The issues: Political factors loom large

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School boards and school board elections are intended to be nonpartisan, but in Douglas County, politics is tightly woven into the board race.

One of the few places it will not be obvious is on the ballot, where school board candidates' names do not include party affiliation. Aside from the mail-in ballot, however, it is anything but hidden. National right-wing think tanks and other organizations that support the kind of education reform under way in Douglas County have invested heavily on all fronts, from large-scale advertising that includes TV ads and billboards to grassroots marketing methods such as door-to-door canvassing.

The Douglas County Federation's efforts have been less obvious, but union president Brenda Smith said the local affiliate had $40,000 earmarked for education on the election. She also said the American Federation of Teachers, DCF's parent organization, traditionally has supported its local affiliates.

The Douglas County Republicans have endorsed a slate of four candidates — two of them incumbents — after setting up an interview committee and sitting down with as many of the eight candidates as possible. The group endorsed all seven of the board members elected in 2009 and 2011.

Though only one of the four candidates the party doesn't support is a registered Democrat, the GOP is counting on the strength of the county's Republican base to garner votes for their preferred quartet. About 47 percent of the county's registered voters identify themselves as Republicans, 20 percent as Democrats and 32 percent as unaffiliated, according to the Douglas County clerk and recorder.

“It's clear that being a Republican and being supported by the Republican Party is something voters value,” said Craig Steiner, who chairs the Douglas County Republicans.

Local Democrats, meanwhile, have remained silent.

“We don't take the same approach because it's nonpartisan,” chairman Mike Jones said. “If people ask us, we tell them to vote for those who support public education.”

The Independence Institute, a Denver-based libertarian think tank, has paid for surveys and provides financial support to the pro-board DougCo Champions for Kids. Americans for Prosperity is financing the “It's Working” ad campaign. The pro-board Douglas County Education Alliance is linked to groups supportive of conservative and libertarian causes. The conservative American Enterprise Institute also is connected to the election; its director of education policy is a paid Douglas County School District consultant.

Some community members have tried to stem the role of politics in the local election.

In August, the nonprofit Strong Schools Coalition gathered 1,000 signatures on an electronic petition aimed at limiting the role of politics in the Douglas County School Board race.

Colorado Association of School Boards deputy executive director Jane Urschel said in an August 2012 interview that the association views the school board as “the highest level of service,” one that historically rose above party politics.

“Those who were elected would focus on what constitutes the best education of the children of those communities, and they would not be torn by politics or having to vote the way a party wants them to,” she said.