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A sign supports Cherry Creek school board candidates Oct. 19, 2023, in Aurora. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
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As a first-time candidate for school board in Colorado Springs, longtime teacher Jill Haffley says she wants “political agendas” out of schools. 

In her view, that means teachers should choose which pronouns to use with students; that transgender female students be banned from girls sports; that sex education be abstinence-based; and that students learn the U.S. “is not systemically and fundamentally racist,” according to her responses in a voter guide from Transform Colorado, a group that says it “unites Christian leaders to restore biblical values in the public square.”

Those hot-button issues have defined an increasingly contentious race in Colorado Springs School District 11, where 10 candidates are battling for four seats, including opposing slates of candidates that generally break down along partisan lines.

School board races in Colorado and across the country — particularly during off-year elections — have for many years been among the quietest. Struggles even finding candidates to run in some communities coupled with low voter turnout made contests almost an afterthought in many parts of the state. 

But a surge of school board candidates in many Colorado districts this year, together with a flood of spending on races, have put school board elections into hot contention, often fueled by hyperpartisan battles over lesson plans, library offerings and how schools address gender and race. This year, nearly 600 school board candidates have filed with the Secretary of State’s Office, compared with only about 100 four years ago. 

A Colorado Sun analysis identified nearly $2 million in candidate fundraising statewide through Oct. 11, slightly less than the $2.2 million raised during a similar period two years ago. But this is the first year candidates cannot take unlimited donations. A 2022 law limits individuals to $2,500 donations to candidates and small donor groups to $25,000 per candidate. 

The buzz around school board elections in many districts coincides with a sense of national political division that has trickled down to the local level and seeped into many school board rooms, with tensions between board members and parents erupting into loud shouting matches and igniting protests

The disputes have increasingly taken on a partisan tone, beginning with sharp political divides over how schools handled students’ health and safety during the pandemic, with Republicans overwhelmingly opposing mask mandates and school closures and Democrats broadly supporting them. Disagreements over mask mandates and extensions of remote learning in particular drove a wedge between communities, setting the stage for broader fights once pandemic restrictions eased. The fissures have only deepened amid clashes over how schools should address gender identity and race. 

A sign supports Cherry Creek candidates Scott Graves and Steve McKenna Oct. 19, 2023, in Greenwood Village. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Across the country, “people with very strong ideological and partisan attachments are finding the school board meeting space and the school board election space as a place to mobilize,” Jonathan Collins, assistant professor of political science, public policy and education at Brown University, said last week during a virtual panel hosted by The Colorado Sun and Chalkbeat Colorado. “The biggest thing now is that these partisan cleavages, these ideological cleavages — whether you’re a liberal or conservative, a Democrat or Republican — that matters in a way that it hadn’t mattered before.”

Politically charged disputes among adults are having far-reaching impacts on classrooms, Collins added, pointing to “massive learning loss” with kids falling months behind and droves of teachers, administrators and school board members stepping down throughout the pandemic and contentious politics.

“Good people are leaving our schools, and really good, promising kids are being left behind in our schools,” he said.

Among the Colorado districts facing political divisions is Colorado Springs School District 11, where a group of conservative candidates took over the board during the 2021 election, Colorado Public Radio reported.

Teachers, faculty members, and other officials of Colorado Springs School District 11 lead a meeting on teacher pay negotiations May 16, 2023. The three-and-a-half-hour long meeting resulted in an agreement to raise starting salaries for first-year teachers in the district from $41,667 to a minimum of $50,000 starting in the 2023-24 school year. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Over the past two years, the board has made controversial decisions, with the new conservative majority forcing out Superintendent Michael Thomas and closing the district’s department of equity and inclusion, according to reporting by The Gazette and The Colorado Springs Business Journal.

Four conservative-leaning candidates among the 10 who are running this year say they are united on “shared values,” primarily academic outcomes, said first-time candidate Thomas Carey, an unaffiliated voter. The group also includes Haffley, a Republican who describes herself as “a constitutional conservative,” as well as incumbents Parth Melpakam, also an unaffiliated voter, and Jason Jorgenson, a Republican. The four are backed by $100,000 in digital ad spending by Springs Opportunity Fund, a conservative local super PAC linked to a dark-money group.

