Divisive fliers cause candidates in heated Denver school board race to come together

The black-and-white fliers appear homemade and anonymous; unlike legitimate campaign literature, they do not say who made them.

From left to right: Jennifer Bacon, Rachele Espiritu and Tay Anderson in City Park. (Courtesy of Tay Anderson)
From left to right: Jennifer Bacon, Rachele Espiritu and Tay Anderson in City Park. (Courtesy of Tay Anderson)
From left to right: Jennifer Bacon, Rachele Espiritu and Tay Anderson in City Park. (Courtesy of Tay Anderson)

By Melanie AsmarChalkbeat

Three candidates locked in a battle for a northeast Denver school board seat came together in a show of unity Saturday after unsigned negative fliers appeared on the campaign trail, including one that sought to sow racial division.

The black-and-white fliers appear homemade and anonymous; unlike legitimate campaign literature, they do not say who made them.

They urge voters to choose Jennifer Bacon, a community organizer who formerly worked for Teach for America and has been endorsed by the Denver teachers union. Bacon said her campaign is not responsible for the fliers, which she denounced as negative.

Bacon and her opponents, Rachele Espiritu and Tay Anderson, met in City Park Saturday to make a minute-and-a-half-long video message that all three posted on their Facebook pages. Sitting together on a bench, the candidates took turns speaking.

Anderson: “…Outside groups have invested to support one candidate or another, and we are condemning hateful rhetoric from all outside groups…”

Bacon: “…We want to be sure that we are focusing on the issues that are important to each of us. At the end of the day, we’re all in this for our kids…”

Espiritu: “…We know that after Nov. 7 (Election Day) we will need to continue to stay focused on the interests of our students. When they do well, our community does well…”

In an interview, Bacon said the flier attacking Anderson is particularly disappointing. The flier says “Denver’s real black leaders stand with” Bacon, who is black. Anderson is also black and has been endorsed by the city’s first African-American mayor, Wellington Webb.

“My soul hurt,” Bacon said. “I’ve made it a point to not be divisive in the black community. That has come in the form of not disrespecting or denigrating Tay, no matter what I get from him.”

Bacon said she learned of the flier Friday when someone alerted her to a Facebook post about it by Anderson, a recent high school graduate who has run a social-media-savvy campaign. Anderson said he learned of it from Espiritu, who said she found one on the ground while canvassing in Five Points, and from neighbors who found them on their doors.

Another flier that surfaced in Stapleton attacks Espiritu, the incumbent in the race and the mother of two Denver Public Schools students. It says she “thinks that being a parent makes her an expert” but DPS families “deserve someone with real classroom experience.”

Combative rhetoric and contentious accusations have marked this year’s Denver school board election, although the fliers are the most personal attacks to date. Four of the seven board seats are up for election, which means voters could flip the board’s balance of power.

All seven current board members, including Espiritu, agree with the direction of the district, which is nationally known for collaborating with charter schools and embracing school choice.

Bacon and Anderson have said, to varying degrees, that they’d like it to change.

Mailers sent by union-backed independent political committees urging voters to elect Bacon have tied Espiritu to President Trump and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, a school choice champion who also supports private school vouchers. Espiritu does not.

Anderson previously decried those mailers, as well, posting on Facebook that it was “disgusting” to compare Espiritu, an immigrant from the Phillipines, to Trump. In an interview Saturday, he questioned why Bacon has not done the same.

Bacon said that while she doesn’t think Espiritu is “a bad person (or) is someone who is trying to deliberately hurt her community,” she doesn’t agree with her policies.

“School choice and the competition-based model is a slippery slope,” Bacon said, adding that the policies the current board supports are the same as those pushed by conservatives.

“That’s why it’s scary,” she said.

Espiritu and other current board members have repeatedly denounced DeVos and Trump’s policies. Espiritu also has said she believes in allowing families to choose schools that are right for them from a variety of options.

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