Anti-voucher Douglas County school board candidates win easily, signalling sweeping change there

The victory comes eight years after a group of candidates backed by the local Republican Party took control of the Douglas County school board.

The nation's second largest teachers union is spending $300,000 to support a slate of candidates running for the Douglas County school board. Those candidates posed for pictures at their campaign kick-off event are from left, Krista Holtzmann, Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor, and Kevin Leung. (Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)
The nation's second largest teachers union is spending $300,000 to support a slate of candidates running for the Douglas County school board. Those candidates posed for pictures at their campaign kick-off event are from left, Krista Holtzmann, Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor, and Kevin Leung. (Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)
The nation’s second largest teachers union is spending $300,000 to support a slate of candidates running for the Douglas County school board. Those candidates posed for pictures at their campaign kick-off event are from left, Krista Holtzmann, Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor, and Kevin Leung. (Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

By Nic Garcia, Chalkbeat

An aligned group of Douglas County school board candidates seeking to reverse many of the district’s most controversial policies — including a private-school voucher program — cruised to victory early Wednesday.

As of 12:30 a.m., with all ballots counted, members of the “CommUnity Matters” slate were ahead of their opponents by about 16 percentage points in unofficial results.

“We’re feeling really thankful,” said Krista Holtzmann, one of the members of the slate. “We heard our community speak loud and clear tonight that they believe in and support our public schools.”

The victory by members of the CommUnity slate comes eight years after a group of candidates backed by the local Republican Party took control of the Douglas County school board. The CommUnity slate spoke out on a number of conservative initiatives — including a private-school voucher program.

Four seats on the seven-member board were up for grabs this year, putting the controversial voucher program, which has been stalled for years in the court system, and the philosophical direction of Colorado’s third largest district on the line. Members of the CommUnity slate are opposed to vouchers and will likely end the district’s defense of the program.

The CommUnity Matters slate includes Holtzmann, Chris Schor, Anthony Graziano and Kevin Leung. Their opponents, the “Elevate Douglas County” slate, were Debora Scheffel, Randy Mills, Ryan Abresch and Grant Nelson. As of 10 p.m., the Elevate slate had not conceded the race.

The Douglas County race has drawn national interest. The returns Tuesday were a blow for national conservative education reform advocates who wanted to see the district’s voucher program prevail in court. A court victory could have set a national precedent for private-school vouchers by eliminating so-called “Blaine Amendments,” which forbid tax dollars going to religious institutions, from dozens of state constitutions.

“There’s nothing to do but keep fighting for educational opportunity,” Ross Izard, policy director for ACE Scholarships and a voucher proponent who supported the Elevate slate, said in a statement Tuesday evening. “There are still thousands of kids whose needs are not being met by the current system. I don’t think parental choice advocates have any plans to stop pushing for policies that would expand options for those students.”

The American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers union, has poured $300,000 into the race to help the CommUnity slate, most recent records show. The union is one of the loudest national critics of charter schools, which receive public tax dollars but are run independently of school districts, and of private school vouchers. The union lost its collective bargaining agreement with the district in 2011.

“Douglas County voters have chosen a school board that places students at the center of every decision and believes in the value of an accountable, transparent public education system, not an ideology that fails our students and educators,” said Kallie Leyba, president of the Douglas County Federation of Teachers, the local AFT affiliate. “We are eager for teachers to have the opportunity to work with the board on issues that will restore and propel our public schools forward in preparing our students for school, college and career.”

Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, also celebrated the slate’s win in Douglas County.

“Voters spoke out against misguided and ineffective reforms that aren’t helping our children, and have rejected attempts to divert public dollars to private schools,” Dallman said in a statement. “This is a great election result for all students in Colorado, preventing the spread of harmful voucher schemes.”

The differences between the two groups of candidates were stark.

The CommUnity slate promised to end the district’s defense of the 2011 voucher program. The slate, which was backed by the Douglas County Parents political committee and the teachers union, also pledged to seek more local tax dollars to repair school buildings and pay educators more.

The Elevate slate candidates wanted to continue to defend the voucher program, but stopped short of saying they’d restart the program if given the OK by the courts. The slate, which was endorsed by the Douglas County Republican Party and has hundreds of thousands of dollars in financial support from deep-pocketed school choice advocates, said it wanted to rebuild trust in the district before asking voters for more money.

However, there was some agreement among all candidates. Both slates promised to revisit the district’s unique “market-based” pay structure for teachers.

After the results are certified, the CommUnity slate will join three board members who also had the backing of the Douglas County Parents group. Some worry they could create a 7-0 board.

Leung said late Tuesday that the premise doesn’t hold up.

“To assume we’ll have one voice is inaccurate,” he said.

Leung added that the board will work with the district’s charter school community, which was uneasy during the election.

“We have all the kids’ interests at heart,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if they go to a charter school. We will try to bring everyone together.”

Earlier on Tuesday, candidates, supporters and observers said they hoped that regardless of the outcome they hoped the district, which has been roiled by one controversy or another since 2009, could heal and move forward.

“Tomorrow, winners or losers, we have a really big effort to work toward asking voters for more money,” said Kerrie Riker-Keller, a Douglas County parent who sits on a number of district committees. “Everyone’s going to need to put aside their differences to work toward that.”

Schor, a member of the CommUnity slate who ran to represent Castle Rock, said she hopes everyone who has been engaged in the election continues to work to improve the district’s schools.

“I think if everyone who is involved in this election continues to use this energy to focus on children, we’ll be all right,” she said.

Randy Mills, a member of the Elevate slate who opposed Schor, said earlier in the evening he and his teammates expected a close race.

“We feel confident that we left everything in the arena,” he said in a statement before the polls closed. “I, my slate-mates, and our volunteers have canvassed the district with our conservative vision for transparency, accountability, stability, education excellence, and broadened vocational education. We are hopeful we will be entrusted to carry out that vision.”

According to the Secretary of State’s office, 79,841 Douglas County ballots were counted by 9 p.m. More than 92,000 votes were cast in 2015, the last time seats on the school board were up for grabs.

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