Anatomy of a School Board Election: When Big Money Wins, Kids Lose


“Reformers” in Denver are claiming victory, and to some extent they should.  They have been successful in buying a 7-0 school board.  Following is the story of how the last seat was purchased on November 3 and how the big money was able to hold on to the two “reform” seats up for re-election.


Should you not wish to read all of my analysis here are the headlines:


District 1: The incumbent was going be difficult to beat, for while voting for all things “reform,” she has managed to keep most of “reform” out of her mostly affluent, mostly white district.


District 5: There was no way “reformers” were going to lose this seat.  This was the only remaining obstacle to a unanimous board, the only thing standing between  public dialogue and silent acquiescence to all staff proposals.


At large: Had the election been held on Friday, October 28, 2015, the challenger, Robert Speth, parent not politician, would have defeated Board President Allegra “Happy” Haynes.


Now on to the details.


While anti-reformers locally and nationally are celebrating the victories in Colorado’s Jefferson County (Jeffco) and Douglas County (Dougco), we in Denver are left with a unanimous board devoted to continuing the destruction of public education in Denver Public Schools. Those of you unfamiliar with Colorado, briefly, Jeffco and Dougco are suburban Denver counties. They are more affluent and less diverse than Denver. The issues in both counties differ greatly from the “reform” happening in Denver.  Dougco and Jeffco boards were overtly arrogant in their power grabs. Not so in Denver, so while I take my hat off to them and while I am very envious of their victories, Denver is a completely different ball game. Koch brothers’ money along with money from Democrats for Education Reform (DFER)  and some from the Colorado Education Association (CEA) flowed into Jeffco;  Koch brothers’ money flowed into Dougco; unlimited and unknown amounts of money from (DFER) and Stand for Children money flowed into Denver.  Democrats in Denver undoing public education.  Who ever would have thought that possible?


Denver is well down the “reform” road. Ten years. National attention has been showered on Denver Public Schools for its success in implementing the business model in spite of data showing snails’ paced academic improvements. (See here and here).  And while national “reform” publications and institutions try to tell you Denver is a success story, the recent data tell you something completely different.(Center on Reinventing Public Education, Council of Great City Schools, National Assessment of Educational Progress ).  Implementing “reform” is one thing; getting results a completely different thing.  Test and punish should be the mantra of this District as our students, communities, families, and teachers, suffer.  And, ironically, on election day the New York Times published an analysis of a new report which strongly suggests American schools are not failing students.  American society is.  Schools cannot and should not be held responsible for poverty and its consequences.  Society can and should be. Also, on Thursday, November 5, 2015 the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled against part of the state’s punitive teacher evaluation bill SB 10-191. And on the same day the DPS Board of Education had a staff presentation making school closures more institutionalized, including providing the board with predetermined questions! Now, if you are one of seven elected Board members and you need the District staff to provide you with questions to ask, I would suggest you might not be qualified to be sitting in this lofty position. But I digress.


This is how I see what transpired in the Denver Public Schools Board races this past Tuesday.


As the November 3, 2105 election drew near, the local and national education “reformers” salivated at the possibility of a unanimous Denver Public Schools board of education: No more annoying questions from non-compliant board members, no more discussions, no more having to be bothered with dissatisfied communities. Three school board seats were being contested: two with incumbents (not just incumbents but the current president and vice president of the board); the third was an open seat due to term limits. The open seat was the only remaining one held by a non-privatizer.


Hindsight is always 20-20 but as I look back, I am pretty convinced there is no way this election could ever have ended differently.


District 1. While challenger Kristi Butkovich lost to incumbent board vice-president Anne Rowe, Kristi was able to bring many supporters to the virtual voting booth who not only supported her, but then also voted for Robert Speth. The Southeast seat was always going to be a difficult one to win because while voting for every DPS staff supported “reform,” Ms. Rowe has been successful in keeping the most controversial “reforms” away from her district: no enrollment zones, few charter schools, more teacher and principal stability, no school closures, no co-sharing of facilities. So while imposing these policies on other communities, she has been able to keep them out of hers for the most part. Classic NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard).


