In what may be remembered as one of the most contentious Cherry Creek school board races in recent years — and amid a national focus on the issues of masks in schools and the teaching of race in American history — voters chose to keep the district going in its current direction.
Two candidates in the race for Cherry Creek school board — incumbent Kelly Bates and Kristin Allan — were both backed by the Cherry Creek teachers' union, and both won their races against two opponents each in the election that ended Nov. 2.
Bates, running in board District D, came away with 51.9% of the vote in unofficial results as of Nov. 8, with challengers Jennifer Gibbons garnering 33.6% and Schumé Navarro at 14.5%.
Meanwhile, Allan, in District E, took 49.8% to Bill Leach's 30.4% and Jason Lester's 19.8%.
Board seats represent different portions of the school district, but all school district residents voted in both races.
Seeing six candidates on the ballot presented a sharp contrast to four years ago, when the district's election was canceled because the two seats drew only one candidate each on the ballot.
Bates' and Allan's victories essentially represented a win for the status quo for a district whose leadership has been open to curriculum change regarding teaching that is more mindful of different cultures — and a district that has generally walked in lockstep with local health guidance in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
By contrast, the neighboring Douglas County School District saw a group of four candidates who called for a new direction on the school boardand won in the November election.
Although the Douglas County candidates agreed on certain issues, clear fault lines divided them on hot-button issues galvanizing voters in school board elections across the country, such as masking and the district's equity policy.
Anti-masking crowds had filled Douglas County school board meetings in recent weeks, many urging people to vote for the "Kids First" slate of candidates out of disapproval for the sitting board's handling of COVID-19. In the end, the Kids First candidates won.
The political tide didn't fall that way in Cherry Creek, despite fears about “critical race theory” arising in the district in the months leading up to the election.
Winning candidate Allan, for example, was vocal about being “pro-mask and pro-science” and raised concerns about what she called misinformation spread “by biased and uninformed people and groups with an extremist political agenda.”
She pointed to when the political group No Left Turn in Education showed a presence in the Cherry Creek district, making public comments, Allan said. No Left Turn in Education has raised concerns about critical race theory being taught in the Cherry Creek School District.
They were “spreading rumors and lies about what Cherry Creek is teaching,” Allan said, appearing to reference the Cherry Creek school board's June 23 meeting.
“Cherry Creek School District does not teach critical race theory, but I support teaching an honest and inclusive history,” Allan told the Centennial Citizen.
The issue arose in Cherry Creek because of a 2019 state law called House Bill 19-1192, which realigns how public schools teach history and government-related classes with a greater emphasis on historical contributions of minorities, as well as consideration of issues minorities have faced through time.
At the June 23 school board meeting, district staff recommended that the school board approve a purchase from Inquire Ed of Inquiry Journeys, "a student-centered program that integrates inquiry-based instruction and supports culturally responsive education," according to the meeting's agenda.
Gibbons and Leach — who ran as a slate against Allan and Bates — generally sounded more skeptical tones about the district's approach to curriculum.
In response to a Citzen question regarding the district's policies on the teaching of racial issues in American society, Leach wrote: “In my opinion, if/when social awareness crosses the fine line into social engineering, then we have a problem.”
By phone, Leach said: “I'm not saying it has crossed that line, but it's a line that we need to pay attention to.”
Said Gibbons: “I feel like we need to get politics out of the schools, 100%. There's no room for religion or politics in our classrooms unless it's relevant to the curriculum.”
She argued that controversial subjects that aren't “totally agreed upon” should be taught, but schools should “teach both sides.” She said a related issue is that some parents are worried about communication with the school board.
Asked on what specific issue she feels another side needs to be taught, Gibbons said: “The specific issue I would want (addressed) is the communication between the board and the parents. There isn't one specific issue.”
Navarro went further, saying in response to a Citizen candidate questionnaire: “I value our country's history, but what is being pushed is a viewpoint that is plainly anti-American. Unfortunately, many educators are forging new racial issues ... I am adamantly against teaching that is not American exceptionalism.”
Lester also noted that critical race theory is not currently being taught in Cherry Creek, “nor should it be,” he said.
“But it's also important that we do share the truth about what's happened in America,” Lester said by phone. He added: “It's also important that we don't make people feel bad because of the way they grew up. It's a fine line because people have to understand each other's perspectives. We have to hear one another.”
Masks a key point
Meanwhile, mask policy was also a flashpoint issue in a school district that has generally followed the guidance and orders from Tri-County Health Department, which provides public health services in Arapahoe County, and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment regarding mask-wearing.
With the choice left up to individual school districts, the Cherry Creek district announced it would require masks for all students in pre-K through sixth grade and the staff who work with them on Aug. 13, before Tri-County Health issued its own school mask order.
Bates voiced support for the school district's coronavirus policies, saying in response to a Citizen questionnaire: “By following (Tri-County Health) and (Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment) guidance, we were able to have our students in school almost the entire last year … Because of the protocols we have in place, i.e. masks, handwashing, distance, we are able to keep the incidence rates (rates of new COVID-19 cases) under control.”
Leach and Gibbons didn't come off as avowedly anti-mask but took a more skeptical stance regarding mask policy.
Leach, in response to a Citizen question, said: “Our most important goal is to keep kids in school (and) in person. Having said that, I hope that all decisions made are science-driven and not an agenda. I have included on my website in the security section some good peer-reviewed links from various sources — University of Minnesota, University of Louisville and the CDC via New York Magazine — that should be getting equal attention.”
Gibbons sounded a similar message, saying: “Moving forward, I would like to see a dynamic, science-based rubric created with data like vaccination rates, hospitalizations and other relevant numbers for parents to see what information is being used to decide when masks should be optional versus required. This data could be disaggregated school to school and decisions made accordingly.”
Navarro wholly opposed mask mandates, saying mask wearing “should always be voluntary.”
Bates estimated that Cherry Creek school board meetings typically have, on average, six audience members who attend. Higher meeting attendance in past months appears to have mainly been driven by the issues of masks and fears over critical race theory, Bates said.
But Bates said she thinks that her win “shows that our constituents are happy with the way Cherry Creek has been going, (in terms of) the majority.”
“I am thankful to our constituents for giving me this opportunity to continue serving the CCSD community,” Bates said.
Said Allan: "Everybody that I've met and gotten to know along the way have moved into all the different parts of Cherry Creek because of the diversity and the engagement and the many benefits that the school district provides.
"I think because the demographics are changing, we have to change where we see our excellence, where excellence is," Allan said. "The voters are on board with the moving target of excellence and how we continue to achieve it."
District D includes parts of far east Centennial and southeast Aurora. District E includes central and east Centennial as well as parts of Greenwood Village, Aurora and unincorporated Arapahoe County.