In Aurora Public Schools, all school board members represent the entire district, not particular neighborhoods or regions — an unusual arrangement for a district its size.
None of the seven current board members live in northwest Aurora, home of the district’s lowest performing schools and most-watched reform efforts. Candidates in this fall’s election face the daunting task of trying to run an effective campaign reaching all corners of the city.
In the tiny Sheridan School District, a different system of representation has taken root. Although the city is only 2.2 square miles, five board members each represent distinctive regions. That has come at a cost: One board seat has sat vacant for 12 years, and once again this fall no one has stepped up to run for it.
The two districts at different ends of the metro area stand at opposite ends of the spectrum in school board representation, and each face distinct challenges. School board members and candidates from both districts speak of the value of representing diverse interests. Efforts to change, meanwhile, are limited by state law and voter resistance to change.
November’s elections could usher in some changes to current dynamics in both districts. In Aurora, nine candidates are vying for four seats. Though the one Sheridan race has no candidates, three of the four other school board races are contested. Elections haven’t been held in the district for the past eight years because of a lack of candidates.
In Colorado, large metro area school districts generally draw director districts within their boundaries, according to records from the Colorado Association of School Boards. Of the state’s 10 largest school districts, Aurora is one of two that has exclusively at-large board representation, not requiring members to come from specific representation areas.
Small metro districts like Sheridan usually don’t draw boundaries within their school district to break up representation. But changing representation on school boards one way or the other requires voter approval, and that’s not always easy to get.
Kathy Shannon, legal and policy counsel for the association, fields calls from district officials who want to know about changing their representation. She gives them information, but says there is no best-practice advice because every community is different.
In one case, she said officials in a school district were frustrated after voters had turned down a measure to eliminate representative districts in favor of at-large representation and also turned down a ballot request to eliminate board term limits.
In Sheridan, voters did allow the board to eliminate term limits long ago. The board president has served for 16 years and the board vice president has served for 12 years.
Superintendent Michael Clough said officials this summer hand-delivered a letter signed by the board president to every home in the vacant district in hopes of finding someone interested in running. Principals are asked to reach out to parents, and digital signs on district buildings tell readers the district is looking for board members.
“We’ve worked very hard to try to get that vacant seat filled,” Clough said.
The area that has had a 12-year vacancy is in the central part of the city. It encompasses trailer parks including one for seniors. It’s diverse and aging, with an estimated 726 registered voters, but there are no schools within the boundaries.
Sheridan’s system came to be more than 50 years ago, when the district unified: There were five different elementary school districts, and officials promised residents board representation from them all.
Officials said there’s some hope now that three other board seats will be contested.
“I’m thrilled,” said board president Ron Carter. “I’m happy to see competition. I really hope after this election we may be able to draw someone out from that vacant district.”
Carter said the board was interested in having a mix of at-large and some geographic districts, as is the case in districts such as Denver Public Schools. But under state law, if a school district wants to have board members represent distinct areas, it must have at least five who do so, meaning the current vacant district would continue to need someone from that area to serve.
To have a mix of at-large and geographic representation, Sheridan would need at least six board members — and the district can’t even fill its current five seats.
“If all five people that live next door to each other sit on the board, then who’s going to represent the other side of town?” Carter said. “You need equal representation. There’s a huge difference between neighborhoods.”
Some candidates in Aurora believe the same applies there.
Aurora board candidate Miguel In Suk Lovato has been touting his background as a neighbor and graduate of Aurora Central High School, one of the district’s lowest performing schools, as reasons why he should be elected to the school board.
Lovato lives about a mile away from Aurora Central, just across the ZIP code boundary. Three other candidates — Gail Pough, Debbie Gerkin and Lea Steed — also live in the 80011 ZIP code, but Lovato is the closest to Central.
“I think it’s important to make sure that we have leaders from various parts of the city, who are able to bring a perspective from that part of town,” Lovato said. “Aurora is so diverse in many different ways. There are communities that don’t look all the same.”
While some of the new candidates come from 80011, the neighboring ZIP code area to Central, there are five other zip codes in the district where no candidates or current board members live, including 80010, where Central is located. The neighborhoods surrounding Central are some of the most diverse and lowest-income areas of Aurora.
The district’s seven board members come from three of the 11 ZIP codes in APS. Two of those ZIP code areas, where five board members live, have some of the highest median household incomes in the city, according to Census information.
Board president Amber Drevon said the school board once talked about the district’s representation plan, but said ultimately the board didn’t follow through to find out more about how to make a change, or to find out if it was necessary.
“We realized we all relatively lived close to each other,” Drevon said. “I do think it’s important to have representation from all parts of the city, but I can think of pros and cons for both so I’m not sure what the best plan is.”
All board members can and should be acting on behalf of students from the entire district, she said. “I don’t think that being just from one part of the city prevents you from having that.”