Democrats take control of State Board of Education with narrow win in contested district

Rebecca McClellan, a candidate for the State Board of Education, greets a participant at a forum in Aurora. (Nicholas Garcia/Chalkbeat)
Rebecca McClellan, a candidate for the State Board of Education, greets a participant at a forum in Aurora. (Nicholas Garcia/Chalkbeat)
Rebecca McClellan, a candidate for the State Board of Education, greets a participant at a forum in Aurora. (Nicholas Garcia/Chalkbeat)

By Nicholas GarciaChalkbeat

Democratic challenger Rebecca McClellan has outlasted incumbent Republican Debora Scheffel in a hard-fought State Board of Education race that extended beyond Election Day, handing Democrats control of the governing board for the first time in nearly 50 years.

McClellan, a former Centennial City Council member, has an insurmountable lead of 1,296 votes over Debora Scheffel, a career educator and dean of the School of Education at Colorado Christian University, according to the latest unofficial results released Friday.

The Democrat will represent the politically diverse 6th Congressional District, which includes large portions of Arapahoe County and smaller parts of Adams and Douglas counties.

“It’s exciting, very exciting” McClellan told Chalkbeat. “I think that people in the district really believe in public education, particularly in the Cherry Creek School District. … It’s not a trivial matter. I think people want to see their public schools preserved.”

Scheffel led in early returns Election Day, but McClellan pulled ahead as more ballots were counted.

Scheffel, reached by phone Friday, said she had not reviewed the results.

“I want to look at it,” she said. “Clearly, it was really tight and there was a lot of hard work put in by both sides. I just want to see if there are any other steps I may want to pursue.”

The tightness of the race set off a battle between Democrats and Republicans in the week following Election Day to make sure ballots set aside for signature problems and other irregularities ended up in the final count. The deadline to “cure” ballots was Wednesday.

The results released Friday that clinched McClellan’s win included cured ballots, provisional ballots and military and overseas ballots. All three counties released updated vote tallies. A little more than 100 ballots have yet to be counted in Douglas County, a county official said late Friday afternoon.

Although tight, the outcome is not close enough to trigger an automatic recount. Under state law, votes must be counted again if the difference between the candidates is be less than or equal to one-half of 1 percent of the winner’s total vote count.

Under the current votes counted, that would mean a margin of 898 votes or fewer.

The congressional district is among the most competitive in the state. It was redrawn in 2011 after Scheffel was elected. Prior to that, Republicans had a considerable edge in voter registration. Now the electorate is split nearly evenly among Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters.

The nail-biting election comes at a critical juncture. The board is about to begin addressing how to fix the state’s lowest performing schools, and the state will begin a review of its academic standards that include the politically controversial Common Core State Standards.

The state must also submit a plan to the federal government detailing how it plans to use federal funds to meet the expectations laid out in the nation’s new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.

It has been 46 years since Democrats last controlled the state board.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.