Since recall elections ousted conservatives in 2015, a union-backed majority has held full control of the Jefferson County school board.
With two open seats on the five-member board, that majority is not at stake in the Nov. 5 election, but voters will have the opportunity to choose among new points of view and possibly add a dissenting voice. Two candidates are running for the District 3 seat currently held by Ali Lasell and another two for the District 4 seat held by Amanda Stevens. Neither incumbent is seeking reelection.
The second largest district in Colorado, Jeffco Public Schools stretches from the mountains to the Denver border and includes a diverse mix of urban, suburban, and rural communities, along with high-poverty schools and those serving more affluent students.
The current board hired Superintendent Jason Glass, oversaw passage of a long-hoped-for bond measure and property tax increase, rolled out a unified enrollment system, and negotiated a new teacher contract.
Two candidates — Stephanie Schooley and Joan Chávez-Lee — are running as a slate and expect the teachers union to endorse them, though each woman said she would bring critical new perspectives to the board. They described themselves as supporters of neighborhood schools, even as they recognize that charter and option schools are important to many parents.
Schooley will face Robert Applegate in the race to represent District 3, which extends through the northwest part of the district.
Schooley is executive director of the Campus Compact of the Mountain West, a nonprofit that works on community engagement in higher education. She started her career as an Americorps VISTA volunteer in Denver Public Schools and has two children in Jeffco Public Schools.
Schooley said she became more involved in school district politics when her children’s school, Stober Elementary, was placed on a closure list. While the school was ultimately spared, she became more aware of how board policies affect what happens in the classroom.
Although she agrees with the general direction of the school district, she said she would bring “critical inquiry” to board decisions. Schooley said she wants to make sure that the district’s diverse mix of schools gets the resources it needs.
“The critical lens through which I view everything is educational equity,” she said. “It’s extraordinarily important that in a district as large and diverse as Jeffco that we consistently bring that lens to everything we do.”
Applegate is an energy market analyst with two children in district schools, who also said his decision to run was shaped by Jeffco’s school closure policies.
The only school the district ultimately closed in 2017 was Pleasant View Elementary in Golden, one of the highest-poverty schools in the district. Applegate said he felt that parents there didn’t have the resources or political capital to mobilize to save their school the way that those in more affluent parts of the district did. He wants the district to engage more with the community.
After putting other closures on hold in 2017, the board plans to revisit its policies this school year around how to handle schools with low enrollment or costly repairs.
Applegate called himself a pragmatist and “a truly independent candidate,” neither a union vote nor “a token charter guy,” who wants the district to raise student achievement — including for at-risk students — and do better by its teachers.
“In general, I think teachers are getting the short end of the stick,” he said.
In District 4, which runs along the Denver border, longtime educator Chávez-Lee will face Susan Miller, a financial services professional and frequent volunteer with education advocacy groups and on district committees.
Chávez-Lee started as a classroom volunteer and became a teacher and principal in Jeffco schools. She’s been retired for eight years. If elected, she would likely be the first Latina to serve on the Jeffco school board. While that is not the only reason she is running, it is one of them.
“There are those who believe the school board should represent the community, and about one in four of our students are Latino,” she said.
Chávez-Lee said she wants to make sure schools have the resources to meet student needs, including in mental health, and to close persistent achievement gaps.
Miller, who works for a firm that advises school districts on facilities needs, is a recent past president of the Jefferson County Association for Gifted Children and has served on several district accountability committees. She has four children who have attended Jeffco schools. She also serves on the board of Montessori Peaks Academy charter school, a position she would vacate if elected.
Miller said she is sensitive to the needs of diverse student populations, including those who are “twice exceptional,” gifted students who also have disabilities. The district needs to do a better job meeting those diverse needs and building on children’s strengths, she said. She also wants to see the district raise student achievement and provide more pathways for students who aren’t considering college.
Asked how she differed from her opponent or from the current board, Miller said, “I am an independent thinker. My voice is more focused on the children and the students and the parents. I think the children and parents need a stronger voice on that board.”