Oct 29, 2021 - News

Why Colorado school board races are bonkers this year

Illustration of an apple with an I Voted sticker.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

Colorado parents are using the 2021 ballot as an outlet to vent a year's worth of grievances about how the coronavirus and social unrest upended their children's education.

Why it matters: The frustration — and downright anger — cuts different directions and makes this year's local school board races the most volatile in recent memory.

State of play: The nonpartisan contests in Colorado are no stranger to politicization and big money.

  • What's new is the huge interest in an often-overlooked elected office and the focus on new topics, such as public health and the teaching of history, rather than safety, school choice and test scores.
  • The overt partisanship also is reaching new heights, with organizations focused on election conspiracies, anti-masking and religious causes joining the fray along with local political parties.

What they're saying: "You have people fired up on both sides of school board races across the state," says Michael Fields, who leads the conservative dark-money group Colorado Rising Action, which is backing candidates in Douglas County races.

What's happening: Much of the fervor this year is due to the pandemic, but other polarizing political issues are spilling into the race.

Kyle Bentley, a parent and candidate in the Greeley-Evans School District 6, said remote learning gave parents a glimpse into the classroom and they didn't like their children’s curriculum.

  • “I think it was a turning point for a lot of parents,” Bentley told the Colorado Sun.

School board members are being harassed and threatened. The vitriol is so intense, some are resigning.

  • “I’ve never been called a Nazi in my life, but I can’t tell you how many times [this past year] … or a child abuser, or contributing to rape culture because of the masks,” Jefferson County school board member Stephanie Schooley told Colorado Public Radio.

In El Paso County, the local Republican Party sent school board candidates questionnaires about where they stood on a forensic audit of the 2020 election, Colorado Politics reports.

  • Candidates in one local district were so focused on critical race theory — the belief that racism is baked into institutions — that a parent group created a competing political committee based on "kids, not politics," KOAA News reports.

What to watch: Conservatives feel like the momentum is leaning their direction, but the state's largest teacher union is counting on its 39,000 educators to get out the vote.

  • "It's going to be a wave election at the school board level," says Tyler Sandberg, a political strategist for the conservative education advocacy group Ready Colorado.
  • "We have seen one of the more divisive school board election seasons that we've seen in a very long time," said Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association. "We feel we have wonderful candidates."

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