An electric school bus sits outside Denver's East High School on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023, when state leaders, including Gov. Jared Polis, announced 13 Colorado schools and districts that will be able to invest in new electric school buses with a mix of state and federal grant dollars. The buses will replace aging diesel school buses, saving on repairs and reducing kids' exposure to harmful pollutants. (Erica Breunlin, The Colorado Sun)

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With a little more than a week until Election Day, spending in the Denver school board race has surpassed $1.36 million, fueled largely by one group that has spent big, including on an attack ad that the targeted candidate decried as a racist dog whistle.

That group — Better Leaders, Stronger Schools — is an independent expenditure committee funded largely by Denver Families Action, which is the political arm of an organization called Denver Families for Public Schools. The organization was founded in 2021 with the backing of local charter school networks and its board is populated by charter leaders.

In Denver Public Schools politics, pro-charter organizations like Denver Families Action are on one side and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association union is on the other. So far, the charter group is outspending the teachers union by about 4 to 1.

Pro-charter organizations are fighting to gain back a seat at the decision-making table. After years of a pro-charter majority on the Denver school board, the balance of power flipped in 2019. Today, all seven current members of the Denver school board were backed by the teachers union. With just three of the seven seats up for grabs Nov. 7, the election won’t change the majority. But it could change the board’s discussions.

Though Denver school board races have been million-dollar elections for several cycles, this year’s spending is notable. Pro-charter Better Leaders, Stronger Schools spent $250,000 on television ads featuring Denver Mayor Mike Johnston endorsing three candidates who were also endorsed by Denver Families Action: John Youngquist, Marlene De La Rosa, and Kimberlee Sia. It’s the first TV ad in memory for Denver school board candidates. 

The pro-charter committee has also sent several negative mailers, including one featuring a sad white child on one side and candidate Kwame Spearman, who is Black, on the other. 

In an interview, Spearman called the juxtaposition “dog whistling.”

Clarence Burton, CEO of Denver Families Action, did not respond to a request for comment.

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Melanie Asmar has covered Denver Public Schools for Chalkbeat Colorado since 2015. Asmar previously worked at Westword newspaper in Denver and for a daily newspaper in New Hampshire, where she covered education. Chalkbeat is a nonprofit...