THE PODIUM: Mudslinging, a mixed message — yet a hopeful outcome — in Denver school board race

Author: Barbara O'Brien - December 7, 2017 - Updated: December 6, 2017

Barbara O’Brien

The 2017 Denver School Board election was ideological, hard-fought and nasty at times.  Activists both for and against the direction of Denver Pubic Schools were convinced that the election would be a referendum.  Now that the dust has settled, I’m not sure the results add up to a clear message.

The three at-large candidates, including me, attended at least 35 forums and debates in every part of Denver.  I was asked repeatedly about why I am letting corporations take over Denver Public Schools.  Really?  My opponents were asked why they would keep students in bad neighborhood schools instead of making dramatic changes.  Tempers ran hot.  Yet, it was mostly the same people who showed up again and again at candidate forums and debates.  Less than 10 percent of people at these forums were actual voters trying to find information about the candidates.  Most people in the audience were working for one of the campaigns and their minds were made up.

Knocking on neighborhood doors and talking with citizens was an entirely different experience.  They thought the school district was generally doing a good job.  Voters were interested in successful schools, whether they were district-run or charter schools.  Most had voted for the recent bond and mill levy and were proud they had supported the schools.   Three dominant sentiments came up no matter where I was campaigning: 1) increase early childhood education opportunities, 2) increase support in schools for students with mental and behavioral health needs, and 3) pledge to resist the Trump-Betsy DeVos education agenda.

Betsy DeVos, U.S. Secretary of Education, was on the minds of Denver voters.  I heard their anxiety about her education agenda and how it would play out in Denver and Colorado.  A political group aligned with the teachers union attacked me by comparing me to DeVos. I have a long track record of working to improve the lives of kids and laughed it off.  However, I am concerned about how her ideological stand for market-based education and her proposed cuts to preschool and students’ mental health will taint future candidates committed to reforming public education, especially for low-income and minority students.

Ultimately, all elections are local.  According to the Denver Election Commission, more Denver women than men turned in ballots in this year’s election.  Women are flexing their political muscle in reaction to national politics; it is probably not a coincidence that all seven members of the incoming Denver School Board are female.

Most of the opponents of the current direction of the school board began their campaigns saying they opposed charter schools.  By the end of the campaign they were tap dancing around the issue, saying they had relatives and friends who send their children to charter schools.  They must have been getting an earful from friends and family.

In the at-large school board race, the establishment candidate with a 20-year history of working on children’s issues won re-election despite being called at different times a vulture, a bully and sleazy.  That was my race and those slings and arrows were directed at me.

This was my third and, thankfully, last election.  I’ve never experienced the personal insults that were hurled during this election.  The crudeness of the current national political culture apparently gave some activists permission to vent their raw anger in public. It wasn’t the usual rough-and-tumble but ultimately civil process of Denver’s local politics.  It was personal and mean.

What was the election really about?

Denver wants its schools to continue to get better, but there’s a fractured consensus about how to go forward.  Progress has been made, but it’s not enough.  Yet despite the shifting messages of the election and moments spent in the mud, very strong and thoughtful people were elected to the Denver School Board.

I’m hopeful about the next four years.

Read The Podium weekly; it’s where prominent players in Colorado politics address the big issues of the day.

Barbara O'Brien

Barbara O'Brien

Barbara O’Brien, a Democratic former lieutenant governor of Colorado, is an at-large member of the Denver Public Schools Board of Education. She also served as the longtime president of the Colorado Children's Campaign and was head speechwriter and deputy director for policy for former Gov. Dick Lamm.

One comment

  • Susan

    December 8, 2017 at 3:30 pm

    Barbara is correct – November’s DPS election was nasty and personal. What she fails to point out, however, is that long-time teacher, Carrie Olson defeated incumbent, bond lawyer Mike Johnson in central Denver, 53.8% to 46.1%, despite his substantial fundraising advantage. Olson must resign from her teaching position before the end of the school year! Board policy precludes an active teacher serving on the Board. This, in my view, is a mistake. O’Brien squeaked out a victory, carrying a mere 40.5% of the total (49,150). Her two opponents, earned 72,227 votes 59..6% of the total.. Until DPS figures out how to link open enrollment to transportation and provide full-day learning – the District will continue to fail the needs of its most vulnerable students.

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