By Melanie Asmar, Chalkbeat Colorado

In a contest that will determine whether a union-backed majority on the Denver school board consolidates power or faces new pushback, four candidates backed by the teachers union were leading Tuesday night. If all four win, the board will be unanimously union-backed for the first time in recent history.

In a five-way race for an at-large seat representing the entire city, candidate Scott Esserman had a sizable lead over candidates Vernon Jones Jr., Jane Shirley, Nicky Yollick, and Marla Benavides, according to the election results released at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday.

In a two-person race for the District 2 seat representing southwest Denver, candidate Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán had a narrow lead over candidate Karolina Villagrana.

In a two-person race for the District 3 seat representing central-east Denver, school board President Carrie Olson had a wide lead over challenger Mike DeGuire. Olson is the only incumbent on the seven-member school board running for reelection.

And in a three-person race for the District 4 seat representing northeast Denver, Michelle Quattlebaum had a small lead over candidates Gene Fashaw and José Silva. A fourth candidate, Andrea Mosby, withdrew from the race.

Twelve candidates have been competing for months for four open seats on the seven-member board. Since a historic “flip” in 2019, when three union-backed candidates won seats on the board, members aligned with the union have held a 5-2 majority.

Over the past two years, the union-backed board has undone or halted many reforms put in place by previous boards. For instance, it voted to reopen two comprehensive high schools — Montbello High and West High — that previous boards had dismantled.

Board members also got rid of the controversial school ratings system previous boards used to justify closing low-scoring schools in an attempt to improve academic achievement. The union opposes closing low-performing schools.Become a Chalkbeat sponsor

The union also opposes the expansion of independent charter schools. The union-backed board attempted to delay the opening of a new DSST charter high school, but the State Board of Education overturned its decision.

This year, the union has spent big to hold on to its majority, but supporters of education reform and charter schools have spent even bigger to try to win back control of the board. They say the union-backed board hasn’t focused enough on academics, especially during the pandemic.

As of Monday, state campaign finance reports show independent expenditure committees associated with reform groups had spent more than $1.07 million in support of three candidates: Jones, Villagrana, and Fashaw. Such committees can spend unlimited amounts of money in elections but cannot coordinate with candidates.

Meanwhile, reports show independent expenditure committees associated with teachers unions had spent more than $184,000 in support of four candidates: board President Olson, Esserman, Gaytán, and Quattlebaum. The Denver teachers union had also given more than $157,000 directly to the four candidates, while the statewide teachers union gave them at least another $75,000.

Esserman has raised more money — $106,650 — than any other school board candidate in Colorado, even with expensive races in many suburban districts, according to an analysis of campaign filings by Follow the Money Colorado.

The winners of Tuesday’s election will oversee a new superintendent, craft a new strategic plan, and grapple with several long-simmering issues, including declining enrollment and continued disagreement over the role of independent charter schools and semi-autonomous innovation schools. They will also help lead a district that is still navigating the COVID-19 pandemic.