District 5.  Because the “reformers” assumed the two incumbents were safe, they focused for months on the one open seat. Student interns from an offshoot of DFER, called Students for Education Reform, appeared in the summer to door knock and hand out information for Lisa Flores, a relative newcomer to the political side of public education in Denver. The estimate of contacts: 30,000 to 40,000 households. Flyer after flyer, mailer after mailer (at least 8), paid canvasser after paid canvasser. Simultaneously the DFER “independent political committee” arose. Raising Colorado. And who might the executive director of Colorado DFER AND the registered agent for Raising Colorado be? None other than the former chief of staff for Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg, Jen Walmer. What a great muckety we could create connecting all the reform people and organizations in Colorado! We don’t yet know how much DFER money poured into all three races and won’t until the end of the year (and even then the money won’t be traced to individual donors) but for Lisa Flores, the big money was available before school was over in June 2015. By the time the first reporting period ended on October 15, Flores reported having raised close to $90,000, including large contributions from out of state donors. Yet the Denver media continues to characterize these races as one of union money  v. candidate money when the reality is far different.  As yet unreported “dark” monies do not have to be reported until well after election day, another reason for the Colorado legislature to look at campaign finance reform.  In this particular election cycle all the teacher/union money has come to candidates, not some pseudo-neutral PAC.   All teacher/union money was public and accountable. The total amount spent for the “reformers” will not be available until the end of the year. So talking about the “huge amount of union money” somehow swaying the election is meaningless…unless you just want to keep lying and bashing unions.


Let’s move on to the at-large seat held by DPS Board President Happy Haynes. Ms. Haynes has been a political figure in Denver for decades. She was city council president in the 1990’s. She has held various political public and private positions over her career. She worked for Mayor Hickenlooper in the early 2000’s and Superintendent Bennet in the beginning of his tenure at DPS.  She is well known in Denver.


In 2011 an at large board seat became available. “Reformers” tapped Happy Haynes to run.  She fit their profile: good name recognition, good history of public service, able to raise big money. Happy won handily, running against four lesser known candidates. “Reformers” thought she was a shoo-in for re-election, so much so they paid little attention to this race. I believe they expected no opposition. The filing deadline for the election was August 28. On August 26 the unexpected happened. A parent, Robert Speth, filed his petitions to run for the at large seat.


On September 8 the recently re-elected Mayor announced Happy Haynes as his new Director of Parks and Recreation after a nationwide search was conducted by a committee with Happy Haynes as a member. Sort of like Dick Cheney and the vice presidency. There is much political backstory to Parks and Rec. I won’t bother you with it. In any event Ms. Haynes was slated to hold two very important positions in Denver. Notice the timing of all of this, please. Mayor sworn in in July. Committee formed to find director of parks and rec shortly after. Filing deadline for DPS Board August 28. Announcement of Haynes appointment ten days later.  It is very, very clear to me the powers that be never thought Happy would have any opposition, thus little attention and money was directed to her campaign during the summer.  It is also clear to me by the timing of her appointment to the Parks position,  Denver’s “reformers” assumed that because of a lack of opposition she would be able to hold both positions without many questions around her dual roles.


That didn’t happen thanks to parent, not politician, Robert Speth and his crack non-traditional, non-political campaign team. (They can’t be called a staff because none of them received a penny of compensation). These parents dove into this campaign and came within a whisker of defeating a very long time Denver politico. In fact, I am convinced that had the election been held on Friday, Robert Speth would have won.  But a few days before the election her handlers panicked, and unfortunately, they had just enough time and certainly more than enough money to save the campaign from what would have been the biggest upset “reformers” have experienced in Denver.  They saved the campaign by pulling out ALL stops, including,


  • Issuing a press release from the national executive director of DFER  denouncing Speth for daring to call out democrats for not acting as democrats (let us see how much money they ultimately committed to Denver school board elections as reporting deadlines arrive);
  • Placing robo call after robo call from the Mayor, to the Deputy Mayor (I do hope they were smart enough to take personal time off to do this), to Happy herself, to a retired principal all singing  the praises of “reformer” success in Denver, lead by Board president Haynes;
  • Placing radio ads during the Denver Bronco/Green Bay Packer football game Sunday night and during drive time Monday morning;
  • Conducting poll after poll after poll over the weekend to identify potential supporters;
  • Manning (not Peyton) phone banks with people paid to identify supporters and then following up to make sure they voted by Tuesday;
  • Encouraging the city’s only daily newspaper to write editorials and publish op-eds praising her leadership.


All of this effort and all of this money paid off for the “reformers.”  With slightly more than 100,000 votes cast in the at-large race, Happy Haynes eked out an 800 vote victory by spending anywhere from 5 to 8 times as much money  as Robert Speth. Again, the final figures for PACs and other committees won’t be available until December, but if estimates are correct, Haynes will have spent close to half a million dollars to retain her seat.  Speth will have spent $65,000. $10.00 per vote v. $1.30 per vote.


Denver is just the latest example of an election being bought. “Democrats” scream about the Koch Brothers. Well, Denver is experiencing a similar scenario, only this time it is the “democrats” buying the elections.  Since 2011 Democrats in Name Only (DINOs) have bought the all seven seats on the Denver Public Schools Board of Education. And as usual when big money enters and controls the message and the messenger, the kids and their education have become the ultimate losers. When I left my position on the Denver Public Schools Board of Education in 2013, I said I hoped I was wrong about the direction the district is going.  Two years later there are no indications such is the case, but now there will be no dissenting voice on the board of education to question the failures. It is a sad day for public education in Denver.