All four candidates indicated in a school board voter guide by Transform Colorado that they believe teachers should decide what pronouns to use with students, transgender girls should not be allowed on girls’ sports teams, sex education should focus on abstinence and that students should not be “taught that people are automatically privileged or oppressed based on their race or skin color.”

Transform Colorado is a Christian group funded by the Truth and Liberty Coalition, a part of Andrew Wommack Ministries, which is based in Woodland Park and brought in more than $49 million in 2020, according to tax filings.

Haffley, who blames teachers for injecting “personal agendas” and biases into the classroom, says she wants to put parents in the driver’s seat of their child’s education — echoing language used by other conservatives mounting runs for office. The retired teacher, who spent 30 years in classrooms, said she has personally seen “teachers put forth their own choices for who they were voting for” during election years.

“I think people try to insert political agendas where they can in just their general life, and I really want to keep politics out of education as much as possible,” said Haffley, who taught history and government in D11. “We’re there to teach reading, writing, math, English, science, history, vocational education, the arts, music, those things. And I don’t think political agendas have any business being in a public school.”

Meanwhile, the Colorado Education Association is endorsing a competing group of D11 candidates: Darleen Daniels, Shay Dabney, Rachel Paul — all registered Democrats — and Kate Singh, an unaffiliated voter. A super PAC affiliated with the Colorado Education Association is airing TV ads on their behalf.

Teachers and other officials of Colorado Springs School District 11 lead a meeting on teacher pay negotiations May 16, 2023. The three-and-a-half-hour long meeting resulted in an agreement to raise starting salaries for first-year teachers in the district from $41,667 to a minimum of $50,000 starting in the 2023-24 school year. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Those candidates either did not respond or refused to answer questions in Transform Colorado’s school board voter guide.

Daniels, an incumbent candidate, has been part of a transition in board dynamics. Before 2021, when the board flipped, she said board matters were considered “boring,” with run-of-the-mill agenda items devoted to the district budget and technology.

In a phone interview, Daniels called politically fueled decisions “distractions” that drive the school board from its main purpose to serve kids.

“The community wants the politics out of the schools,” she said. “They want to get back to the basics of educating their kids … and making sure that they’re safe and have stable learning environments.”

Cherry Creek School District has also been a lightning rod for political confrontations in recent years. Earlier this month, activists falsely accused the metro Denver district of including pornographic books in its library collection for elementary schoolers, which sparked a threat against several district schools, according to reporting by Colorado Community Media.

Scott Graves, Cherry Creek School Board candidate, Oct. 19, 2023, at Trails West Elementary in Centennial. The Cherry Creek School District will elect three Board of Education directors on November 7, 2023. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

This year’s race features five candidates among three seats, including Scott Graves and Steve McKenna, who are running together in a slate. Both men are registered Republicans, but they say their united campaigns don’t include a partisan element.

Still, Graves is concerned about politics influencing what and how students learn, as well as teachers’ instruction time being pinched by other duties, such as addressing students’ mental health and emotional needs.

“Social and emotional wellness is really, really important to a child’s education,” said Graves, a former educator and a father of five sons, four of whom struggle with mental health challenges. “A child cannot be successful if they’re feeling massive anxiety. Having said that, to ask teachers, specifically classroom teachers, to track that, to try to measure that, to be involved in that, it’s just out of their wheelhouse.”

Ruthie Knowles, an uncontested board candidate in Cherry Creek and a registered Democrat, noted that all five board candidates in her school district have political affiliations, with two Republicans and three Democrats.

Ruthie Knowles, Cherry Creek School Board candidate, Oct. 19, 2023, in Aurora. The Cherry Creek School District will elect three Board of Education directors on November 7, 2023. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Knowles has received some support and campaign mentoring from Arapahoe County Democrats. “Everyone’s just trying to mobilize and help where they can,” she said, “and if you find people with shared values, then you’re sort of like, sure, let’s connect on this journey to get elected.”

Political organizations are backing candidates with endorsements and dollars

Conservative and progressive community organizations are also energizing school board races, rallying people to run for seats and training them for board roles, said Carrie Sampson, an associate professor in the Division of Educational Leadership and Innovation at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University.

