By Ann Schimke, Chalkbeat Colorado

The three-candidate slate backed by the Jeffco teachers union has a sizable lead in the district’s school board race, according to early election returns.

The slate includes Danielle Varda, Paula Reed, and Mary Parker. In a two-person race for District 1, Varda had a wide lead over opponent Jeffrey Wilhite. In a two-person race for District 5, Parker had a comfortable lead over opponent Kathy Miks. In a three-person race for District 2, Reed had a double-digit lead over opponents Theresa Shelton and David Johnson.

On the campaign trail, the three union-backed candidates talked about hiring and retaining high-quality staff, and supporting neighborhood schools. Three of five seats on the Jeffco school board are up for grabs.

The district has been controlled by a union-supported board majority since a recall in 2015. The union-supported candidates have had large sums of money behind their campaigns — much more than their opponents.

In 2019, one board member not supported by the union, Susan Miller, was elected. In addition to Miller, board member Stephanie Schooley, who is backed by the union, will remain on the board for two more years. Departing members include board President Susan Harmon and Brad Rupert, both union-supported, and Rick Rush, who was appointed to fill a vacant seat just under a year ago.

Members of the conservative slate opposing the current board majority say they want better financial management and more emphasis on improving test scores. Some of the conservative candidates have also criticized the district’s COVID mitigation measures and question the benefit of requiring children to wear masks.

Union-backed candidates talk about hiring and retaining high-quality staff, including teachers, and the need to support neighborhood schools, a term that refers to district-operated schools, in contrast to their opponents who want to protect school choice and options.Become a Chalkbeat sponsor

The new board will be responsible for overseeing the new superintendent, the pandemic recovery plan, and the rollout of a new elementary literacy curriculum. The district is also currently facing severe staffing shortages that have led to cuts in transportation and food service to students, which parents have called on the district to fix.

Of the more than 116,000 Jefferson County ballots returned by early afternoon Tuesday, 33% were cast by Democrats, 29% by Republicans, and 37% by unaffiliated voters, according to the Colorado Secretary of State’s office.