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A trio of signs supporting conservative candidates for the board of Mesa County Valley School District 51, Will Jones, Angel Lema and Andrea Haitz, line 29 Road in Grand Junction, Colo., on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021. Jones, Lema and Haitz have all been endorsed by the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce and the political action group Stand for the Constitution. (Barton Glasser, Special to The Colorado Sun)

School board candidates angered by mask mandates and other COVID-19 rules won their races in Douglas, El Paso and Mesa counties, but pro-mask candidates backed by teachers unions prevailed in Denver, Jefferson County and other districts on the Front Range.

Candidates and outside groups spent millions of dollars in some of the most contentious contests in decades. Both the Republican and Democratic parties endorsed candidates in the nonpartisan races, which reflected nationwide angst over shutdowns of schools because of COVID and mask requirements upon the return to classrooms.

Sharp divisions over how schools have handled classes amid the pandemic helped fuel a surge of candidates in districts across the state, including parents opposed to mask mandates and other health protocols who say their views were ignored. 

Ready Colorado, a conservative nonprofit that advocates for school choice, said Tuesday’s results were a victory for parents.

“In all of these races, the majority of the winning candidates were parents,” the group said in a statement. “When you close schools for so long, doing tremendous damage to student learning and harming families in the process, there is bound to be a reaction. The consequences of school closures and ignoring parents’ voices manifested last night. Parents roared.”

Masks were used “divisively” to separate groups of people and their viewpoints on public health initiatives and policies, said Kevin ​​DiPasquale, president of the Douglas County Federation, the local teachers union. The federation did not publicly endorse any school board candidates this election season.

​​DiPasquale doesn’t believe that mask debates necessarily dominated school board elections this year but said that they were a regular part of conversations extending back to the summer.

“Unfortunately, this divisive tactic fed into the misnomer of parental choice for the electorate,” he said.

Even with the state now past its particularly turbulent election cycle, Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association, anticipates disputes over health precautions like masks will continue far beyond boardrooms.

“I wish we were in a place where we weren’t having to talk about COVID safety mitigation protocols,” she said, adding “the reality is we are not.”

But she hopes conversations take on a more respectful tone and that those involved “put student health and safety as the top priority.”

A voter drops off a ballot on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021, at the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

Baca-Oehlert is optimistic as the makeup of school boards change across the state, even as the latest election was “one of the more stressful, intense school board elections” she has been part of.

She noted that initial results indicate many candidates supported by teachers unions prevailed. Voters stood with educators to elect school board candidates who have students, teachers and public schools top of mind, Baca-Oehlert said, describing them as candidates who are interested in finding policy solutions “that uplift our public schools” rather than those fixated on “divisive political issues.”

“In many places,” she added, “those candidates did not succeed.”

One bright spot emerged from all the conflicts over masks in schools: a renewed interest in school board positions and elections, said Cheri Wrench, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards.

She echoed the need to repair the divides that have pitted parts of districts against one another.

“We are hoping that that commitment that they have made to their local school district will transform into working together to solve problems and make decisions going forward,” Wrench said.

Douglas County contests take center stage

Eight candidates in Douglas County sparred over coronavirus measures such as wearing masks. While the county commission withdrew from the Tri-County Health Department, the school district successfully sued the county to continue requiring masks in schools.

The future of the district’s mask requirement hangs in the balance. Newly elected school board member Mike Peterson said he and the three other candidates who successfully ran alongside him intend to address the district’s mandate — he’s just not sure how.

The new board members will address the district’s mask mandate when they’re seated after the election is certified, in late November or early December, and when they have more clarity on the district’s ongoing lawsuit, Peterson said.

“Our intent is to put choice back in masking both for the parents for their kids and for the teachers,” Peterson said.

Mask use was mixed at the Oct. 26 Douglas County School Board meeting, where people gave public comment for hours about COVID-19 policies in the district. (Jessica Gibbs, Colorado Community Media)

Peterson, a father of three daughters including two who are enrolled in Douglas County schools, is adamant that mask mandates weren’t at the core of parent frustrations but rather one symptom of a broader problem.

“I think parents in Douglas County thought that they were just being ignored,” Peterson said. Debates over masks and curriculum and aggravation with the way public comment has been conducted at school board meetings all stem from a lack of parent input, he said.

“We hope to re-establish them as a good check and balance on the system,” he said, emphasizing that the slate he ran with is “pro-choice” when it comes to both masks and vaccines.

Defeated incumbent Kevin Leung, part of an opposing slate called CommUNITY Matters, noted that masking seemed to be a critical issue for his opponents “to fly up their base” and the health implications of masking took a backseat to politics.

“Unfortunately, a simple (medically) proven strategy to protect students, to protect COVID from spreading has turned into a simple soundbite for political attack,” Leung said.

Winning candidates Peterson, Christy Williams, Becky Myers and Kaylee Winegar — all part of the “Vote4KidsFirst” slate — were each endorsed by the Republican Party. They defeated incumbents Krista Holtzmann and Kevin Leung and candidates Juli Watkins and Ruby Martinez.

