Where a Puebloan went to high school is often brought up with pride in conversation. But Puebloans’ enthusiasm for their high schools is not matched with great fervor when it’s time to vote for school board members for local school districts 60 and 70.

District 60 covers the city of Pueblo, and D70 the county, and turnout for the school board vote is often at the ‘meh’ end of the scale.

Ballot Cox at the Pueblo County Courthouse

This year, four out of five seats in D60 are up for election on Tuesday.  Voters who turn out will choose from four Democrats, many with school board experience; a former judge, who also served on the school board; and conservatives backed by a Christian group called Forging the Future.

Forging the Future’s logo evokes the fires of hell and jumps out at visitors to its website. The group, which used to be called Forge Pueblo but took down its previous website for unknown reasons, says it stands for “God, Family and Country in Pueblo, CO.”

The head of Forging the Future, Quin Friberg, said in September on the Truth and Liberty talk show that the group has recruited “a school board individual to run for every seat” on D60. All of them have “a biblical worldview” and are “solid Christians,” he said.

He also said that his ultimate goal is to try “to get kids out of the system,” referring to public schools.

All four of the Forging the Future candidates back the drive for parental rights, which Education Week has described as “among the most heated (issues) in public education, invoked in political campaigns and debates over everything from COVID policy and curriculum choices to classroom discussions about race, gender, and sexuality.”

They are:

  • Brian Cisneros, a D60 graduate (although he doesn’t name his alma mater on his campaign website) who now works at one of Pueblo’s dispensaries;
  • Dan Comden, who leads worship at the New Life Bible Church on Sundays, and served on the D60 school board from 2003 to 2011;
  • Susan Pannunzio, who taught in D60 elementary schools and says one of her priorities is to give parents the oversight and voice they deserve with their children’s education;
  • And retired dentist Roger White, whose campaign website says “Parents matter” at the top of the homepage.

Each is supported by a political committee, which works directly with the candidate, Friberg said. Some of the churches in Forging the Future’s orbit also “directly support candidates,” he said.

That might get them into an unholy row with the Internal Revenue Service. Back in the 1950s, Congress approved an amendment by Democratic Sen. Lyndon Johnson to prohibit 501(c)(3) organizations— nonprofit groups with a dedicated mission, like churches – from engaging in political campaign activity, related to candidates. 

But Friberg said most of the churches’ involvement with the candidates was “behind the scenes, as far as recruiting canvassers, or getting people to put signs in their yards.” They might also make videos of candidates, he said.

Cisneros is running for a two-year term against incumbent Anthony Perko, a graduate of Central High School who practices law in his native Pueblo and was appointed to the Board of Education in September 2022.

Three Democrats are running for four-year seats against the Forging the Future hopefuls. They and Perko have been endorsed by Colorado’s largest teachers’ union, the Colorado Education Association, and the Pueblo Education Association, which says its vision is to ensure great public schools for every kid in Pueblo.

They are:

  • Tommy Farrell, the current president of the D60 board, who helped D60 schools get through the COVID-19 pandemic and oversaw major infrastructure projects in the district;
  • Sol Sandoval Tafoya, who nearly won the Democratic primary to run against Rep. Lauren Boebert in November 2022, was appointed to the school board in December 2022 and noted in a candidate forum this year that she’s the only Spanish-speaking candidate on the ballot in a city where nearly half the population is Hispanic or Latino;
  • And Bill Thiebaut, a retired lawyer, adjunct faculty member in the political science department at Colorado State University-Pueblo, and father of 15 children, all of whom were educated in D60 schools.

Dennis Maes, a retired judge for Colorado’s 10th Judicial District after whom Pueblo’s imposing judicial building is named, and a former member of the D60 Board, is also running.

When he announced his candidacy, Maes said he would “support only those decisions which are in the best interests of our students and families.”

Christian voter guides

Transform Colorado, a group that “unites Christian leaders to restore biblical values in the public square” has compiled guides to help voters choose their school board representatives. More specifically, the guides are intended to help citizens who “seek to vote according to biblical values.”

All the D60 candidates have the word “nonpartisan” next to their names on their Ballotpedia profiles. The Democrats and Maes declined to answer the guide’s questions, which covered everything from transgenderism to parents’ rights, sex education and how U.S. history should be taught. The Forging the Future-backed candidates, on the other hand, agreed with four of the questions and disagreed with the one that asked if biological males should be allowed to take part in girls’ sports.

Pueblo is not alone in seeing special interest groups entering the school board fray. In recent years, some candidates for school boards have brought with them a political agenda, and, when they are elected or appointed to their local board, have caused “school board meetings and decisions (to take) on the tenor of culture wars,” with issues like banning books and how certain subjects should be taught taking center stage, according to the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

In Pueblo D70, the question of arming teachers was raised during a school board meeting last year, following the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. One board member openly encouraged those in favor of teachers packing heat to attend the meeting and speak up.

Could do better

D70 was set to hold school board elections on Tuesday, but they were canceled because only two candidates filed to run for two seats.

Uncontested seats harm school boards, which the National School Board Association calls “a quintessential example of representative democracy.”

Activist groups can step in and run candidates who espouse an ideology that might not be shared by everyone in a district and might not have students as the focus. The candidates may also not fully grasp what a school board member’s job entails – setting district policies, managing budgets, hiring and evaluating superintendents, determining graduation requirements, and signing off on labor contracts, an article in Education Week said.

Ballots in Pueblo were mailed out on October 16 and have to be returned by 7 p.m. on Tuesday, meaning voters will have had three weeks to choose their school board members.

But in 2021, less than a third of eligible voters cast ballots in the D60 school board election and just over 36% in D70 voted for board of education directors for five school districts. That was actually much better than in many other constituencies around the country in 2020, where school board election turnout averaged between 5% and 10% — astonishingly dismal figures, given that school board members make up the largest group of elected officials in the country.