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.

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.

money matters

In election of big spending, winning Aurora candidates spent less but got outside help

Four new board members, Kyla Armstrong-Romero, Marques Ivey, Kevin Cox and Debbie Gerkin after they were sworn in. (Photo courtesy of Aurora Public Schools)

A slate of Aurora school board candidates that won election last month were outspent by some of their rival campaigns — including in the final days of the race — but benefited from big spending by a union-backed independent committee.

Outside groups that backed the winning slate spent more overall during the campaign, but wound down as pro-education reform groups picked up their spending in the last period right before the election. Those efforts were not enough to push their candidates to victory.

According to the last campaign finance reports turned in on Thursday and covering activity from Oct. 26 through Dec. 2, Gail Pough and Miguel Lovato spent the most from their individual contributions.

Together Pough and Lovato spent more than $7,000 on calls, canvassing and consulting fees. Both candidates were supported by reform groups and had been reporting the most individual contributions in previous campaign finance reports.

But it was the slate of candidates endorsed by the teachers union — Kevin Cox, Debbie Gerkin, Kyla Armstrong-Romero and Marques Ivey — that prevailed on election night.

How much did candidates raise, spend?

  • Gail Pough, $12,756.32; $12,328.81
  • Lea Steed, $1,965.00; $1,396.16
  • Kyla Armstrong Romero, $7,418.83; $3,606.12
  • Kevin Cox, $2,785.54; $2,993.07
  • Miguel Lovato, $16,856.00; $16,735.33
  • Jane Barber, $1,510.32; $1,510.32
  • Debbie Gerkin, $4,690.00; $4,516.21
  • Marques Ivey, $5,496.50; $5,638.57
  • Barbara Yamrick, did not file

The slate members spent varying amounts in the last few days before the election. For instance, Cox, who won the most votes, spent $403 while Ivey who recorded the fewest votes of the four winning candidates, spent $2,056.

Most of the slate candidates’ spending went to Facebook ads and consulting fees.

The four also reported large amounts in non-monetary contributions. Collectively, the slate members reported about $76,535 in non-monetary contributions, mostly from union funds, to cover in-kind mail, polling, office space and printing. All four also reported a non-monetary contribution in the form of a robocall from the Arapahoe County Democratic Party.

Other financial support for candidates, through independent expenditure committees, showed that the group Every Student Succeeds which was backed by union dollars and was supporting the union slate, spent less in the last days than the reform groups Raising Colorado and Families First Colorado which were supporting Pough and Lovato.

Overall, the independent expenditure committee groups spent more than $419,000 trying to sway Aurora voters.

Incumbent Barbara Yamrick failed to file any campaign finance reports throughout the campaign.

This story has been updated to include more information about in-kind contributions to the union-backed candidates.