CASTLE ROCK —In an election year where parents are pushing back on issues from mask mandates to the use of Critical Race Theory (CRT) in teaching methods and curriculum choices, school districts across the state have more candidates running for open seats than anytime in at least the last 20 years, many with slates of hopefuls running together and looking to hold sway over district policy decisions.
Despite school board races being classified as non-partisan, both major political parties have a foothold and interest in the races.
“We set a record attendance this year,” said Pam Benigno, Education Policy Center Director for the Independence Institute*, about a school board candidate policy briefing that she has been conducting for the past nine election cycles. “One parent told me it was just time to take a stand.”
That sentiment is being echoed across the state, said Chris Morrisey, who has owned and operated Big Dog Branding for more than two decades. His business usually helps corporations market their businesses to customers, but he has found himself in the middle of two contentious school board races in the Thompson School District (Loveland) and the Poudre R-1 School School District (Fort Collins).
“In both communities it’s a lot of parent frustration,” Morrisey said. “Masks, test scores, CRT, EDI (Equity, Diversity and Inclusion), parents just don’t feel like the school boards are listening to them.”
That frustration is also evident in Jefferson County, where two slates of candidates are running in a hotly contested race for three open seats in the state’s largest district by enrollment. Three candidates are running on a reform platform of improved educational outcomes and district accountability: Jeff Wilhite, Theresa Shelton, and Kathy Miks. On the other side is a teachers’ union-backed slate defending the status quo: Dannielle Varda, Paula Reed, and Mary Parker.
Battle of the slates in Douglas County
In Douglas County, where just four years ago a liberal-leaning parent-group was able to unseat four conservative-leaning board members to take a majority, the battle is back.
The Highland’s Ranch Herald reports that incumbents Krista Holtzmann and Kevin Leung are seeking reelection while Ruby Martinez and Juli Watkins are newcomers on what is dubbed the “CommUNITY Matters” slate, with a platform asking voters to “keep the positive momentum going” in DCSD.
On the other side is what the Herald reports as the “Kids First” slate and is made up of Mike Peterson, Becky Myers, Christy Williams and Kaylee Winegar. “The candidates say they’ll focus on issues including academic performance in the district, students’ mental and physical safety and securing competitive pay. Concerned with the district’s governance in recent months, candidates said they felt a call to action in choosing to run,” the Herald said.
Douglas County parents are divided over masks as much as is their local government. Douglas County Commissioners recently voted to leave the Tri County Health Department, with whom commissioners have continually disagreed over how it has overseen response to the COVID pandemic, and have subsequently lifted all mask mandates. But DCSD can still impose its own mandate, to the displeasure of many parents, leading to the two four-candidate slates once again, hoping to shift the politics in the school district.
“I think I would have pushed more for in-person learning. I know an excuse they had was they couldn’t come up with substitute teachers, and I would have pushed for something creative to happen,” Winegar told the Herald.
Peterson told the Herald he would revisit the district’s policy requiring it follow state and local health agency guidance, a policy the district stuck to recently as county commissioners opted the county out of a health department masking mandate for schools.
“I would start as a board member to redefine that policy, to say we’ll be in ‘close collaboration,’” he said.
Ground swell of candidates
Morrisey added he’s never seen such a ground swell of candidates for school board.
“Usually, school board races are uncontested,” he said. “A lot of times whomever is the incumbent is not challenged. In Poudre, there has not been a conservative on the school board since 2007.”
Benigno agreed, adding the number of candidates running for school board this year is double a typical cycle.
In 2017, Benigno said there was just over 200 candidates statewide. In 2019, that number was around 260, and this year that has more than doubled with more than 530 candidates running in Colorado’s 178 school districts.
The Independence Institute tracks the candidates as it invites all candidates to attend the briefings that present future school board members with the non-profit’s perspectives on education related issues.
“Once they are elected, they primarily hear from the education establishment and their perspectives on the issues,” Benigno said. “We also mail our innovative school series to all school board members and superintendents in the state because it’s so important they hear another perspective. Colorado public school districts are very innovative, and we believe their stories should be shared across the state to inspire other school districts to think outside of the box.”
Campaign donations are also up. The eight Douglas County slate-candidates have raised nearly $320,000 collectively.
Peterson, Myers, Williams and Winegar account for most of it, $269,000, including several individual donations from Douglas County residents for $10,000-$25,000 each.
In Poudre, $71,500 has been raised for ten candidates as of the most recent filings, much of that going to teachers’ union sponsored candidates, with nearly $30,000 alone being donated to just four candidates by the Poudre Education Association.
The Larimer County Republican Party bought digital billboard space for it’s eight candidates in Thompson and Poudre, and in Windsor, a parent-group has also bought billboard space along a state highway that runs through the heart of the district in support of the two conservative candidates on the ballot. Windsor candidates are also paying for billboards and flyovers during high attendance times on the weekend at local parks hosting sporting games.
In Greeley-Evans District 6, mailers for a slate of four have hit mailboxes by an Independent Expenditure Committee known as Weld Strong.
Morrisey said COVID made parents more aware of what was taking place in the classroom and fired up parents to “take back” their school districts.
“There is just a feeling across the board that the school boards are circumventing the parents,” Morrisey said. “Things that used to come home for signed approval are not happening.”
There are numerous districts across the state with multiple candidates vying for a seat on their board of education, including:
- Jefferson County: Three seats open, seven candidates
- Colorado Springs District 11: Three seats open, seven candidates
- Colorado Springs Academy 20: Three seats open, 10 candidates
- Greeley-Evans School District 6: Four seats open, 10 candidates
- Poudre R-1 School District: Four seats open, 10 candidates
- Thompson School District: Four seats open, 10 candidates
- Pueblo County District 70: Five seats open, 14 candidates
- Douglas County: Four seats open, 11 candidates
- Aurora Public Schools: Four seats open, seven candidates
- Denver Public Schools: Four seats open, 13 candidates
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