Two candidates backed by teachers’ unions won their Denver school board races Tuesday evening while a third union-endorsed candidate lost by a wide margin in the city’s only at-large race.
The result, if unofficial final returns hold true, will be a school board led 4-3 by candidates who have openly questioned the reforms driven by Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg and his predecessor, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet.
Mary Seawell won 71 percent of the vote against Christopher Scott for a citywide seat on the DPS board while Nate Easley easily bested four other candidates in northeast Denver and Andrea Merida appeared to have squeaked by Ismael Garcia in southwest Denver by 140 votes out of 10,746 cast.
“I’m stunned. The margin is huge,” Seawell said at a celebration at a bar called The Living Room in central Denver, where family members and supporters began gathering as the polls closed.
Early returns put Seawell ahead of Scott by 20,000 votes and her lead grew as the night wore on.
“I’m really excited. We have been working so hard,” Seawell said, noting her supporters knocked on 15,000 doors and made 5,000 calls. “We have been working almost non-stop.”
Scott, endorsed by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, raised far less money but generated more heat with claims that Seawell would expand charter schools at the expense of neighborhood schools.
Scott’s campaign issued a press release on Tuesday congratulating Thomas W. Gamel, a Denver businessman who contributed more than $90,000 to Seawell’s campaign, on his “electoral win.”
“I hope Mr. Gamel is as personally committed to DPS and our children as he is financially,” Scott said. “As we like to say in the consulting business, ‘You buy it, you own it.’ We will hold Mr. Gamel accountable for the actions of the board members his money has supported.”
Seawell, who left her party shortly after 11 p.m. to eat at Pete’s Kitchen, shook her head when told of Scott’s remarks.
“I just wish he would have done a campaign about the issues,” she said. “He had an opportunity to engage people about real education issues and he ultimately chose not to do that.”
Gamel also invested in Garcia in southwest Denver and in Vernon Jones in northeast Denver, both candidates who lost, according to final unofficial results posted online at 10:45 p.m. by the Denver Elections Division.
Altogether, 19.49 percent of eligible voters participated in Tuesday’s election – or 81,533 ballots out of a possible 418,395. That’s far less than the 45 percent who voted in the most recent school board elections in 2007.
Union victories in southwest, northeast
In northeast Denver, where five candidates were vying for the seat, union-endorsed Easley emerged early with a comfortable lead that he maintained throughout the night. Final unofficial results put him 5 percentage points and 747 votes ahead of Jones, his closest rival.
The only nail-biting of the evening came in southwest Denver, where Merida saw an initial 508-vote lead over Garcia dwindle to 326, then 177 and, in the final unofficial results, to just 140 out of 10,746 votes cast.
“I’m cautiously optimistic at this point,” Merida said midway through the evening as her supporters exchanged hugs and hopeful smiles while awaiting updated results. “It’s been a hard, long battle.”
Teachers’ union leaders and DPS board members Michelle Moss and Jeanne Kaplan – who often found themselves in the minority on the current board – trickled into the celebration at Quijote’s Terrace in southwest Denver.
“We really have elected champions of education,” said a smiling Henry Roman, DCTA president. “They are going to spend more time visiting schools and getting to know DPS students and teachers…
“I think they’re truly going to be more engaged,” he said. “To me, that’s the best way to arrive at big decisions.”
Shortly after 10 p.m., after another round of results, Merida gathered her supporters, thanked them and told them it was okay to go home.
“This is definitely too close to call at this point and … it’s getting closer,” she said. “So you all are released. We’ll just see how this pans out.”
Forty-five minutes later, city officials posted their “final unofficial” results. Garcia’s campaign manager, Ben Gordon, said Garcia had not conceded and they planned to review the final vote tally in the morning.
New board, new direction?
Moss, who will leave the board Nov. 30 after eight years, endorsed Merida for the seat she is vacating. She disagreed with concerns that Merida and Easley will create a 4-3 majority that will stall reform in DPS.
“These candidates will look at things a little differently and push the board to try things we haven’t in the past,” she said. “I think that’s a good thing. I think it’s unfortunate when we label people anti-reform because they disagree with the kind of reform the district is moving toward.”
Rumors flew as elections results were posted that the new board might seek to oust Boasberg or could derail his strategy enough to cause him to resign.
“I still think Boasberg is the best person for the job,” said Merida, who predicts reform will not slow but will “take a broader stage.”
In other words, she said, the district’s reform efforts have centered on “one corner” of its portfolio of schools – the world of choice.
“The district has paid a lot of attention to opening new schools, charters and magnets,” she said. “It’s time to apply that attention to all schools.”
Kaplan, who was unopposed in her bid to continue representing central Denver, could move from her customary role of board questioner to that of board president with its new members.
She said the election has divided board members as they sided with different candidates and she would like to see a board retreat to ease tensions.
“There is a lot to be done,” Kaplan said, “and we all need to be working together for our kids.”
Nancy Mitchell can be reached at email@example.com or 303-478-4573.