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School board candidates backed by teachers union leading in Denver, Aurora and Jeffco

Metro Denver school board candidates wrestle with charter schools, COVID protocols and staff retention.

This story was originally published by Chalkbeat Colorado. More at chalkbeat.org.

By Melanie Asmar, Yesenia Robles and Ann Schimke, Chalkbeat Colorado

The union-backed majority on the Denver school board appears poised to consolidate power, as all four candidates endorsed by the teachers union were leading in the ballot count late Tuesday night. If the four win their elections, the board would be unanimously union-backed for the first time in recent history.

Scott Esserman, a union-backed candidate who is a parent and former classroom teacher, appeared headed to an easy victory in the at-large race, replacing term-limited incumbent Barbara O’Brien. According to results posted at 11:30 p.m., Esserman was beating out four other candidates: Vernon Jones Jr., Jane Shirley, Marla Benavides, and Nicky Yollick.

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Current school board President Carrie Olson also appeared poised to win her race in District 3, which covers central-east Denver. Olson is a former Denver teacher who was endorsed by the union. She is the only incumbent running for reelection.

The races were tighter in southwest District 2 and northeast District 4, though union-backed candidates Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán and Michelle Quattlebaum had leads in their districts as well. The District 2 race was particularly tight, with just 64 votes separating Gaytán and her opponent, Karolina Villagrana, as of the 11:30 p.m. returns.

Douglas County’s conservative challengers likely to win school board race

Reached at 9 p.m., Esserman said that although the union-backed candidates were outspent by pro-reform groups pushing for a different slate, the election results were “a testament to the kind of change people are ready to see” in Denver Public Schools.

“The vast majority of voters and members of our community are interested in seeing us do what’s best for students, and that’s what we’re going to do,” he said.

Union-backed members have held a majority of seats on the seven-member school board since a historic “flip” in 2019. Before then, Denver had been a national exemplar of education reform and cooperation with charter schools. In the past two years, the union-backed board has undone or halted many reforms put in place by previous boards.Become a Chalkbeat sponsor

For instance, the board voted to reopen two comprehensive high schools — Montbello High and West High — that previous boards had dismantled. Current board members also got rid of the controversial school ratings system that previous boards used to justify closing low-scoring schools in an attempt to improve academic achievement. The union opposes such closures.

The union also opposes the expansion of independent charter schools. The union-backed board attempted to delay the opening of a new DSST charter high school, but the State Board of Education overturned that decision


To read more about the DPS board race go to co.chalkbeat.org

Aurora charter educator Anne Keke leads along with union candidates

Union-backed candidates appear likely to hold the majority on the Aurora school board, but a charter educator with support from education reform interests was the top vote-getter in Tuesday’s returns.

Anne Keke, who teaches at Colorado Early Colleges, a charter school in Aurora, and is a district parent who ran with the goal of representing immigrant communities, raised the most money in the race and led her field with more than 19% of the vote late Tuesday.

“I’m really encouraged that the community of Aurora has spoken,” Keke said. “Aurora is becoming very inclusive and open. It really feels very good to see the direction that the community is going.”

She was followed by Michael Carter, an attorney and parent, and incumbent Debbie Gerkin.

The contest for fourth place was tight, with Tramaine Duncan less than 300 votes ahead of Christy Cummings. Duncan is a teacher in Denver and an Aurora parent. Cummings is a psychologist and Aurora parent, opposes blanket mask mandates, and ran hoping to improve mental health resources.

Carter said Tuesday he was pleased with the early results.

“If you look at the slate and added with Dr. Keke, that’s all four Democrats being elected,” Carter said.

Six candidates were running for four open seats on the seven-member board. Aurora board members are elected districtwide, with the top four vote-getters winning office.

The 35,500-student Aurora district is one of the most diverse in the state.

The race has attracted a lot of funding from union and reform groups.

​​The teachers union endorsed three candidates: Gerkin, Carter, and Duncan. Charter advocates and reform groups supported Anne Keke and Danielle Tomwing. Conservative group Ready Colorado also supported Keke and Tomwing, as well as Cummings.

The seven-member school board for Aurora Public Schools has been controlled by a majority of union-supported members who have shaped the district’s direction on school choice and various issues, sometimes going against the superintendent’s recommendations. Last spring they prevented him from doing any staff layoffs and last year reversed his decision on restarting in-person learning in the fall.

For more about the Aurora school board race go to co.chalkbeat.org

Union-backed Jeffco candidates win easily

A three-candidate slate backed by the Jeffco teachers union coasted to victory Tuesday, easily beating a slate of conservative candidates opposed to the current school board majority.

The winning slate includes Danielle Varda, Paula Reed, and Mary Parker. Varda won 58% of the vote in the District 1 race, beating out opponent Jeffrey Wilhite, who got 42% of the vote. Parker won the District 5 seat with 56% of the vote, prevailing over Kathy Miks, who got 44% of the vote. In the District 2 race, Reed won just over 50% of the vote, defeating Theresa Shelton, who earned 38%, and David Johnson, a candidate not affiliated with a slate, who got less than 12%.

Three of five seats on the Jeffco school board were up for grabs in Tuesday’s election.

The three winning candidates celebrated at a watch party at Cannonball Creek Brewing Company in Golden on Tuesday evening.

Varda, the founder of a health technology startup and parent of three children who attend district schools, said the win felt very emotional.

“I cried for a while,” she said. “To know that many people put their faith in you … It’s just overwhelming.”

Reed, a former high school teacher in the district, said, “We’re an incredibly strong slate. You’re getting an educator … You’re getting a data scientist … and you’re getting a phenomenal human resources expert.”

Parker owns a human resources consulting business with her husband.

All three candidates said the the first thing the board needs to do is ensure adequate staffing in the state’s second largest district.

“We cannot be cancelling bus routes because we don’t have enough bus drivers,” Reed said. “We cannot be heading into peak COVID season without substitutes.”

For more on the Jeffco school board race go to co.chalkbeat.org


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