Union-backed candidates are winning the DPS board money race

Money isn’t all that matters in life or in politics, but it’s better to have some on hand than to be perpetually scrambling.

So it must be nice this year to be one of the four Denver’s school board candidates backed by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association. Those four candidates have substantial fundraising leads over their competitors heading into the final stretch.

Latest campaign contribution filings show that the four DCTA-backed candidates have all raised significantly more money than their competitors. And, no surprise: The lion’s share of that money has come from $20,000-plus donations from the DCTA.

From a money perspective, the at-large (citywide) race seems to be the most competitive, with DCTA favorite Scott Esserman in the lead with $50,702 raised to date. Close on his heels is the even more progressive Nicky Yollick, who has raised $43,190. Yollick has a fairly broad base of financial support, but the big checks have come from family members (or at least people with the surname Yollick) in Texas.

In Southwest Denver’s District 2, DCTA-backed Xochitl Gaytan has brought in $23,963, while her closest competitor, Karolina Villagrana, has raised $16,315.

Gaytan, who ran unsuccessfully for the seat in 2017, was one of the founders that same year of Our Voices Our Schools, an advocacy group that billed itself as grassroots but which was, in fact, heavily bankrolled by the National Education Association and the Colorado Education Association — the state’s teachers’ union. So she’s no stranger to teacher union largesse.

In District 3, representing central Denver, DCTA-backed incumbent Carrie Olson, a former teacher and current board president, has raised $35,882. Her opponent, veteran educator Mike DeGuire, has raised $8,165.

The field in Northeast Denver’s District 4 is crowded, but union favorite Michelle Quattlebaum is far ahead of the pack, with $28,931 raised to date. Her closest competitor is charter school educator Gene Fashaw, at $17,690.

In past years, candidates who generally supported the direction previous Superintendent Tom Boasberg had taken DPS raised large sums of money, far outstripping, in fact, DCTA donations. But in 2017, money took a back seat to an energized union base, whose members got out in impressive numbers and knocked on doors across Denver for their candidates.

Meanwhile, the better-heeled candidates spent hugely on slick mailers that did them no good. The union-backed candidates took control of the board, altering the district’s direction.

This year, those big-dollar donations to non-union candidates are nowhere to be seen. Perhaps those big donors feel burned by what happened in 2017. Perhaps the money will drop late. But it’s worth keeping in mind that the two current board members — Barbara O’Brien and Angela Cobián — most open-minded about school choice, accountability, and limited standardized testing are not running for reelection.

A few short years ago the seven-member DPS board was unanimously aligned behind Boasberg’s reforms. If momentum follows money, we may be looking at a decidedly different kind of 7-0 board come November 3.

Alan Gottlieb
Alan Gottlieb is Boardhawk’s editor. Alan has been a Denver-based journalist for more than 30 years. He covered DPS for the Denver Post in the mid-1990s, worked as an education program officer for The Piton Foundation, and co-founded Education News Colorado and Chalkbeat. For the past five years, he has worked as a contract writer and communications consultant.