Whomever voters elect to Cherry Creek’s school board next month won’t change the majority opinion one way or the other. Still, two Republican-backed candidates, Steve McKenna and Scott Graves, hope to shake up the conversation around what’s taught in Cherry Creek schools and the district’s responsibilities to parents.

Scott Graves, left, and Steve McKenna are running for the Cherry Creek School District school board. Source: Inspiring Excellence CCSD

Three out of the district’s five seats are up for election. One candidate, Ruthie Knowles, is running unopposed for District B. She has the support of the Colorado’s teachers union, along with incumbent Anne Egan, who is running for District A against McKenna and Angela Garland, who is running for District C against Graves. To date, Egan and McKenna have raised the most money. 

Endorsed by Cherry Creek Republican Women and the Colorado Parent Advocacy Network (CPAN), Graves and McKenna share a website and stand together on issues conservatives have brought to the forefront as part of the culture wars, like the belief that social-emotional learning has led to a decline in standardized test scores.

Graves told Jimmy Sengenberger, a conservative radio show host, ”The district is asking them (teachers) to focus on things that have nothing to do with their subjects and that have nothing to do with state standards, but rather have to do with social engineering, and it’s drawing teachers away from teaching the basics.”

Mckenna took the same line, blaming district leadership for failing to “educate half its students to grade level proficiency in English language arts and fails 60% in math.”

He went on to say, “In 2014, our students met or exceeded expectations in math and English language arts (ELA) in the mid to high 70% percent range.” However, 2014 data on ELA and math scores aren’t publicly available, so it’s impossible to verify that students were far more proficient in 2014 than one year later when results were within a few percentage points of where they are now.

“We can return to or surpass those numbers by allowing teachers to do what they trained for and want to do, teach the children — without district mandates to elevate confused children questioning their gender or sexuality over those just trying to learn, while often hiding these issues from parents, or insisting that our teachers and students view everything through the prism of race,” said McKenna.

It’s unclear what McKenna means by insisting teachers and students “view everything through the prism of race.” He didn’t specify particular curricula or social-emotional learning plans, and the district has repeatedly denied that critical race theory (CRT) is taught in its schools. 

Regarding social-emotional learning, a University of Chicago 2023 study found that high schools focusing on social-emotional learning had double the impact on students’ short- and long-term trajectories than those focusing on improving test scores alone — also, a large body of research points to the numerous benefits that social-emotional learning provides.

While the concept has been around for decades, it wasn’t until 2021 that anti-social-emotional campaigns began to take root, led by conservative parent groups, lawmakers, and politicians.

Sengenberger said there’s no other school district, except for maybe Denver, that has gone more “woke” than Cherry Creek and that a big part of that is Cherry Creek shutting parents out of the parent-student relationship. Mckenna said, “That’s true,” and mentioned a “transitioning issue” in the district where schools aren’t telling parents about a “traumatic mental experience” their child may be having.

Graves also said teachers have the right to refer to a student according to the pronoun corresponding to the student’s biological sex at birth, regardless of the student’s preference.

For transgender students, this practice (misgendering) leads to an increased risk of suicide and depression.

When speaking about the “transitioning issue,” McKenna, Sengenberger, and Graves are referring to a memo sent to Cherry Creek educators saying they should honor students’ transgender or gender-fluid name-change requests. But, teachers should refer to a student’s legal name when speaking with parents because they shouldn’t be outing students, and official requests to change a student’s name in the school system require parent approval, anyway.

Cherry Creek Parent Advocacy Network, a part of CPAN, posted the memo on its website as proof that district administration is using gender support and transition plans. Yet, the memo follows the advice of the U.S. Department of Education, which issued guidelines on how to support transgender students. One way to do this is by “adopting policies that respect all students’ gender identities—such as the use of the name a student goes by, which may be different from their legal name, and pronouns that reflect a student’s gender identity—and implementing policies to safeguard students’ privacy—such as maintaining the confidentiality of a student’s birth name or sex assigned at birth if the student wishes to keep this information private unless the disclosure is legally required.”

Mckenna admits to sexual misconduct and DUI

McKenna admitted to indecent exposure and sexual misconduct while serving in the Navy in a memoir he wrote and published before he planned to run for school board. In it, he says he touched a woman’s hair with his penis without her consent. The incident was part of the Tailhook Scandal, where Navy and Marine Corps officers were accused of sexually assaulting 83 women and three men.

While McKenna said he readily owned his mistake and was punished for it ($1,000 fine), he didn’t turn himself in, but rather, a friend he’d confided in told the authorities.

McKenna also writes about getting a DUI, saying, “I didn’t always make good decisions in my personal life, but I was a good officer and a better pilot.”

When asked if he would consider hiring a teacher or a district administrator who has admitted to multiple DUIs and sexual assault, McKenna responded, “I think it would depend upon the circumstances. …I think the way this country works is if you do something wrong and you’re punished, and you pay your debt to society, then you get to go on with your life, and you need not be ostracized forever for that. But obviously, if you’re a teacher with children, then we need to look carefully at your past and ensure that the safety of the children is there.” 

Graves’s shaky financial track record

Graves’ campaign centers on the district’s budget and calls for increased transparency. During several school board candidate forums, Graves has cited his experience as a financial advisor (He’s the co-founder and CEO of a financial planning firm.) as one of the reasons he’s qualified to serve on the board. 

“Having done that, having managed a budget, I know what it’s like to build a good team to help that team develop its skills to be able to achieve their goals,” he said. “These are the things that I feel are gonna help me to be an excellent board director,” said Graves.

Yet, Graves admits his personal track record with finances isn’t great. He’s twice had foreclosure proceedings started on his home.

“I’m probably least proud of the erratic nature of my income, has caused a lot of stress, you know, when you own your own business, it’s kind of, it’s a lot to handle, and you don’t always have the income that you need so that’s, I wish I were, could be a little more consistent in that area,” he said.

Graves also has a track record of working with a business partner who has faced enforcement action in Colorado. In 2021, he merged his business, Rocky Mountain Financial Designs, with Absolute Retirement Solutions, based on the shared ideals of the two owners. Graves’ business partner withdrew his financial license as part of a 2019 agreement with the Colorado Division of Securities, before the two merged their businesses.”

According to a 2019 press release by the Colorado Division of Securities, while working for Pinnacle Wealth Management, LLC, Graves’ business partner and a few associates had offered and sold unregistered securities in the form of promissory notes for 1 Global Capital, LLC.

“Advisers are held in a trusted position by investors to keep the best interest of their clients in mind when recommending securities,” stated Securities Commissioner Chris Myklebust. “When individuals and firms breach that trust by failing to do adequate research concerning an offering, the investors are the first to suffer the consequences, but it also threatens the reputation of the good actors in the industry.”

As a result, Graves’ partner is only allowed to advise clients on investment-related matters if the state of Colorado grants him licensure at some point in the future. According to the order, he can’t reapply until 2024, but he’s listed as an advisor currently in business with Graves.

Watch a political advertisement featuring Graves and Mckenna here:

CORRECTION: This article was corrected shortly after publication to reflect the fact that Graves’ business partner had his financial license withdrawn due to regulatory action in 2019. It was later corrected to reflect the fact that Graves did not work with businesses that faced enforcement action but with a business partner who faced such action.