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.”

Decision day

Unity prevails: Jeffco incumbents easily beat back challengers

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Meredith Van Deman signs the back of her 2014 mail-in ballot outside the Columbine Library in Littleton before turning it in.

The status quo has held in Jeffco Public Schools.

Two incumbents facing opposition easily defeated two challengers, ensuring that the governing board of the state’s second largest school district will remain united 5-0.

In District 1, incumbent Brad Rupert won by 20 percentage points over against Matt Van Gieson, a parent and former president of the parent teacher organization at a Jeffco charter school, Golden View Classical Academy.

In District 2, incumbent Susan Harmon claimed a similar margin over Erica Shields, a conservative Jeffco parent.

Current board president Ron Mitchell ran unopposed. The other two seats are not up for a vote this election.

The current board, supported in large part by the teachers union, was elected in 2015. That election, voters recalled three conservative board members and voted in five new members who have since hired a new superintendent, signed an extended contract with the teachers union, given some pay raises and voted to close an elementary school.

The school board incumbents raised considerably more money than the challengers, including thousands of dollars from the teachers union.


Keeping the peace

Jeffco voters to decide whether school board will remain united or include dissenting voices

Students at Edgewater Elementary School in Jefferson County work on iPads during class.

With little controversy, no national media attention and control of the school board not at stake, this fall’s school board race in Jefferson County has centered on whether a board that is consistently united could use a dissenting voice.

Three of the five board of education seats are up for grabs, but only two of the incumbents have challengers — a single one in each race.

A win by the two challengers, both conservatives who oppose much of what the current board has done, would not change many of the votes or direction of the school district, but it could change the conversations. Some voters now say they are weighing whether to vote to keep the stability of the current board, which often vote unanimously, or whether more diversity of thought is needed. One question is whether different voices would repeat the drama of the previous, split, school board that saw conservative members ousted in a recall election.

“Everyone in Jeffco wants us to commit to maintaining civility,” said Ron Mitchell, the board president, who is the member running unopposed. “I don’t see that changing.”

Some who support the current board say even one dissenting voice could slow down progress, distract from the current work or create doubt in voters if the district asks for a tax increase soon.

“I believe that even one or two detractors on the board will stagnate progress,” said Jeffco parent Kelly Johnson, who helped recall previous board members. “Our district has already paid too much in lost opportunities with the chaos of the past.”

Erica Shields and Matt Van Gieson, the two challengers, say they want to work with the current board.

“We are not there to disrupt,” Shields said. “We are not about that. We don’t want to return to the old type of board mentality. We want to make things better.”

The incumbents have a huge money advantage.

Those current members running for re-election — Mitchell, Susan Harmon and Brad Rupert — supported by the teachers union, have raised large amounts of money as of the last finance reports filed two weeks ago. The two in the contested race each had more than $40,000 raised, compared to about $3,200 raised by Shields and $2,300 raised by Van Gieson.

Mailers and yard signs for the incumbents advocate for all three together.

Since their election two years ago, the current board members have hired a new superintendent in Jason Glass, approved an extended contract with teachers union, given teachers a pay raise and advocated for better school funding.

Opponents Shields and Van Gieson say, recent events pushed them to consider running for school board independently, but now both also are running together, asking for voters to support them as a team.

Shields said she is running after realizing the work she does as a volunteer helping homeless people doesn’t address the root causes of the problem, which she now sees as a lack of good education opportunities for everyone.

Van Gieson, said that he hears too often from people who feel they no longer have a voice on the current school board. He said he official decided he wanted to run after a spring board meeting in which several community members asked the board not to close their schools.

School closures have not been a major issue for voters, most say, because Glass has said he would pause any school closure recommendations until district officials can create a better system for evaluating if a school should close.

Instead, campaign messages and questions at forums have centered on typical political divisions such the sources of campaign contributions, the support of teachers and positions on charter schools or private school vouchers.

“Sometimes I think there are issues created by others that are really just divisive wedges,” Mitchell said. “For example, charter schools. Every year we seem to try to drive the charter school wedge into the election.”

Mitchell said the current board is not against charters schools. In previous board discussions, Jeffco board members have expressed a desire for more authority to decide if a charter application is good enough for Jeffco, instead of just legally meeting its requirements to open.

Van Gieson, who is on the parent-teacher organization of a charter school in Jeffco, said he thinks charter schools are treated differently in Jeffco, and if elected, wants to help all schools have similar accountability.

“Where a charter school has to come in front of the board and answer for lower achievement, it would be beneficial to do the same things for neighborhood schools,” Van Gieson said.

The campaign also has included an increased focused on equity.

Joel Newton, founder of the local nonprofit Edgewater Collective, joined Jefferson County Association for Gifted Children to hosted, for the first time, a forum just for discussions on the needs of diverse learners. In previous years, the Jefferson County Association for Gifted Children has hosted a similar forum alone.

“I don’t think that was part of the conversation in the past,” Newton said. “The interesting thing now is both sides have a piece of the puzzle. One side talks about school choice…the other side makes the argument that poverty is the real issue.”

Glass, the superintendent, has emphasized the importance of the school district working with community partners to tackle poverty and other out-of-school factors that impact learning.

Tony Leffert, a Jeffco parent who lives in Golden and supports the new superintendent, said the issue on his mind is keeping the current board on track. He said adding a dissenting voice to the board, could set up a possibility for the minority opinion to take control of the board in two years.

“Given the last school board election that we had, every school board election is important in Jeffco going forward,” Leffert said. “We do not want a repeat of that again.”

Clarification: This story has been updated to note that a forum on the needs of diverse learners, which was hosted for the first time with the Edgewater Collective, has been hosted in the past by Jefferson County Association for Gifted Children.