Upset time

Observers: political realities more than ed issues led to Flores’ State Board win

Greenish shading shows precincts won by Val Flores; brownish tones show votes for Taggart Hansen.

Voter turnout, ballot position and hurried, low-visibility campaigns likely were more important than education issues in Val Flores’ victory over Taggart Hansen in the Democratic primary for the 1st District seat on the State Board of Education.

Flores, a retired teacher and professor, won 59 percent of the vote in the race, a surprise to many and a defeat for the coalition of education reform advocacy groups and funders that have been repeatedly successful in a string of Denver Public Schools board races.

The differences in the two campaigns were stark. Flores raised a bit under $20,000 in contributions and non-cash support. Hansen raised more than $35,000 in cash, loans and non-monetary support – and two independent expenditure committees spent more than $100,000 to back him.

But the Flores campaign wiped out the financial advantage, and she swept much of Denver, as the city elections division map above shows. (Greenish shaded precincts were won by Flores; brownish ones by Hansen.) The 1st District also includes a small part of northern Arapahoe County, where Flores also won neatly.

Hansen, a lawyer for CH2M Hill, was backed by reform groups Stand for Children and Democrats for Education Reform, along with some of the same corporate and legal community contributors active in past races for the DPS board. Flores was supported by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the Colorado Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

The person vacating the seat, Democrat Elaine Gantz Berman, confessed to being “stunned” by the outcome. “I’m deeply disappointed,” said Berman, who publicly backed Hansen.

Flores praised her supporters’ “grassroots campaign” for gaining the victory, and her campaign manager, Dave Sabados, said she won partly because “I don’t think Democrats support the corporate [education reform] agenda.”

Reform-group leaders put a brave face on the race’s outcome and said they don’t think it reflects voter attitudes about education reform policies.

“Denver voters support more innovative ideas for our public education system,” said Sonja Semion, executive director of Stand for Children Colorado. “We don’t often get the full variety of Denver sentiment in a primary election.”

“We were clearly disappointed by the results,” said Jennifer Walmer, state director of Democrats for Education Reform Colorado. “I don’t believe it’s an indictment on reform.”

Stand and DFER both are connected to the independent expenditure committees that support Hansen. Both groups issued statements saying they look forward to working with Flores.

But it may be political realities, not education issues, that led to Tuesday’s result. Here’s a look at some of the factors involved, based on Chalkbeat Colorado research and on comments by people we interviewed.

Concentrated and low turnout

Only 38,033 Democrats voted in the Flores-Hansen race. By contrast, more than 107,000 votes were cast in the 2013 race for an at-large seat on the DPS board, won by former Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien, a reform favorite. A key difference is that only Democrats could vote in Tuesday’s election, while any voter regardless of registration can vote in non-partisan DPS races.

So, the lack of GOP and unaffiliated voters may have worked against a “reform” candidate like Hansen.

Low turnout may have been due to the fact that Democrats had no high-profile races – such as the four-way Republican gubernatorial primary – to motivate them to mail their ballots.

“The voters were completely disengaged from the primary. People didn’t have a clue the primary was happening in the Democratic Party,” said Berman. “People didn’t pay any attention to the endorsements,” which included Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, other politicians and the Denver Post editorial page.

Ballot position and name

Because she won a majority of delegates at the Democratic Party nominating assembly, Flores’ name was the first one listed on ballots.

“I think it certainly helps,” said Sabado. Julie Whitacre, a lobbyist for the CEA, said top-line designation usually is a boost for a candidate.

Some sources interviewed by Chalkbeat also said Flores’ Hispanic background may also have helped her. The elections division map shows strong support for her in west Denver, which has concentrations of Hispanic voters.

“The district is heavily Hispanic and minority, and I think they wanted a representative that fit their values,” said one source.

Low-key and short campaigns

Needless to say, members of the State Board aren’t the highest-profile elected officials in Colorado. Lack of voter knowledge makes factors like ballot position more important.

“Nobody really knows what the State Board does and who is running and what the issues are,” said Van Schoales, CEO of A+ Denver, a reform advocacy group.

And, even with significant spending such as that made on Taggart’s behalf, the campaigns had a hard time reaching all potential voters.

In an effort to target voters they considered most valuable, both campaigns tailored mailings and phone calls in some parts of the district and ignored others. Some voters reported receiving as many as a dozen Hansen mailings; Democrats in other parts of the cities received none.

Both campaigns used direct mail, social media and phone calls to make their cases.

Several people interviewed cited the shortness of the campaign as a possible factor in the race. Flores and Hansen were placed on the ballot by a Democratic Party assembly in early April, leaving less than three months to campaign before the primary.

Prior to 2012, the primary election was held in late August, giving candidates a much longer period to reach out to voters.

Schoales called it a “superfast campaign” that didn’t give the candidates much time to get their message to Democratic voters.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede