Colorado school board races mostly a mixed bag, but teachers union says voters rejected extremism

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
In-person public school classes began on Monday, Aug. 17, 2020, including at Centennial Elementary in Evans where a school bus arrived to drop off students.

School board candidates backed by teachers’ unions and other public education supporters won a solid majority of their races across Colorado, after waging a fierce battle to keep conservative and religious-backed candidates at bay.

There were exceptions - most of the Colorado Springs area boards, conservatives strengthened their ideological majorities. All three candidates who weren’t the choice of the teacher’s union in Denver won, and two candidates actively courted by evangelical churches in Pueblo appear to have won.

Still, an organization that aims to elect more board members with a "biblical worldview" saw few of its candidates succeed. The Truth and Liberty Coalition based in Colorado distributed a voter guide asking candidates in 30 school districts about gender pronouns, transgender students and whether the U.S. is systemically racist.

“The night overall was a victory,” said Amie Baca Ohelert, a high school counselor and president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union. “There are some places where it's still too close to call, and there are a few places where we had a tough loss, but overall, for the most part, the voters of Colorado said ‘no’ to extremism on our school boards.”

She said that means supporting candidates who believe in an accurate and honest curriculum, funding schools, and who will work with educators, students and parents as partners.

School board races are extremely unpredictable because they are nonpartisan, voters may know very little about the candidates and there is often low turnout.

Ready Colorado, which supports candidates that value public school choice, transparency and academic accountability, saw some of their candidates win and others lose. It is often on the opposite side of teacher’s union candidates.

“It was disappointing to see union-backed candidates sweep some of the slates across the state, but we saw some positive victories as well, so a mixed bag kind of night,” said Brenda Dickhoner, the organization’s president and CEO.

All the candidates it supported in Adams 12 lost, but it’s excited by victories in Colorado Springs District 11, Montrose and Pueblo.

Republican political consultant Tyler Sandberg doesn’t see an overriding narrative on the school board races that “wraps everything up in a neat bow.” But he agrees that Tuesday’s results show voters want politics — left-wing or right-wing — out of the classroom.

“They want kids to feel safe, supported and learning,” he said. “If there was one through line, they want competency and they don’t want politics.”

One of the biggest changes: the number of school board races that had very polarized candidates espousing opposite views, values and ideologies was much greater this year than in 2021.

Conservative and religious groups amplified their involvement in school board races

While debate in many of the major districts focused on challenges like school safety, academic achievement, declining enrollment and teacher shortages – others became consumed with hyper-partisan culture issues like gender and race, what books should be in the library, or whether helping kids with self-regulation skills in school, known as social-emotional learning, is appropriate.

Conservative candidates accused teachers of inserting politics into the classroom, while critics of the conservative movement accused it of politicizing education and distracting traditionally non-partisan school boards from the real issues in schools.

In school board races two years ago, many of the public questions in candidate forums involved critical race theory. This year it was religion and religious issues. Church members sent out texts to Jefferson County voters to help them vote “according to Biblical values.” 

Sandberg said while he applauds everyone, including churches, getting involved in politics, “money is the mother’s milk of politics.”

“They may have put a voter guide out, but they weren't spending the money to get that into the hands of voters,” he said. “What I've learned in politics is that the average voter that's going to be persuaded by anything that you say in campaigns, that doesn't have their mind made up already, never seeks out political things. You have to go to them.” 

New political groups like the Colorado Conservative Patriot Alliance, which accuses schools of “indoctrinating” children in diversity, equity and inclusion and pushing a “trans agenda,” issued endorsements in dozens of districts as did the conservative group Moms for Liberty, which is active in book banning.  But unless they are putting the work in to educate voters, those endorsements don’t mean a lot, said Sandberg.

Despite being the first election imposing limits on campaign donations to school board candidates, millions of dollars flowed into races. Both Democratic and Republican political parties have contributed money. Political action committees like the conservative Ready Colorado Action Fund spent money in districts like Montrose, Adams 12, and Aurora races. A state teacher’s union-supported super PAC called Students Deserve Better backed candidates in districts like Woodland Park, Denver, Thompson, and Adams 12, among others.

Here are some outcomes

Jenny Brundin/CPR News
Campaign signs in Woodland Park in Teller County often label certain candidates as "conservative." There has been an increase in overt politicization of traditionally nonpartisan school board races. The Teller County Republican Party has donated to four candidates on one of the slates.

In Woodland Park, controversial board members hang on

In perhaps one of the closest watched races among school boards in Colorado Woodland Park’s conservative board appears to have hung on to a majority. 

Early on election night, ballots favored challengers Seth Bryant, Keegan Barkley and Mike Knott. Overnight, two of those leads switched with Bryant falling 43 votes behind incumbent Mick Bates and Knott trailing incumbent Cassie Kimbrell by 55 votes.

The turmoil created by the current board has drawn national media attention. After winning a majority in 2021, the board adopted a set of social studies standards developed by a national conservative coalition, imposed a ban on teachers speaking to the media without prior approval, and declined to renew grants that paid for a dozen mental health counselors.

The community, helped by a parent who doggedly tracked every school board move, rallied behind the challengers who promised an end to the turmoil. The three vowed to return to “traditional, common sense school leadership,” ridding the district of “political agendas” and restoring fiscal responsibility and mental health supports, increasing academic opportunities, and transparency.

Voter turnout in the county was an astounding 58 percent — much higher than the statewide rate of 43 percent. Though Teller County’s election office states that all ballots have been counted, some voters received messages Wednesday morning that their ballot was received and they'd be notified when it was counted.

“People were very involved and very active and unfortunately at the end of the day Charis was as well,” said parent Matt Gawlowski, referring to the Woodland Park-based Charis Bible College.  At a couple of board meetings, about 150 people connected to the college turned out. And in a close race, that can make the difference.

But with a possible defeat for incumbent David Illingworth, Gawlowski believes there will be a shift.

“I think the tone of the board meetings and tone of the board communications will absolutely change for the better. Will it change any decisions in the district? No it’s not going to change the path, but at least it won’t be quite as toxic.”

Illingworth said he’s waiting for word from the clerk’s office about any ballots that may yet be counted.

“If Keegan does win, then I wish her all the best,” he said.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Denver Public Schools headquarters, March 23, 2023.

Denver voters signal they want new things from their board

Denver’s school board, plagued with turmoil and in-fighting, will have a new direction with three new members focused on academic achievement, mental health and school safety. John Youngquist, a popular former educator and principal of East High School, soundly beat businessman Kwame Spearman for an at-large seat. Kimberlee Sia and Marlene De La Rosa took out incumbents Scott Baldermann and Charmaine Lindsay. Polling results showed incumbents were very unpopular.

“It was kind of a ‘throw the bums out’ (election), really, especially in that at-large race, it was really decisive, massive margins,” said Sandberg.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
First grade teacher Allison Kresinski teaches reading at Goldrick Elementary School, Dec. 7, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) denver; colorado; denverite; kevinjbeaty; elementary school; education; goldrick elementary; learning; classroom;

Teachers wins big in many other districts

Candidates backed by teachers’ unions and other public education supporters won in Jefferson County, Cherry Creek, Aurora, Boulder, Poudre, Eagle County, Gunnison, Westminster, Roaring Fork, and Summit County. Adams 12 and Littleton both had several extremely close races but, in the end, candidates backed by the teacher’s union won. 

Two union-backed candidates won in the Thompson, and a third holds a slim lead that’s too close to call.

Conservative efforts yield results on pair of El Paso County boards

Several El Paso County districts hosted contentious races with conservative candidates whose victories appear to strengthen the existing ideological bent of those boards.  

In 2021, Colorado Springs District 11 flipped to a more conservative board that shut down the equity department and forced out the superintendent.  This year saw a hard-fought election involving 10 candidates vying for four seats.