“There’s certainly a conservative playbook to target local districts,” Sampson said. “And at the same time, I think progressive, liberal organizations are seeing this playbook and trying to create their own type of playbook.”

Conservative nonprofit Moms for Liberty has amplified its involvement in Colorado school board races this election cycle, mostly through endorsements and organizing. The organization, which has canvassed and called voters and held neighborhood meet-and-greets for candidates and residents, has been a vocal proponent of giving parents more control over what happens in schools — a major priority underpinning their support of Colorado candidates.

“The children are not (schools’) property to deal with and to raise from 4 years old until 18 years old,” said Christina Galloway, chapter chair in Larimer County, one of six Colorado chapters. “That is the parent’s responsibility.”

Galloway, who teaches Spanish at a Fort Collins charter school, Colorado Early Colleges, said she has been fed up with public schools tackling topics that she believes fall under the purview of parents, including teaching about gender, race and social-emotional skills.

Galloway added that Moms for Liberty has been particularly troubled by current school board members “shutting out parents,” holding meetings at inconvenient times of the day for parents and limiting parents to 30 seconds of public comment. That’s why the nonprofit is actively behind candidates who want to reinsert parents into their child’s education, Galloway said.

The Colorado Parent Advocacy Network, another conservative statewide group, is encouraging more people to consider running for school boards “so that more voices can have a seat at the table,” said co-founder and executive director Lori Gimelshteyn.

“We know that current incumbents that are serving on school boards across the state have not actively worked to get our students back to being at grade-level proficiency, that they’re not being transparent with the parents and communities they serve,” Gimelshteyn said.

She denies that politics are shaping school boards and their decisions, saying the educational issues at the center of debates are not partisan and that “we need to move away from labels.”

However, the Colorado Parent Advocacy Network earlier this month collaborated with a religious arm of the conservative grassroots nonprofit Turning Point USA as part of the group of activists who falsely accused Cherry Creek School District of making titles including “Gender Queer” and “All Boys Aren’t Blue” available to elementary school kids.

Groups opposing the conservative candidates are also active. The Colorado Education Association has a list of endorsements for candidates it says are “pro-public-education school board candidates who are committed to the success of students and educators.”

And the Colorado Democratic Party launched a get-out-the-vote campaign targeting 100,000 voters who don’t often participate in off-year elections, including school board races in Woodland Park, and Garfield and Douglas counties.

“The far right has a huge majority of school boards, a huge majority of municipal seats,” said Colorado Democratic Party Chairman Shad Murib. “I see local races that are nonpartisan or the partisan county races as critically important to scale up to doing things like reelecting your (U.S. Rep.) Yadira Caraveo or defeating (U.S. Rep.) Lauren Boebert.”

The Colorado GOP hasn’t announced any similar efforts.

Small rural districts see swell of school board candidates

Former Colorado Senate Majority Leader, state treasurer and Burlington School District RE-6J school board member Mark Hillman can’t pinpoint why a flurry of new school board candidates has jumped onto the local ballot. Hillman recalls school board elections repeatedly drawing no more than one candidate per seat. During one election year, he said the board had to appoint a member because there simply weren’t enough candidates.

This fall, 11 candidates are vying for four seats in the eastern Colorado district, which last year had 762 students.

The political infighting over school curriculum and standards has not found its way into Burlington, Hillman noted. And even with an influx of board candidates this year, the race remains “a very typical small town election” where “you hope that people think enough of you to vote for you,” he said. He hasn’t seen any candidates plant campaign signs in local yards. And none of the candidates report raising any money.

Brandi Baquera, an incumbent candidate in Burlington, is happy to see more people interested in joining the school board. She said the board has largely side-stepped some of the politically charged issues that have roiled board members and parents in other districts, including gender roles and critical race theory. However, the board did recently approve a social-emotional learning curriculum for middle schoolers.

“We trust our administrators and our teachers to do what’s best for our children,” Baquera said. “What we’re focusing on is just giving kids the tools that they need to be able to get through life and deal with anxiety and deal with emotions and deal with depression and different things like that.”