Republican Party Chairwoman Kristi Burton Brown touted the Douglas County wins in an email, noting that the GOP lost control of the board in 2017. She wrote that the big win this year “shows that the suburbs don’t actually support socialists.”

The conservative slate’s efforts were “calculated” and factor into a bigger political movement in school districts across the country, Leung said.

School boards, he said, have “become a part of the larger strategy for the Republican party to take back the suburban voter,” he said.

The eight candidates in the district raised more than $536,000 and spent more than $346,000 through Oct. 27, according to state campaign finance filings, the most in the state for a single school board contest. Douglas County candidates ran at-large for four seats.

The winning Douglas County candidates outspent their opponents, including two incumbents, by about $214,000 to $132,000. The four winners each received contributions from wealthy individuals in the county ranging from $10,000 to $25,000.

Overall, the top 20 candidates in fundraising brought in more than half of the nearly $2.7 million raised through Oct. 27.

“When you have huge sums of money, it is much easier to get your message out,” said DiPasquale, the Douglas county union president.

He said he hopes that Douglas County’s new school board members will follow through on their promise to put students first.

“If they truly want to put kids first, listen to the experts, whether they’re educational or medical experts, and show us that you put kids first,” he said.

But he also worries about history repeating itself when it comes to a move to privatize schools in Douglas County. A 2011 effort to offer parents vouchers to use at private schools was being contested in the Colorado Supreme Court, when a new board majority elected in 2017 dissolved the program.

DiPasquale is concerned about the prospect of new board members attempting to create a voucher program in the district, introduce a scholarship program for kids or try to privatize education in other ways.

That’s not an immediate focus for the new board members, Peterson said, but he didn’t rule out the possibility of exploring a voucher program at some point during his term.

“Anything is possible down the road,” he said, suggesting it may be a couple of years before the board has the bandwidth to consider a voucher program.

Mixed results in other districts

Candidates running against mask or vaccine requirements and opposing teaching about racial justice also succeeded in Mesa and El Paso counties but failed in Durango, Montrose, Cherry Creek, Aurora and two Larimer county districts.

  • Three candidates endorsed by the GOP won in the Mesa County Valley School District, based in Grand Junction. Conservatives have shown up in force to protest at school board meetings there, even though the district doesn’t have a mask mandate.
  • Three candidates endorsed by the GOP won seats on the Academy 20 School District board in El Paso County, along with three in Colorado Springs District 11 and three in Falcon 49. But only one of the four Republican-endorsed candidates won in Cheyenne Mountain, where two seats were up.
  • Three Republican-endorsed candidates lost in Loveland’s Thompson School District, including Blake Law, who was listed on the ballot as Blake “No Mandates” Law. The fourth contest was separated by fewer than 100 votes.
  • All four candidates endorsed by the GOP in Fort Collins’ Poudre School District lost their races.
  • Two of the Republican-based candidates in Montrose School District lost their contests, while another race was too close to call.
  • In Aurora, three candidates backed by Democrats won seats and a fourth had a slight lead over two GOP-endorsed candidates.
  • Two candidates backed by Democrats, including incumbent Kathy Bates, a registered Republican, won seats on the Cherry Creek School board.
  • Three Democratic-backed candidates won school board contests in Durango, after securing union backing and vowing continued support for the district’s mask mandate.

Teachers unions see success in Denver, Jefferson

For the second election cycle in a row, candidates backed by the teacher’s union won the four contested seats on the Denver Public Schools board

And three union-backed school board candidates in Jefferson County won handily, defeating candidates backed by the Republican Party.

The Denver contests drew more than $1.1 million in outside spending as unions and charter school proponents supported competing slates. 

In Jefferson County, teacher’s unions donated $87,500 to the three winning candidates, while Fort Collins lawyer Stephen Keen donated $40,000 to Paula Reed and $10,000 each to Mary Parker and Danielle Varda.

But in Adams 12, the teacher’s union spent more than $93,000 on digital ads and mailers for Democratic-endorsed candidate Jackson Dreiling, lost to Courtney Potter by more than 900 votes.

Aurora’s contests drew at least $148,000 in outside spending from both union and charter school backers.

Baca-Oehlert, of the state teachers union, is encouraged by the success among board candidates endorsed by unions, who she said broadly support the state’s public schools.

“It really is an exciting outcome because these candidates ran on uniting the district, collaborating and working with all stakeholders,” Baca-Oehlert said. “What that means is that when we put the student issues first and we’re all focused on ensuring a great quality public school for all children, that is the right work, versus focusing on adult issues.”

Sandra Fish has covered government and politics in Iowa, Florida, New Mexico and Colorado. She was a full-time journalism instructor at the University of Colorado for eight years, and her work as appeared on CPR, KUNC, The Washington Post, Roll...

Erica Breunlin is an education writer for The Colorado Sun, where she has reported since 2019. Much of her work has traced the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic on student learning and highlighted teachers' struggles with overwhelming workloads...