State Board of Education winners: Longtime Boulder school board member beats well-funded opponent

Updated at 1:01 p.m. on June 26, 2024.

In a race marked by an extraordinary last minute infusion of money, longtime Boulder school board member Kathy Gebhardt has claimed victory in the Democratic primary for the Board of Education seat representing Congressional District 2. She beat Marisol Rodriguez, an education consultant, who conceded the race.

As of Tuesday night, Gebhardt led Rodriguez, 56 percent to 44 percent.

Because there’s no Republican in the race, a victory will give Gebhardt a virtual lock on the seat, which covers Boulder, Fort Collins, Longmont and several mountain towns.

Gebhardt will replace Angelika Schroeder, a Democrat who has served on the board since 2009.

“I feel like we have shown that people's voices matter more than money and more than dark money,” said Gebhardt. “I feel like people have spoken in support of public education and their public schools.”

Kathy Gebhardt
Courtesy Kathy Gebhardt
Kathy Gebhardt won her primary race for the state school board seat representing Congressional District 2.

In the Fourth Congressional District, covering the Eastern Plains and portions of the Front Range, former Colorado GOP chair Kristi Burton Brown edged out veteran Saundra Larsen to win the Republican primary. 

Burton Brown was leading, 53 percent to 47, as of Wednesday afternoon.

Burton Brown will take on Democrat Krista Holtzmann, a child advocate and former Douglas County school board member, in the race to replace Debora Scheffel who has served on the board since 2018.

Jenny Brundin/CPR News

Candidates speaking at a debate held at Ponderosa High School in Parker, Colo. From left to right: Kevin Leung of Community Matters, Grant Nelson of Team Elevate, Krista Holtzmann of Community Matters and Debora Scheffel of Elevate.

The state school board is the body that sets education policy for Colorado’s 178 school districts and academic standards for nearly 2,000 public schools in Colorado. The nine-member board currently has a 6 to 3 Democratic majority. It expanded to nine members in 2022, with the addition of Colorado’s Eighth Congressional District.

The state board has traditionally been relatively free from politics, but national divisions have begun seeping into debates over things like updating social studies standards and the handling of charter school appeals. If a local school district rejects a charter school application, the Board of Education can overrule the decision.

That power is what apparently drove more than $1 million dollars in last-minute funding into the Democratic race, most of it from a single group supporting Rodriguez.

Democratic divisions in the 2nd Congressional District

For much of the spring it looked like Gebhardt would cruise into the seat. After declaring candidacy in December, Gebhardt, who has a long history in Colorado education circles, spent months as the only name in the race. 

Courtesy photo.
Kathy Gebhardt, candidate for Congressional District 2 on the State Board of Education

Gebhardt has served on the Boulder Valley School District Board of Education and on the National Association of School Boards Board of Directors. She was also the co-lead counsel on a couple of major Colorado school finance lawsuits. One of those cases resulted in the investment of $3 billion into school capital construction so far, and the other challenged the constitutionality of the state’s school finance system, highlighting Colorado’s underfunded public-school system.

In March, education consultant  Marisol Rodriguez hopped into the primary. Rodriguez has worked with organizations promoting and advocating for charter schools and was a program officer with the Walton Family Foundation, which was an early champion of charter schools and has also focused on career pathways and technology in education.

Her campaign was backed by heavy hitters from the charter school world.

Gov. Jared Polis, a former member of the state Board of Education and a charter school founder, endorsed Rodriguez in her campaign literature. She also received more than $850,000 in campaign contributions from a PAC called Progressives Supporting Teachers and Students, which didn’t register with the state until May 21. The filing agent was Kyle DeBeer who is an executive with the Colorado League of Charter Schools.

With that money, Rodriguez was able to flood mailboxes with direct mailings, and video and digital advertising. Some of the mailers referred to her fighting “MAGA Republicans” to protect “our kids’ education and safety.” Gebhardt called some of the mailers “misrepresentations” funded by dark money.

The money backing Rodriguez far outweighed the financial support going to Gebhardt, who received money from the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union. CEA said it wanted to keep the election focused on students and teachers, not ideological agendas. The Colorado Labor Action, which is funded by the CEA, spent about $50,000 on mailers opposing Rodriguez.

Gebhardt said Tuesday night that she believes voters were disappointed by the amount of negative advertising directed towards her, including last-minute phone calls stating untruthful and negative things about her family, she said.

“I also think that public education, in some ways, was a little bit under attack. People  want choice but they also want really strong public schools-  that includes choice - but isn't just focused on that.”

Gebhardt received endorsements from four Board of Education members, as well as Congressman Joe Neguse and a host of education and teachers’ organizations.

In interviews with the Denver Post, both candidates seemed mystified by the narrative around whether or not they support charter schools. In interviews, Gebhardt has pointed to her record of approving applications for charter schools in BVSD (voting against just one) and advocating for more money for charter school facilities. Rodriguez said she thought the two candidates had similar takes on charter schools.

On her campaign website, Gebhardt said she would focus on securing opportunities for all Colorado students and will lift up the needs of students with learning differences. She also supports welcoming, well-resourced and safe schools and ensuring qualified and well-compensated educators in every school.

Former state GOP chair ahead in 4th Congressional District

In the Republican-dominated fourth congressional district, Burton Brown looks ready to return to state politics as a board of education member, after serving as GOP chair from 2021 - 2023. She is also the executive vice president of conservative advocacy Advance Colorado.

Her opponent, Saundra Larsen, a resident of rural El Paso County, said she ran for the board because she sees multiple threats to children and “our values.” A substitute teacher, she was a newcomer to running for political office. 

On her website, Burton Brown focused on her opposition to abortion and trans women playing on women’s sports teams, as well as her support for the Second Amendment and freedom of religion. She advocates for charter schools and homeschooling and has worked as a substitute teacher and tutored homeschooled 4th through 6th graders in a “classical” education program.

She said her board priorities would be parents’ rights, school choice, school safety and accountability and academic standards. She accused state lawmakers and the state Department of Education of forcing “woke standards on schools instead of empowering teachers to impart real knowledge and basic educational skills to children.”

She’ll face Democrat Krista Holtzmann in the general election.