he’s worked hard over the last four years to shine light on that. As board treasurer and chairman of the finance committee, he said he pushed to publish every school’s budget on the district website. Anyone can now see how much funding a school receives per student or how much it spends on administrators and supplies. If re-elected, Johnson said he’d work to make the budgets even more transparent and user-friendly.

He said he’s also been “a bulldog” for reducing the size of the district’s central office to send more money directly to schools. He supported a move last year to eliminate 157 central office jobs while at the same time increasing funding to hire more teacher coaches.

Johnson said he agrees with a common criticism that the district “has historically done a bad job at community outreach.” He’s tried to improve relations, he said, by attending PTA and neighborhood association meetings and hosting parent coffees. He collects community members’ questions and answers them in writing in a running document accessible on the district’s website; as of this writing, the document is more than 130 pages long.

One of his goals if re-elected, he said, would be to build upon that by hiring district staffers to assist volunteer board members in keeping track of community meetings in their neighborhoods and preparing for the public written explanations of district policies and proposals.

“The tension and arguments we’ve had internally about this is that it’s money that could otherwise have been used in the classroom,” Johnson said. But, he added, “I think it’s worth it.”

Johnson supports the district’s strategy to cultivate a “portfolio” of traditional district-run, innovation and charter schools, and he boasts that District 3 is home to more different types of school models and programs than most anyplace else in Colorado.

He said he, too, is frustrated by the amount of time students spend taking standardized tests but he believes in having “some standard way to measure how schools are doing in educating kids.” He also supports closing or restarting persistently low-performing schools.

“You have to start over if it’s not working,” Johnson said. “You have to do that for kids.”

As of Oct. 11, when the first campaign filing period ended, Johnson had raised more than four times as much money as Olson: $81,855 compared to $18,105.

His big donors included philanthropists who regularly give large sums to pro-reform school board candidates, while her largest investment came from the Denver teachers union.

Johnson has also benefitted from the support of two independent expenditure committees. As of Oct. 11, Olson had not, though committees had helped other union-backed candidates.

dotting the i's

Group that supported Douglas County anti-voucher candidates fined in campaign finance case

The Douglas County school board on Monday voted to end the district's voucher program and directed the district to seek an end to the protracted legal case. (Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A political committee that supported a slate of anti-voucher candidates in the Douglas County school board race has been ordered to pay a $1,900 fine related to campaign finance violations.

Back in the fall, the group Campaign Integrity Watchdog filed a complaint against Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids that alleged the group failed to properly report donations and expenditures.  Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids is an independent political committee, which can spend an unlimited amount of money to advocate for candidates.

The Douglas County race was one of the most high-profile school board races in the state, and outside money from all sides flowed into the campaigns. The union-backed CommUnity Matters candidates won all four open seats, and as promised, they promptly ended the school district’s years-long defense of a controversial voucher program.

An administrative law judge ruled that some of the allegations in the complaint were not actually violations and that others were mistakes that the independent expenditure committee quickly corrected. For the most part, there was no intent to deceive the electorate, the judge found, and interested voters had ample opportunity to learn that teachers unions had donated to Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids and that the group had spent money on campaign materials.

But in one instance, the judge found that Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids waited too long to report spending on digital communications sent in the weeks right before the election. That’s the violation for which the group must pay a $50 a day fee, adding up to the $1,900.

The complaint from the elections watchdog group, which has previously filed complaints against Democrats and Republicans, alleged that Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids:

  • Failed to report a $1 donation used to open a bank account
  • Failed to report a $300,000 donation from American Federation of Teachers Solidarity
  • Failed to disclose more than $50,000 spent on campaign mailers within the 48-hour window required when money is spent in the last 30 days before an election

The judge found that the failure to disclose the $1 donation for the bank account was not a violation at all because the amount was so small. The $300,000 donation, meanwhile, was reported as coming from American Federation of Teachers. According to the judge’s ruling, when someone on the union side tried to correct the entry, they accidentally made a new entry for American Federation of Teachers Solidarity, giving the appearance of an additional unreported donation. While the failure to report the full correct name was a technical violation, the judge wrote that little harm was done, and the mistake was quickly fixed.

The purpose of campaign finance law is transparency, the judge wrote, and that was accomplished “by disclosing the key fact that a large national union of teachers was attempting to influence the election.”

On the spending side, the independent committee erred, the judge ruled, in not reporting expenditures on mailers within 48 hours of obligating the money. However, most of the spending was reported soon after the committee received invoices and again more than a week before the election. And because the committee’s name appears on the mailers, there was little concern that voters would have been deceived, the judge wrote.

However, in one instance involving roughly $1,800 for digital communications, the group did not disclose until its final campaign finance report in December, well after the election. It was this violation that prompted the judge to impose the fine.

Follow the money

Final Denver school board campaign finance reports show who brought in the most late money

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Victoria Tisman, 8, left, works with paraprofessional Darlene Ontiveros on her Spanish at Bryant-Webster K-8 school in Denver.

Final campaign finance reports for this year’s hard-fought Denver school board elections are in, and they show a surge of late contributions to Angela Cobián, who was elected to represent southwest Denver and ended up bringing in more money than anyone else in the field.

The reports also showed the continued influence of independent groups seeking to sway the races. Groups that supported candidates who favor Denver Public Schools’ current direction raised and spent far more than groups that backed candidates looking to change things.

No independent group spent more during the election than Raising Colorado, which is affiliated with Democrats for Education Reform. In the week and a half before the Nov. 7 election, it spent $126,985. That included nearly $57,000 to help elect Rachele Espiritu, an incumbent supportive of the district’s direction who lost her seat representing northeast Denver to challenger Jennifer Bacon. Raising Colorado spent $13,765 on mail opposing Bacon in that same period.

Teachers union-funded committees also were active in the campaign.

Individually, Cobián raised more money in the days before the election than the other nine candidates combined. She pulled in $25,335 between Oct. 30 and Dec. 2.

That includes a total of $11,000 from three members of the Walton family that founded Walmart: Jim, Alice and Steuart. The Waltons have over the years invested more than $1 billion in education-related causes, including the creation of charter schools.

Total money raised, spent by candidates
  • Angela Cobián: $123,144, $105,200
    Barbara O’Brien: $117,464, $115,654
    Mike Johnson: $106,536, $103,782
    Rachele Espiritu: $94,195, $87,840
    Jennifer Bacon: $68,967, $67,943
    Carrie A. Olson: $35,470, $35,470
    Robert Speth: $30,635, $31,845
    “Sochi” Gaytan: $28,977, $28,934
    Tay Anderson: $18,766, $16,865
    Julie Bañuelos: $12,962, $16,835

Cobián was supported in her candidacy by donors and groups that favor the district’s brand of education reform, which includes collaborating with charter schools. In the end, Cobián eclipsed board vice president Barbara O’Brien, who had been leading in contributions throughout the campaign, to raise the most money overall: a total of $123,144.

The two candidates vying to represent central-east Denver raised about $5,000 each in the waning days of the campaign. Incumbent Mike Johnson pulled in $5,300, including $5,000 from Colorado billionaire Phil Anschutz. Teacher Carrie A. Olson, who won the seat, raised $4,946 from a host of donors, none of whom gave more than $500 during that time period.

The other candidates raised less than $5,000 each between Oct. 30 and Dec. 2.

O’Brien, who staved off two competitors to retain her seat representing the city at-large, spent the most in that period: $31,225. One of her competitors, Julie Bañuelos, spent the least.