Clusters of school board candidates backed by teachers unions made a strong showing across Colorado on Tuesday night, but final results indicate that conservatives won over voters in some districts.
About two-thirds of the 80 candidates endorsed by the Colorado Education Association won their contests, a Colorado Sun analysis found.
In Woodland Park, a fight for control of the board tipped the scales overnight, with two conservative incumbents eking out a lead after their union-backed challengers garnered the majority of votes in early counting. They each held their seats by less than 100 votes.
Meanwhile, union-supported candidates held their ground in Aurora, Adams 12 and Cherry Creek.
“Voters across Colorado showed that extremism will not take over our local school boards, and that we will ensure that our school boards are led by people who believe in public education, who believe in an honest and accurate curriculum, who believe in fully funding our schools and who believe in supporting students and educators in our communities,” Colorado Education Association President Amie Baca-Oehlert told a crowd at Stoney’s Bar in Denver where Colorado Democrats gathered to watch election results.
But conservatives kept control of school boards in other districts like Colorado Springs School District 11, where a slate of conservative candidates looked to be on pace to win all four seats up for election.
Tyler Sandberg, who described himself as a center-right political consultant and principal at Timor Strategies, characterized the election results as “a mixed bag” without one clearly articulated uniform message from voters in school districts outside Denver.
The only resounding narrative, he said, is that voters are demanding “political turmoil” be kept out of elections and classrooms.
“In terms of policy prescriptions, I don’t think voters endorsed any one way or another one worldview,” Sandberg said. “But they did say, ‘we don’t want chaos and we don’t want politics.’”
Tuesday night’s outcomes put to rest an off-year election that further divided some parents, educators and communities over what kids should learn and who is responsible for teaching them. This year’s lineup of school board races took a sharp departure from elections of years past, when most voters paid little attention to campaigns or outcomes. Many elections took on a contentious, partisan tone, even as school board races have been historically nonpartisan. The divisions pitted teachers unions and their supporters against conservatives as they drew ideological lines in many school districts with competing endorsements and voter guides. Hot-button issues included student pronouns, sex education and teaching about race.
Campaign spending also ratcheted up in some districts as outside political organizations supported candidates with campaign contributions and advertising. Super PACs spent about $3.3 million trying to influence Colorado school board contests, with 95% of that spent in just 10 districts.
The Colorado Sun covered several of the more controversial contests, and will continue posting results in district contests as they are decided.
Colorado Springs 11
Conservatives retained control of Colorado Springs School District 11, where 10 candidates vied for four seats, divided into two slates of candidates that generally fell along partisan lines.
Final results showed first-time candidates Thomas Carey and Jill Haffley winning alongside incumbents Parth Melpakam and Jason Jorgenson.
The Colorado Springs district of about 23,000 students has garnered statewide attention the past two years after a series of controversial board decisions pushed forward by its conservative majority, including dissolving the district’s department of equity and inclusion.
Campaign spending became outsized in the district, with super PACs spending $627,000 to try to influence local voters, with 64% going to support conservative candidates.
Incumbent Aurora School Board Member Vicki Reinhard and newcomers Tiffany Tasker and Danielle Tomwing, all backed by the teachers union, led challengers in the state’s fifth-largest district with about 39,000 students.
About 82% of the $276,000 in super PAC money in the contests supported the three winning candidates.
The union-backed slate of Lori Goldstein, Rebecca Elmore and Alexis Marsh-Holschen led their challengers in Adams 12, the sixth largest school district in Colorado with about 36,000 students.
Super PACs spent $155,000 on the three contests, about evenly divided between conservative and liberal candidates.
Democrats endorsed by CEA had commanding leads for school board seats in Cherry Creek School District, Colorado’s fourth largest school district with about 53,000 students, according to final results.
Three board seats were up for election, with two of them contested between liberal and conservative candidates.
