Colorado women continue leading the way in achieving elected office

Women won 54.5% of school board seats in 2019, higher than the national average

By Erin Hottenstein

In November of odd years, about half of Colorado’s 974 nonpartisan school board seats are up for election. New research from Colorado 50-50 shows that women won 54.5% of school board seats in 2019, higher than the national average.

Does having more women on school boards make a difference? Thompson School District Board President Lori Hvizda Ward of Loveland believes so. “In my personal experience, I’ve found women to be better listeners and more open to seeing opposing viewpoints,” she said. “I think women are more willing to change their mind or position on an issue over time or with new information.” 

“The downside of this is that decision making can be slowed down. Women tend to be less authoritarian and more democratic, especially as board leaders,” she continued. “They often are also the peacemakers. These all lead to better decision-making, as does diversity in general.”

From August through November 2019, a total of 479 people participated in the process – they filed as candidates, ran for office, and/or were appointed. Out of those, 314 people took seats on 129 different school boards.

“Won by Acclamation”

One interesting finding was that at least 91 people (46 women and 45 men) “won by acclamation.” That means that there were either just enough candidates or not enough, and so the school board cancelled the election. For example, there were three seats available and three candidates. With no contest, there would be no need to go through the costly process of an election.

It’s likely that the number was actually far higher. Across the state, there are 178 school boards and yet only 129 were represented in data received from the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office. In several instances, school boards had vacancies even beyond November.

Some women looking to get more involved in their communities might find lower barriers to getting elected to the school board. They might only need a small number of signatures to become candidates, and then find that a campaign is unnecessary if others don’t step up to compete.

Women ran in higher numbers and won at higher rates

Across the United States, school boards are remarkable for their gender parity. A 2017 National Association of School Boards study noted that women’s representation had increased from 40% in 1992 to 44% by 2010 to 50% by 2017. That’s quite a feat when you compare it to the 23.7% of congressional seats or the 29.2% of state legislative seats that women hold in 2020.

Of all the Coloradans who participated in the school board selection process, 255 were women and 224 were men. 

Looking at the total number of people who were involved, women won at 26.4% and men won at 20.7%. It is interesting that the other figures are close to even, including the number that won by acclamation (9.8% for women, 9.6% for men) and the number that lost (16.4% for women, 16.6% for men).

If you look only at the pool of contest winners, women won 54.5% of the seats while men won 45.5%. In terms of actual numbers of seats, women won 124 seats and men won 97.

Consuelo Redhorse is a school board member in Summit County. The prior board was all-female and the current board has six women and one man. Redhorse said in her experience women are typically more involved in school events, meetings, and organizations – which could explain why women run for school board in higher numbers.

“[Women] tend to become more familiar with the school culture and environment and maintain more personal relationships with school personnel and other parents who are involved in the school organizations,” Redhorse said. “The relationships and knowledge of what’s going on in the schools make for a good foundation to become involved with the school system on a higher level.”

Front Range vs. Rural

There was a noticeable difference in the win rates for the Front Range versus rural areas. By the Front Range, we’re talking about the urban and suburban corridor around Interstate 25 from Fort Collins south to Pueblo.

Front Range women won almost 62% of the seats, while rural women won about 54% of seats. While both are above the national average for school board members, that’s an eight point difference. 

Another issue is the number of seats. Along the Front Range, women won 58 seats and another 17 won by acclamation for a total of 75 seats out of 130 that were available. 

However, in rural areas, there are many more districts and board seats. Rural women won 75 seats and took another 20 seats by acclamation for a total of 95 seats out of the 182 seats available. Bear in mind that our study includes all the 49 Front Range districts among the 129, but does not include 49 other rural districts for which we did not have information. 

To put it another way, 82% of school districts in Colorado are rural and 18% are urban or suburban. 

Trying to fill more seats in a less dense population can be a challenge. “It is hard to get any candidates in some of the more rural areas,” Hvizda Ward said. Sometimes “they waive the two-term limit, allow employees to serve, or have people that serve repeated terms after being off for a term or two.”

There is a tremendous opportunity for rural Colorado women to step up to leadership and make a difference in their communities. They can learn more about their local districts by volunteering on something like a parent accountability committee, or by attending school board meetings. Once they decide to run, women will need to circulate a nomination petition, which happens in early August. We hope that women from across Colorado will begin thinking now about running for school board in 2021 and contact us so that we can support them.

About Colorado 50-50 – We are a statewide all-volunteer organization that inspires and trains women to run for office. We also encourage women to apply for boards and commissions, because we want to see gender parity everywhere. Please reach out to us to volunteer or talk about a joint event.

Thanks – Our sincere gratitude goes out to the following volunteers for their help with the research. Data analysis and research – Aili Miyake and Erin Hottenstein. Research – Megan Sanders, Dani Dawes, Micala Khavari, Natalie Hodgman, Laurie Krall, and Tara Eveland.

Methodology – We started with a list of school board candidates from the Colorado Secretary of State’s website. We got the first list after the filing deadlines had passed, but before election day. We got the second list a couple of weeks after the election. Looking at the names, we made our best guess as to the gender of the person. For gender neutral names, we sought more information via internet search engines. Based on this method, we were not able to determine if a person was gender non-conforming, nonbinary, or transgender. For these reasons, it’s possible we made errors. 

Then, we sought to determine if the candidate won or lost using the Colorado Secretary of State’s website, county clerks’ websites, school districts’ websites, and online newspaper articles. In some cases, we contacted the school districts for more information. Along the way, we found information about people who had won by acclamation – meaning the school district canceled the election for lack of a contest. We also found appointees and folks who had been candidates, but didn’t register with the Secretary of State.

We divided the counties into Front Range and Rural. Front Range counties include: Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Denver, Douglas, El Paso, Elbert, Fremont, Jefferson, Larimer, Pueblo, Teller, and Weld. Rural counties include the other 51 counties. Toward the end of our project, we realized that there were 178 school districts in existence, but only candidate filings from the Secretary of State’s office for 129 districts. In the interest of time and needing to turn our attention to the 2020 election, we decided we would go with what we had and seek more complete data next time.

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