In December 2015 a group of community members came together to form what became Our Denver Our Schools (ODOS): ODOS had one very simple goal: educate the public so they would learn about public education and through that process vote for change on the board. ODOS spent a year and a half educating people about public education in Denver through forums (my Latin background would tell me this is fora), letter writing campaigns and fundraising. In the summer of 2017 ODOS turned its attention on supporting its slate of grassroots candidates: Robert Speth at-large, Xochitl “Sochi” Gaytan in District 2 – Southwest, Dr. Carrie Olson in District 3 – Central Denver, and Tay Anderson in District 4 – Near and Far Northeast. ODOS did this in spite of the pushback from Denver’s teachers’ union, claiming early on there was only money for two seats, AND incumbents Rosemary Rodriguez and Barbara O’Brien were unbeatable. Hindsight is always 2020 but imagine what the $320,000 the union spent in two races could have done in four races!
As things turned out, Ms. Rodriguez retired from the Board, opening up her District 2 seat, and Ms. O’Brien won a three-way race with only 40% of the vote. Unfortunately, Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA) and its parent group the Colorado Education Association (CEA) were not able or not willing to modify its game plan from winning 2 seats to winning 4 seats when these changes emerged.
This is a long blog, so if you aren’t that into Denver school board politics or just don’t feel like reading a long post, or whatever, here are some highlights:
Pro public education advocates won one seat: Dr. Carrie Olson, District 3. We should have won more, even all four. To find out why this didn’t happen, read on.
The union will most likely claim victory for two seats. The reality is they won zero public education seats because they didn’t really support winner Olson, and they supported a winning “reformer” candidate, Jennifer Bacon.
Winners this cycle include: The people, Dr. Carrie Olson, Teach for America, Our Denver, Our Schools.
Losers: Pro public education advocates, Denver’s teachers, Democrats of Education Reform, “education reform.”
Meh: The teachers’ union because a 33-year DPS teacher did get elected. No thanks to them. Money.
On to the details of how four seats became one.
In the late spring of 2017 ODOS joined with Denver Area Labor Federation (DALF), NAACP, Gilpin Elementary School parents whose school had recently been shuttered, DCTA and CEA to work to get what ODOS hoped would be the same slate of candidates elected to the DPS Board of Education. This collaborative worked well together until DCTA/CEA decided to support Teach for America alum Jennifer Bacon in District 4. Meetings and collaboration stopped and when the votes were counted the four seat vision became a one seat victory. Better one than none. However…
DCTA/CEA hired consultants who I – with apologies to The Cat in the Hat (and more recently MSNBC’s Chris Hayes. Remember Thing 1 and Thing 2?) – will refer to as Consultant 1 and Consultant 2 (C1 and C2 for short) for election in the Spring. C1 and C2 never believed in four in 2017. C1 had been involved with DPS board races in the past, but he had been out of DPS politics for at least 6 years. Things had changed. C2 did not have a history with DPS or frankly much knowledge about the politics of DPS. And again, when hired both thought Rodriguez and O’Brien were locks so the winnable Districts were 3 and 4. When Rodriguez announced her intent to leave, both believed districts 2 and 3 were the ones to go after. It is still not clear how and when that changed to districts 2 and 4 and how Carrie Olson, the only professional educator running, (33 years in Denver, 33 years of faithfully paying DCTA dues ) lost the support of the union and its consultants. Ironic, isn’t it, that she is the one who won. With very, very little union help.
Dr. Carrie Olson’s victory was EXTRAORDINARY. Let us not forget that she is the first pro-public education candidate to win in Denver since 2011 when incumbent Arturo Jimenez won by a resounding 150 (!) votes. Dr. Carrie Olson will be a force to be reckoned with, a voice for students, teachers, families, and communities. But given the quality of candidates running and the clear displeasure voters expressed with the current direction in DPS, public education advocates should have won more seats. In fact, they could have won all four.
Race by Race
At-large: Three candidates ran:
- Barbara O’Brien, incumbent, former lieutenant governor, “reformer” poster candidate, raised nearly half a million dollars, spent $8.94 per vote and eked out 40% of the vote.
- Robert Speth, ODOS and DCTA endorsed but the union did not really do much for him since those in charge of the money did not believe O’Brien could be defeated. Speth won 35% of the vote, spending $0.77 per vote. Speth ran two years ago and came within a hair of beating incumbent Happy Haynes. He was also a founding member of Our Denver, Our Schools.
- Julie Banuelos, former DPS teacher, endorsed by a DCTA off-shoot, The Caucus of Today’s Teachers. Banuelos garnered 24% of the vote, spending $0.43 per vote.
Lesson learned. Three person races with two candidates supporting the same positions – Speth and Banuelos were pro public education – allow the third person to be elected with less than a majority of voter support. The current DPS trajectory of “reform” was soundly defeated 60% to 40% but the “reformer” won and will vote accordingly.
District 2: Open seat because incumbent Rosemary Rodriguez stepped down.
- Xochitl “Sochi” Gaytan –ODOS and DCTA endorsed. She was heavily supported by the union but that support turned out to be a mixed blessing. The union’s independent expenditure committee, Every Student Succeeds, sent out a mailer to a Republican part of the district, tying Gaytan’s opponent to Trump/DeVos. The I.E. further claimed an endorsement for Gaytan that was never made. Her campaign spent much time trying to undo the damage but was unable recover from these faux pas.
- Angela Cobian mentee of the current board member, former TFA member, current organizer for Leadership for Educational Equity (LEE) the TFA offshoot that trains former corps members “to engage civically within their communities to end the injustice of educational inequity.” Cobian was the “reformer” darling, gathering $67,000 from DFER’s Raising Colorado and tens of thousands of dollars from local and national “reformers.” She ran as a teacher.
Lesson learned: Independent expenditure committees aren’t always helpful.
District 4: Another three-candidate race, but complicated because DCTA endorsed one of the two “reformers.” If you need proof of the similarities between Bacon and Espiritu, here are three confirming manifestations:
1) Stand for Children could not decide between the two of them so did not endorse in that District, while endorsing the other “reform” candidates in Districts 2, 3 and at-large.(Cobian, Johnson and O’Brien, respectively).
2) Former Board member Nate Easley contributed to both campaigns, hedging his “reformer” bet.
3) Mayor Hancock endorsed Bacon along with “reformers” in 2, 3, and at-large.
- Tay Anderson, 19 year old 2017 graduate of Manual high School who decided to run when Board member Happy Haynes told the Manual community its wishes would be ignored as to the future of Manual.. C2 was a strong supporter in the beginning and then dropped him for reasons still unclear. ODOS endorsed.
- Rachele Espiritu, the incumbent, had a difficult mountain to climb. While receiving $97,000 from DFER, and raising $93,000 on her own, she had to defend DPS’ record in the district where the most “reforms” were happening. Under fire from the beginning, she often supported points of views different from the way she voted. Having a record hurt her.
- Jennifer Bacon , former TFA member, ran as a “teacher.” She raised $70,000 on her own and received $139,000 from teachers union. Bacon also received reformer money from TFA national board member Arthur Rock.
Lesson learned: It is mixed. Grassroots worked in District 3 against all odds. Grassroots did not work in District 4. To this day union support of a non-union “teacher” is baffling. A Pyrrhic victory at best, certainly not a vote that can be counted on for pro public education advocates.
Saving the best for last…
District 3: Incumbent, “reformer” Mike Johnson against educator Dr. Carrie Olson.
- Dr. Carrie Olson, 33-year DPS UNION teacher of English Language Development 6-12 Social Studies. Dr. Olson was recruited by community members. When her potential conflict of interest arose (Policy BCB) many thought the issue could be resolved fairly easily given the fact the policy had not been revised in 30 years and given the seemingly overt conflicts that have existed with recent and current board members: bond lawyer for DPS, directors and assistant directors of non-profits doing business with DPS to mention the most obvious. DCTA and C1 and C2 didn’t think she would win so they paid little attention to the policy, gave Dr. Olson very little financial support, and provided even less people support. How wrong they were! And although “STUDENTS FIRST” and “IT’S ALL ABOUT THE KIDS” are commonly heard clichés throughout the district, the other six board members and the superintendent could not manage to figure out how this EXTRAORDINARY educator could possibly stay in her teaching position where she has been such a positive influence on the lives of thousands of kids and their families over her tenure. How could this person possibly teach and be a board member at the same time? So Dr. Carrie Olson, with great sadness, has opted to resign from her lifelong love, teaching, at semester’s end.
- Mike Johnson, incumbent, raised over $100,000 on his own and received almost another $100,000 from DFER and Stand for Children. The “reform” message was a hard sell in District 3, even though many of its main tenets are not occurring in this district.
Lesson learned: A great candidate with a great message and a great grassroots organization can beat big money, incumbency, and “reform!”
The biggest winners from this election?
- The people, for they once again have a voice on the previously unanimous “reform” board.
- Dr. Carrie Olson.
- Teach for America. Two former corps members Jennifer Bacon and Angela Cobian, won their elections. Both work for LEE, Ms. Cobian as a community organizer, Ms. Bacon as a regional director. When these two recognized how Dr. Olson’s simple message of “It’s time to put an educator on the Board of Education,” resonated with voters, both co-opted that message and ran as “teachers.” And yet to the amazement of many, and after many meetings with both community members and DCTA and after many heated arguments over who to support in District 4, the consultants and DCTA decided to endorse Jennifer Bacon. The reason given: they could win that seat with the help of LEE money. $100,000 from DCTA, $100,000 from LEE. As of the last filing there is no trace of LEE money, so where is/was it? As an aside, at the November 27 swearing in ceremony for new board members the same charter advocates and TFA/LEE advocates cheered equally for both Bacon and Cobian. Another unanswered question: Why didn’t the union decide to endorse Cobian as well? Or better yet, why did they decide not to endorse Tay Anderson, clearly the candidate most aligned with teachers in their fight against privatization?
- Our Denver, Our Schools, for it was able to unite disparate community interests and leverage its meager amount of money to help all four of its candidates. ODOS will continue to make its voice heard.
The biggest losers in this cycle?
- The pro public education believers in Denver, for they had a chance to flip the board and stop the train wreck that is “ed reform” from continuing. Just imagine the difference a redistribution of union money could have made in all four races.
- Denver’s teachers, who are paying dues to an organization that turned its back on a 33 year teacher and endorsed and heavily funded an alum of TFA, an organization in Denver at least that thumbs its nose at a professional educators.
- Democrats for Education Reform. Two of three incumbents they backed lost. But don’t ever count them out, for they still have 5 of 7 board members and lots of money to spend. And you can be sure they will be back, both in the Colorado legislative races as well as the next DPS board elections.
- “Education Reform.” Two of three “reform” incumbents lost; one eked in with 40% of the vote. Voters spoke loudly against the current DPS strategies, but unfortunately, votes and policies will most likely not reflect this trend.
- The teachers’ union because a 33-year DPS teacher did get elected. No thanks to them.
- Money. Won some; lost some. Obviously better to have it but it wasn’t THE determining factor this go round.
Many unanswered questions remain before this election can be fully understood and put to bed:
- Why did the consultants and the union resist supporting a slate?
- When did support for districts 2 and 3 become 2 and 4 and why?
- How and why did Tay Anderson, the strongest student, teacher, and family advocate in District 4 lose the support of the union after its initial support for him?
- Where is the money LEE put into the Bacon campaign or did DCTA end up funding the independent expenditure by itself?
- Will Jennifer Bacon vote for any pro public education policies, or will she vote be a consistent vote for “education reform policies?”
- Why didn’t the union fight policy BCB on behalf of Dr. Olson? Will it do so going forward? There are real conflicts on this board. Being a teacher doesn’t appear to be one of them, especially when three “teachers” won in large part because they marketed themselves as such. The voters obviously don’t see this as a conflict. And now Denver’s students and families have lost an incredible teacher, advocate, friend because of the intransigence of the policy makers.
- Will the “reformers” on board heed the voices of Denver voters and slow down the march to privatization?
The union will most likely take credit for two victories: Carrie Olson and Jennifer Bacon. The reality is it should be credited with zero victories, for Carrie won in spite of the union and Jennifer has yet to show many pro public education bona fides. “Reform” certainly got its hands slapped this cycle. But disappointment abounds from what might have been.