slate vs. slate

School board candidates looking for an edge in local elections team up, capitalize on national debates

A team of five candidates in Jefferson County — known as The Clean Slate — is aiming to reset the entire school board. Their coordination is the latest evolution in a nationwide chess match in education reform.

The Clean Slate was solidified in a Jefferson County living room.

By the time the five school board candidates had arrived there that early September evening, most had already endured a five-month recruiting and vetting process.

Now they were hashing out where they agreed and parted on issues such as linking teacher pay to evaluations and how they could work together to restore harmony in Denver’s western suburbs after two years of controversy.

The architects of this coordinated effort were not political operatives, but a team of six Jefferson County mothers who previously had the ear of the school district’s superintendent and felt shut out of the process after three conservative school board members were elected as a slate in 2013.

The candidates who ultimately came together are part of an evolving political chess match that grows out of a long tradition of finding strength in numbers. By banding together, school board candidates up and down the Front Range and across the nation gain a leg up in raising money, spreading a cohesive message and cutting through the noise of what can be crowded ballots.

That cohesiveness is seen as a considerable advantage as once sleepy school board elections become less about local issues and more a proxy war for a national education debate that pits teachers unions against modern day education reformers.

“This slate didn’t happen because of cliques in Jeffco, but because there is a national agenda to take over public education,” said Kelly Johnson, one of the mothers behind the slate that wants to reset the entire county’s school board.

PREVIOUSLY: Why the tug-of-war for Jefferson County’s school board isn’t just about local classrooms

Slate politics are nothing new

Political slates were born out of the Progressive Era of the 1930s.

Fed up with the contemporary political machines that controlled and corrupted many large U.S. cities, members of the business class sought to reform municipal elections, said Luis Ricardo Fraga, co-director of Institute for Latino Studies at Notre Dame, who has studied nonpartisan elections for most of his career.

“The whole idea was to get political parties out of city politics,” Fraga said.

But after the successful adoption of nonpartisan elections, business and community leaders ended up building their own machines and slates on behalf of their interests.

Political slates became so common that after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 went into effect, the U.S. Department of Justice monitored slates in the South to ensure black communities weren’t shut out of the electoral process.

For much of the 20th century, the most common slates in school board elections featured candidates who won endorsements from local teachers unions, said Terry Moe, a Stanford University political scientist and union critic.

That’s because teachers have the biggest material stake in school board elections, Moe said. Their livelihood depends on decisions made by the school board.

“If you go back in time, unions were the only organized force,” Moe said. “If you were a school board member and the union didn’t like you, you were in trouble.”

The birth of the modern school board slate

Much of today’s school board politics can be traced to the 1999 Los Angeles school board election, when Mayor Richard Riordan hand-picked a slate of candidates to run against four incumbents backed by the city’s teachers union.

The mayor, with help from the business community, identified and bankrolled candidates who would challenge the status quo and usher in reform policies that would weaken union control. then bankrolled their campaigns.

Since then, education reform activists have replicated Riordan’s model in Denver, Indianapolis, and Oakland, among other cities.

Those tactics employed in major cities are now at play in suburbs and smaller metro-areas. In Colorado this election season alone, slates that fit this definition and their opposition are campaigning in the Douglas County, Colorado Springs District 11, Aurora and Thompson school districts.

In helping candidates raise money, these organizations also identify key policies and messages such as school choice to influence local debates regardless of location.

Funders and education-reform advocacy groups such as Students First and Stand for Children, in an effort to gain more traction with voters, are changing what matters in local school board elections, said Michael Hartney, a professor at Lake Forest College.

“They’re mainstreaming or nationalizing the debate,” he said. “Most voters don’t pay attention to school boards. To me [slates] give voters more knowledge.”

By creating flashpoints — like disagreements over teachers evaluations — policy debates can happen at the local, state and federal level and gain more traction, Hartney said. That, in turn, creates a more engaged voter.

“It’s about attention,” he said.

Fighting back

Unions and their supporters have been losing strength for decades, labor expert and author Philip Dine said.

Education reform efforts are further eroding the power of unions.

“Labor is doing whatever it can to fight back,” Dine said. “So they’re doing a lot of creative things whether reaching out to the public or forming alliances with other organizations.”

