Are fewer school board candidates a mark of approval, or a sign of indifference?


AURORA | Few candidates have lined up to run for open school board positions in both Aurora districts this fall, but that kind of poor turnout has been the norm for the past eight years.

This year, five candidates are running for four open seats on the Aurora Public Schools Board of Education. In the Cherry Creek School District, three candidates will vie for two open seats.

Julie Marie Shepherd (left), school board candidate, and her sister Sarah plant signs in hopes of gathering more votes, Oct. 29 in Aurora. Candidates for this election also include Jasper Armstrong and Amber Drevon.(Danielle Shriver/ Aurora Sentinel)
Julie Marie Shepherd (left), school board candidate, and her sister Sarah plant signs in hopes of gathering more votes, Oct. 29 in Aurora. Candidates for this election also include Jasper Armstrong and Amber Drevon.(Danielle Shriver/ Aurora Sentinel)

“We didn’t even have an election in the last two cycles,” said Aurora Education Association President Amy Nichols, adding that 2009 and 2011 were uncontested races. This year, the AEA recommended candidates Jasper Armstrong, Amber Drevon and Barbara Yamrick, as well as incumbent JulieMarie Shepherd. “Having five people run for four seats is a bit different for us. In the past eight years, we really haven’t seen a lot of challenge.”

It hasn’t always been that way. In 2005, ten challengers and two incumbents vied for four open positions on the APS board, and each promised to fundamentally transform the school district. They vowed to boost student achievement and curb the dropout rate; candidates talked about changing APS from the top down. In the end, four newcomers beat the rest. Within a year, the district had a new superintendent and a new administrative plan.

“My kids were in the district, and I wanted to make sure that they were getting quality education,” said Matt Cook, one of the four board members elected in 2005. “I think that’s what changed it for me.”

Fast forward eight years. Four seats are again up for grabs, but the competition is minimal. The debate is hardly heated — three of the five candidates for a school board that represents more than 38,000 students don’t even have a campaign website.

It’s quite the shift from 2005, but the low turnout from candidates is also the trend when it comes to local school board races in the past eight years.

And APS isn’t alone. This year, three candidates have lined up for two open seats on the Cherry Creek School District Board of Education. Incumbent Randy Perlis will challenge Cherokee Trail High School assistant track coach Brian Arnold in the race for the board’s District D Director slot. Longtime district volunteer and former banker Karen Fisher will run unopposed for the board’s District E Director position. Cherry Creek’s enrollment tops 52,000 students.

“It’s really hard to say why. I don’t know if it’s that more people in Cherry Creek are extremely busy in the their personal lives,” said Sheryl Cunningham, president of the Cherry Creek Education Association. This year, the CCEA recommended incumbent Randy Perlis in the lone contested election. “It could be the same type of reasons that we don’t see many people running for positions on my own executive board. Often, it just goes to the person who steps up as a candidate.”

Some see the poor candidate turnout as a mark of approval. According to that theory, less fiery rhetoric and competition means less public unrest with the direction of the school district.

“(In 2005), they defeated incumbents. People were saying, ‘We want a change,’ and that’s exactly what they did,” said APS Board Member Mary Lewis, who was elected to the board in 2007. Lewis said that year, her campaigning was limited to a small mailing to Heather Gardens. “I prefer to take it as a positive … It means that people are fairly satisfied.”

Compared to the school board turnout in Aurora, the election in neighboring districts like Denver Public Schools is downright melodramatic. DPS, with an enrollment of more than 78,000, has four open slots. Nine candidates have lined up to compete for the positions, and they’ve broken into two distinct camps based on support for the district’s current superintendent, Tom Boasberg.

“There’s always been an interest in the school board in Denver,” said Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards. “I think it’s a unique situation in being a city district … But I think people look at the direction of the district. It would almost be 178 different reasons as you look at 178 different school districts.”

In Aurora, the races carry very little weight as far as campaign money. The AEA offered financial assistance of less than $1,500 to its recommended candidates; only Shepherd and Armstrong accepted. In Cherry Creek, the union offered assistance of $2,000 to Perlis.

“In Denver, it’s a much more political, much more high-profile election, because you have people spending $100,000,” Cook said. “I think the first time I ran, we raised $5,000 or $6,000.”

Even so, the lack of candidates remains a shock for Cook, who will leave his post this year because of term limits. After eight years on the APS board, he’s running for the Aurora City Council.

“It’s a head scratcher,” Cook said. It’s such important work … For whatever reason, people don’t see it that way.”

Reach reporter Adam Goldstein at 720-449-9707 or [email protected]