Denver school board candidates backed by union are leading, with two races still close

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.

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.

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.

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.

The union has spent big to hold on to its board majority, but supporters of education reform have spent even bigger to try to win back control. They say the union-backed board hasn’t focused enough on academics, especially during the pandemic.

As of Monday, state campaign finance reports show independent expenditure committees associated with reform groups had spent more than $1.07 million in support of three candidates: Jones, Villagrana, and Gene Fashaw. Such committees can spend unlimited amounts of money in elections but cannot coordinate with candidates.

Meanwhile, reports show the Denver teachers union had given more than $157,000 directly to four candidates: board President Olson, Esserman, Gaytán, and Quattlebaum. The statewide teachers union gave at least another $75,000. Independent expenditure committees funded by teachers unions had spent more than $184,000 in support of those candidates, reports show.

Esserman had raised more money — $106,650 — than any other school board candidate in Colorado, even with expensive races in many suburban districts, according to an analysis of campaign filings by Follow the Money Colorado.

The winners of Tuesday’s election will oversee a new superintendent, craft a new strategic plan, and grapple with several long-simmering issues, including declining enrollment and continued disagreement over the role of independent charter schools and semi-autonomous innovation schools. They will also help lead a district that is still navigating the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2019, 131,798 people voted in an at-large Denver school board race. As of 11:30 p.m. Tuesday, there were just 68,656 votes counted in the citywide race. But a spokesperson for the Denver Elections Division said there was an Election Day surge that could take the rest of the week to finish counting and that turnout seemed on the high side.

Denver officials planned to stop counting ballots at midnight Tuesday and resume Wednesday.

This article was originally posted on Denver school board candidates backed by union are leading, with two races still close

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