Locally, the Jefferson County teachers union launched a campaign, Stand Up For All Students, complete with T-shirts, buttons and county-wide protests to draw attention to the school board majority.

While the Jefferson County Education Association has distanced itself from the recall, it was messaging developed by Stand Up For All Students — that the school board majority lacked transparency, wasted tax dollars and was disrespectful — that ended up on the recall petition.

And the union has endorsed and contributed to the Clean Slate.

But the union also has been busy working behind the scenes on other projects outside of the recall that might generate even more goodwill with a community unlikely to support unions.

Throughout the year, the union teamed up with parents and a national foundation to host hundreds of house parties and conduct a survey to craft a platform for unity. The platform, which will be released in final form after the election, calls for more collaboration between teachers, parents and school board, funding for early childhood education, and less testing.

Consequences for governance

Not all slates lead to radical change.

Some teams, like a 2013 school board slate in Greeley, end up not being fully elected.

In other instances, former allies turn against each other.

That’s what happened in Colorado Springs’ District 11 when a conservative slate backed by real estate developer Steven Schuck was elected in 2003.

According to The Gazette, the four-member slate attempted to launch a voucher program but was unsuccessful. They hired and fired a new superintendent within a year. And a power struggle ended in a recall of two reformers.

Another potential consequence of increased polarization at the local school board level is governing paralysis tantamount to Congress, which continues to be less and less productive, political consultants and education researchers said.

Some observers of Denver Public Schools pointed to a 4-3 split on the board as one reason why student achievement didn’t improve more quickly between 2009 and 2013.

And political acrimony between reformers and unions in Washington D.C., and Chicago made headlines, but little progress for students.

“The day when you were elected to school boards, because you were a leading citizen or you wanted to fulfill your civic duty, those days seem to be from a bygone area,” said Denver-based independent political analyst Eric Sondermann. “Now you almost have to have an ideological agenda on one side of divide or another. I think there is a real danger to this.”

task force

Jeffco takes collaborative approach as it considers later school start times

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

The Jeffco school district is weighing pushing back start times at its middle and high schools, and the community task force set up to offer recommendations is asking for public input.

Nearby school districts, such as those in Cherry Creek and Greeley, have rolled out later start times, and Jeffco — the second largest school district in Colorado — in December announced its decision to study the issue.

Thompson and Brighton’s 27J school districts are pushing back start times at their secondary schools this fall.

The 50-person Jeffco task force has until January to present their recommendations to the district.

Supporters of the idea to start the school day later cite research showing that teenagers benefit from sleeping in and often do better in school as a result.

Jeffco is considering changing start times after parents and community members began pressing superintendent Jason Glass to look at the issue. Middle and high schools in the Jeffco district currently start at around 7:30 a.m.

The task force is inviting community members to offer their feedback this summer on the group’s website, its Facebook page, or the district’s form, and to come to its meetings in the fall.

Katie Winner, a Jeffco parent of two and one of three chairs of the start times task force, said she’s excited about how collaborative the work is this year.

“It’s a little shocking,” Winner said. “It’s really hard to convey to people that Jeffco schools wants your feedback. But I can say [definitively], I don’t believe this is a waste of time.”

The task force is currently split into three committees focusing on reviewing research on school start times, considering outcomes in other districts that have changed start times, and gathering community input. The group as a whole will also consider how schedule changes could affect transportation, sports and other after school activities, student employment, and district budgets.

Members of the task force are not appointed by the district, as has been typical in district decision-making in years past. Instead, as a way to try to generate the most community engagement, everyone who expressed interest was accepted into the group. Meetings are open to the public, and people can still join the task force.

“These groups are short-term work groups, not school board advisory committees. They are targeting some current issues that our families are interested in,” said Diana Wilson, the district’s chief communications officer. “Since the topics likely have a broad range of perspectives, gathering people that (hopefully) represent those perspectives to look at options seems like a good way to find some solutions or ideas for positive/constructive changes.”

How such a large group will reach a consensus remains to be seen. Winner knows the prospect could appear daunting, but “it’s actually a challenge to the group to say: be inclusive.”

