Winners in school board race credit dialogue, personal touch
Tuesday’s election of Greg Mikolai, Tom Parrish and John Williams was won through door knocks and dialogue, according to Mesa Valley Education Association President Darren Cook.
The District 51 teacher’s union spent $3,000 apiece on Mikolai and Parrish plus more in in-kind donations. The winning trio collected a total of $8,562 more than opponents Pat Kanda, Mike Lowenstein and John Sluder. But Cook said “the money was the smallest part of this.” It was the 200-plus teachers in the association who knocked on doors, handed out literature and talked to people about candidates that Cook is convinced made the difference.
“I think our strategy was better,” Cook said, referring to Republican volunteers for Kanda, Lowenstein and Sluder and against Amendment 66 who Cook said often dropped literature at people’s homes without staying to chat. “We did the uncomfortable thing and talked to people. That cannot be done with the radio or in direct mail.”
Kanda, Lowenstein and Sluder’s campaigns spent more than their opponents on radio ads and about half as much on printing. Both sides spent about the same amount on yard signs. MVEA made campaign pens, postcards from teachers expressing their support and paid for postage on those cards. The Mesa County Republican Party paid $1,361 for pro-Kanda, Lowenstein and Sluder ads in the Sentinel and rallied members to sign up to hand out campaign materials door-to-door.
Like their students, teachers in the association decided to do their homework to prepare for the school board election.
They hired a polling service to survey locals and find out their values.
Most of those polled valued small class sizes, retaining extra-curriculars, retaining quality teachers and accountability.
More than 70 percent gave their neighborhood school a favorable rating. Cook said local teachers agreed with the results and stuck to a message that coincided with the values while canvassing, making calls or sending postcards in support of Mikolai, Parrish and Williams.
“What we found was that our values and their values matched perfectly, that the belief that the public school system is broken is a myth,” Cook said. “We knew all we needed to do was let people know how we felt in a purposeful way and stay on message.”
MVEA endorsed Mikolai, Parrish and Williams, as did local citizen groups Save Our Students and Strong Schools, Strong Community. Mesa County Republican Women, the Mesa County Republican Party and incumbent school board members Jeff Leany and Ann Tisue endorsed Kanda, Lowenstein and Sluder. The Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce endorsed Williams, Parrish and Sluder.
Save Our Students member Rob Pierce said he believes the election turned out the way it did because voters were turned off by the infusion of “divisive politics” into a non-partisan school board race. In response, Pierce said about 30 or 40 Save Our Students members canvassed on behalf of the group’s chosen candidates while others spread the word on social media or called people.
“It’s hard to quantify but it probably affected 1,000 or 2,000 contacts” by encouraging them to turn in their ballots, Pierce said.
Additionally, Pierce said some voters may have been interested in education reforms or changes, but not the ones proposed by conservative candidates and incumbents, like a market-based pay system or moving away from Common Core curriculum, or at least not all of them at once.
“I think most people want to find a way to build on what we’ve been doing right rather than creating a whole new structure and beginning a grand experiment with a $150 million budget and 21,000 kids,” Pierce said.
The candidates with the most money won, although spending gaps were not as pronounced in Mesa County as they were in some Front Range races. Parrish raised the most with $12,367.99 in contributions, followed by Williams at $11,046.99, Mikolai at $9,742.25, Lowenstein at $9,143, Sluder with $8,108 and Kanda with $7,344.
The school board races in Denver, Douglas County, Jefferson County, Mesa County Valley, Thompson and Greeley school districts were, in order, the six most expensive in the state when it comes to campaign contributions.
Reform winners in Denver received nearly four times more in monetary contributions than their teacher association-backed counterparts, while the four winning reform candidates in Douglas County raised three times as much money as their opponents.
Like Mesa County’s conservative trio, Jefferson County’s conservative candidates received endorsements from their local Republican party. Also like their Mesa County counterparts, Jefferson’s three reform candidates received less money than their opponents — less than $23,000 to the other three Jefferson candidates’ $116,000. But in Jefferson County, all three reform candidates won.
Thompson and Greeley reform candidates raised more than twice the money their counterparts generated, but the funding generated mixed results.
Three out of four reform candidates made it onto the Thompson School Board in Loveland. Two of the winning candidates, Carl Langner and Donna Rice, received donations from Greenwood Village reform-backer C. Edward McVaney and one of his co-founders in a scholarship fund to send low-income students to private school, Front Range businessman Ralph Nagel.
Another Thompson candidate, Rocci Bryan, got money from McVaney and Nagel but lost his race. Candidate Bryce Carlson, who won, got $5,000 from McVaney.
The lone reform winner in Greeley’s school board race was Steven Hall, who got a combined $7,000 from Nagel and McVaney, as did losing candidates Donna Downey and Ron Brecheisen. McVaney donated to defeated reform candidate Logan Mahan as well. McVaney and Nagel donated a combined $21,000 to the campaigns of Kanda, Lowenstein and Sluder.
Teachers unions stayed out of races in Douglas, Greeley, Jefferson, and Thompson but the Denver Classroom Teacher Association donated nearly $60,000 to four Denver candidates who lost, plus more than $80,000 worth of in-kind contributions.