Anne Egan led Steve McKenna with about 64% of the vote while Angela Garland won over Scott Graves with about 62% of the vote, final results showed.
McKenna and Graves, both registered Republicans, ran together in a slate, though they said their campaigns were not partisan.
Kasey Ellis, president of the Cherry Creek Education Association, said she was “thrilled” that Egan and Garland won seats along with Ruthie Knowles, who ran uncontested.
“My philosophy is, we need to have people on the board who are pro-public education, who understand what’s happening, who have volunteered in the schools and understand what’s happening,” Ellis said. “I will knock my socks off for people who understand and see the value of public education and what we do for kids and what the educators do for kids.”
She described the three elected board members as “reasonable” with “common sense” that will steer the school district in a direction that will prioritize the needs of students and educators and keep the board’s focus on the classroom instead of political agendas.
They “also understand that educators are not doing anything but teaching students,” Ellis said. “It’s not anything nefarious in any way, shape or form.”
Super PACs spent $138,000 supporting the two liberal candidates and opposing the conservatives in Cherry Creek.
Union-backed candidates also led in Jefferson County, the second largest school district in Colorado with about 77,000 students.
Michelle Applegate had 58% of the vote in the District 3 contest, while Erin Kenworthy had 42% of the vote in the three-way District 4 contest.
Super PACs spent $173,000, with two-thirds of that supporting the union-backed candidates and opposing the conservatives.
Academy School District 20
Conservative school board candidates Amy Shandy and Derrick Wilburn held their ground late Tuesday in Academy School District 20 over challengers Heather Cloninger and Will Temby, both of whom were endorsed by CEA.
The Colorado Springs school district is the 10th largest in Colorado with about 27,000 students.
Colorado Springs Opportunity Fund spent $110,000 supporting Shandy and Wilburn.
Two conservative incumbents and a union-supported candidate won school board seats in Woodland Park, according to final election results.
Conservative school board incumbent Mick Bates captured 50.23% of the vote over challenger Seth Bryant, final results show. Meanwhile, conservative school board incumbent Cassie Kimbrell secured 50.3% of votes, moving ahead of candidate Mike Knott. Both races were within a 50-vote margin.
Conservative incumbent Dave Illingworth, however, continued to trail behind Keegan Barkley, who had 51.31% of the vote in results.
Still, election outcomes could change with an automatic recount triggered by any race where the vote is separated by 0.5% or less. The seat that Bates and Bryant are vying for is close to that margin.
Additionally, Teller County has 46 cure letters for ballots that need a signature verification or a form of identification, said Teller County clerk and recorder Stephanie Kees. Those ballots are due back to the Teller County Clerk and Recorder office Nov. 15 to be counted Nov. 17, according to Kees.
No one has asked for a recount yet, she said, adding that school board races for the district have never before required a recount. They didn’t even require an election until two years ago “because they never had any candidates to run against each other,” Kees said.
Kees said voter turnout was high for an off-year election in Teller County, with 58% of voters casting a ballot. Her office hit a snag with ballots after a vendor error affected 14,812 ballots. The vendor, however, sent out replacement ballots by Oct. 20, the statutory deadline for ballots to be mailed. Kees is confident the error did not interfere with the election or with counting ballots.
“I don’t think it slowed us down too much,” she said.
Woodland Park School District, which educates about 2,100 students, has drawn plenty of controversy after conservatives took over the five-person board two years ago and instituted sweeping changes. Among them, the board issued a gag order on teachers, scaled back mental health resources for students and adopted the conservative American Birthright Standards, a controversial set of social studies standards that downplay the importance of teaching history through diverse perspectives. Their politically charged decisions prompted more than 80 teachers and staff members to band together last month and pen a letter to the community sharing their concerns about a districtwide “culture of fear and silence.”
Nearly $104,000 in outside money flowed into the three contests there.
CORRECTION: This story was updated at 10:34 p.m Nov. 7, 2023, to correct information about candidates in Adams 12.