In Holyoke, 14 people are running for six seats in district Re-1J and nine are running for five seats on the Re-2J board in Haxtun.

That’s unusual, said Beth Zilla, who has worked in the Phillips County clerk’s office since 1999, serving as the elected clerk and recorder since 2003. The county of 4,500 people where Holyoke and Haxtun are located is in northeastern Colorado bordering Nebraska.

“There’s never been many” candidates, Zilla said. “Maybe like four different candidates for two positions.”

Mitchell Kleve, a libertarian candidate for school board in Holyoke, said his community has “slept on” the board during the past few years and he’s glad to see more people willing to run for a seat and serve local kids.

The first-time board candidate said he is keeping his personal politics out of his campaigning. However, some of his top priorities for the school district, such as school safety, tie directly to politically motivated issues that have inflamed many parts of the state and country.

Kleve, a Holyoke graduate, believes the district should seriously consider arming teachers in classrooms if they are willing and trained.

“We don’t want to make our schools seem like a prison with metal detectors and everything like that,” he said, “but at the same time we want everyone to feel safe.”

Outsize spending flowing into both sides

But the candidates in the crowded Phillips County contests have spent less than $800 total thus far.

That isn’t the case in other contests. Candidates in 42 districts have raised nearly $2 million through Oct. 11, with 15 districts accounting for 85% of that money.

Nearly a dozen super PACs have spent almost $1.2 million according to reports filed through noon Friday. Unlike two years ago, only a fraction of the money — about $324,000 — is aimed at Denver Public Schools contests. 

Colorado Springs 11 and Woodland Park are among the top targets thus far. And outside spenders have plenty of time left to try to influence voters before the Nov. 7 election.

Students Deserve Better, a committee backed by $400,000 from a nonprofit affiliated with the Colorado Education Association, is spending $77,000 on TV ads supporting Daniels, Dabney, Paul and Singh.

Springs Opportunity Fund is spending $100,000 on digital ads supporting conservatives Carey, Haffley, Jorgenson and Melpakam. That super PAC received $250,000 from Colorado Dawn, a conservative dark-money nonprofit that doesn’t disclose its donors. Colorado Dawn has spent nearly $2.6 million since May 2022 supporting Republican super PACs and issue committees.

Woodland Park, a town of about 8,000 in the mountains west of Colorado Springs, is also drawing plenty of attention — and money.

More than 80 teachers and staff banded together this fall with a public letter criticizing sweeping changes approved by the conservative board and raising concerns about a mass exodus of teachers and a “culture of fear and silence.” Three incumbents and three challengers are vying for three seats.

Teller County resident Andrew Rudin holds up a sign reading “Truth Matters History Matters” during a news conference Thursday, Oct. 5, in Woodland Park, Colorado. Rudin was sitting in the front row at the news conference to support Woodland Park teachers, including his sister-in-law. He said he is discouraged about the fights over how educators should teach history in Woodland Park schools. “I would hope that truth would be what we all point our compass towards rather than our opinions on certain things,” Rudin said. (Erica Breunlin, The Colorado Sun)

Students Deserve Better and Better Schools for a Stronger Colorado have spent nearly $28,000 supporting Woodland Park challengers Keegan Barkley, Seth Bryant and Mike Knott. Better Schools is funded by Oklahoma philanthropist Lynn Schusterman and Stand for Children, a national nonprofit funded by a variety of foundations and other nonprofits.

Citizens for a Vibrant Woodland Park has spent nearly $14,000 opposing those three and supporting incumbents David Illingworth, Cassie Kimbrell and Mick Bates. The group has received nearly $33,000 from Western Prosperity Alliance, a Centennial-based nonprofit created in June.

The group originally had the same Colorado Springs address as political consultant Patrick Davis and its documents were filed by former Secretary of State Scott Gessler, a Republican. The address and registered agent were later changed. 

Thus far in Cherry Creek, Inspiring Excellence has spent $63,000 to support incumbents Egan and Garland and oppose McKenna and Graves.

You may view fundraising, spending and loans for school board candidates, super PACs and spending at FollowtheMoneyCO.

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...

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...