The Springs Opportunity Fund, a local dark money-backed conservative super PAC, spent almost $500,000 in support of candidates in D11 and Academy 20 – incumbents Parth Melpakam and Jason Jorgenson and newcomers Thomas Carey and Jill Haffley in D11 and Amy Shandy and Derrick Willburn in neighboring Academy 20. Academy 20 has had a tumultuous couple of years with book ban challenges and attacks on social and emotional learning. 

All six of them won their races.

Willburn said after the race his focus is on traditional academics.

“With our victories last night, voters made it clear that they want a focus on academics, which is exactly what I expect the new D20 board to do,” he said. “We need to clear a path for our teachers and administrators to be able to concentrate on teaching and instructing as we prepare students for post-secondary life.”

Shandy said voters made it clear their vision and values are conservative. 

“Our community has chosen to prioritize students’ academic success over political agendas.”

Academy 20 parent Rob Rogers has tracked the involvement of churches in the race. He believes churches activated their members to turn out in the district. It was the site of a large evangelical tent revival three months ago where many sessions focused on public education and school board elections. Religious leaders exhorted attendees to distribute voter guides to churches. Rogers is worried the district is about to undergo monumental changes in how the board governs itself.

“And once that were to happen … D20 would no longer be the desirable district that it has been for many, many years,” he said.

Douglas County voters want politics out of school board

With a record turnout in Douglas County, three members who ran on the “Community Voice, Community Choice” coalition —  newcomers Valerie Thompson, Brad Geiger, and incumbent Susan Meek —  coasted to victory. They promised to restore trust with the community, build safe and welcoming schools and work to retain teachers.

Their victories mark an about-face from 2021, when voters installed a conservative school board. That led to the firing of a superintendent, teacher and student demonstrations, several lawsuits and expensive legal settlements, one of which was for breaking Colorado’s open meetings law.

“It’s a win for public education,” Meek said. “The three candidates that were elected are supportive of every student in our classrooms and ensuring that we’re doing everything possible to help each and every child.”

Meek said the election results are a signal to the remaining board majority that voters want politics out of board and school matters.

“The community wants individuals who are there to represent their kids based on local conditions, not national rhetoric,” she said.

The three victors will still make up a ‘minority’ on the conservative seven-member board but Meek said as a minority member incumbent, she got important work done.  The current board did unify on the issue of passing a property tax hike to raise teachers’ salaries, which voters approved Tuesday night.

Jenny Brundin/CPR News
Campaign signs line the country roads in Elbert County. Though the county is conservative, the views of some school board members were too extreme for three traditionally conservative school board members who resigned this spring, throwing the district into further turmoil.

Other races

In Pueblo 60, four out of five school district seats were up for election. Two of the teachers union candidates lost and two others are too close to call.  Consultant Sandberg said candidates ran grassroots campaigns and door-knocking made the difference. Two of the winning candidates were backed by a relatively new network of churches called “Forging the Future.”  Pastor Quin Friberg called the four candidates they backed “biblically minded, strong Christian” candidates. Network churches were involved in identifying and recruiting candidates and provided support in shooting videos of them that played in churches.

South of Douglas County in Elizabeth, two candidates attempting to dilute the political consistency of a five-member conservative board lost their races. 

The small district was thrown into turmoil this past couple of years when rumors and accusations about teachers caused many educators and district leaders to leave. The winning “Kids First” slate lists its priorities as academic excellence, protecting parents’ rights and school choice, fiscal soundness and school safety. In an interview, one of the candidates said their main issue is tackling a “hidden agenda” in schools, which he described as “confusion over sexuality.”

Another winning board member Mike Calahan said the current board has quadrupled armed security at schools and doubled SROs.

“We need good teachers, we need security, that’s my focus,” he said.

Garfield County, where community members recently pushed back an effort to adopt the American Birthright social studies standards, will remain a conservative board.

Cañon City saw extremely close races for three seats. Two traditional candidates are hanging on to slim leads as of Wednesday, along with one candidate from the “We The Parents” slate. Matt Alexander, a longtime community volunteer who runs his own business, told the Fremont County Crusader he “watched the Leftists begin to take ground” and referred to teachers “indoctrinating our children with low-level ideology.”