For now the group is seeking recommendations that won’t require the district to spend more money. But Winner said the group will keep a close eye on potential tax measures that could give the district new funds after November. If some measure were to pass, it could give the group more flexibility in its recommendations.

first shot

Jeffco district giving charter school district status and district building, while letting it maintain autonomy

A 2013 image from Free Horizon Montessori Charter School in Golden. (Denver Post file).

In a rare deal, a Jeffco charter school will become a district-run school but keep much of its independence — and also secure a long-sought campus.

For its part, the Jeffco school district wins a stable school in a Golden neighborhood that lost its own elementary school last year.

Free Horizon Montessori in the Jeffco district will still be run by its own board and is requesting the same waivers from state education law that it has now. But instead of getting them by being a charter school, it will become a district-run innovation school. Innovation schools, which are popular in Denver and several other districts, can win waivers from certain state and district rules. Those waivers grant them more sovereignty than traditional district-run schools. Free Horizon will be the first school in Jeffco Public Schools to earn the status.

Jeffco Superintendent Jason Glass called it a “win-win-win.”

District officials had been considering what to do with the building that was emptied this year after the school board voted to close Pleasant View Elementary in 2017. Officials said feedback showed the community favored keeping the building as a school.

The charter school, now located about a mile away from the school building, just south of U.S. Highway 6, was looking for a new location. In its current space, configured more for an office than a school, the charter would have had to spend about $7 million for the changes it wanted.

Under the plan, the charter will get a rent-free campus at Pleasant View, which will still be owned and managed by the district. The community will again have a school in the building — one which officials believe will have more stable enrollment than the elementary school the district closed — and the plan would give Pleasant View-area students a priority at the charter school, if they choose to go there.

Finding a place to house a school is one of the most common challenges facing charter schools in the metro area, especially as market rates go up. Jeffco has no policy on how to choose to lease, give, or sell a district building to a charter school, but it has done so a few times. Last year, for instance, the school board reluctantly approved a lease for Doral Academy to temporarily move into a district building.

Glass said that after seeing how Free Horizon works out, he’d consider a more consistent way of sharing available district space with charter schools, provided they accept all Jeffco students equitably and serve the community’s interests.

“Free Horizon certainly meets the bill,” Glass said. “This is sort of our first shot at this.”

Free Horizon Montessori, a preschool through eighth grade school, has about 420 students, including 21.6 percent who qualify for subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty. Currently, about 20 students from the Pleasant View neighborhood attend Free Horizon.

Miera Nagy, the charter’s director of finance and advancement, said after the move, the school will likely shrink its preschool, which has 75 students, to be able to fit in the building.

When arguing to close Pleasant View, Jeffco officials had cited necessary and costly building repairs. Now, they say it was decreasing enrollment that was the primary reason that made the school unsustainable.

In talking about Free Horizon’s plans, Nagy said, the school building won’t allow the school space to grow much. Instead, the school wanted the Pleasant View campus for “dedicated space for our specials.” As an example she said, the school’s physical education class is located in a room without a field or things like basketball hoops.

“This expands those services and those programs,” Nagy said.

The school board approved the school’s proposed innovation plan last week and it now heads to the State Board of Education. Jeffco officials, meanwhile, are working to delineate in a new document what responsibilities their school board will have, and which ones will be left to the school’s board.

Glass is seeking to keep the school intact.

“What he asked us to do was find a way that we could do this without designing any changes to the program that Free Horizon has,” said Tim Matlick, Jeffco’s achievement director of charter schools at a board meeting last week. “Free Horizon has a very successful program.”

The charter school meets state academic growth goals and falls slightly short of standards for achievement. According to state test results from 2016-17, 41.7 percent of the charter’s third graders met or exceeded standards for language arts. That’s slightly lower than the district’s average of 45.4 percent for the same group.

As a charter school, Free Horizon hires custodial services and buys school lunches, but as a district-run innovation school, Jeffco will provide those services. In exchange, the school will get less money per student than it does now as a charter school.

“Some of those things will actually be under the district’s umbrella, allowing the team at Free Horizon to really focus on the educational process,” Matlick said

The plan will also include a way for the district or the school to terminate the agreement by allowing the school to revert to a charter school if things don’t go well.

“We know that we’re going to learn more as we continue to go down the path,” Nagy said. “We’re going to be figuring this out together.”