Dennis Maes

Despite losing every statewide electoral race and suffering lopsided margins in the Colorado Senate and House of Representatives, the Colorado Republican Party continues to proffer controversial fringe candidates. They do so even when they have an opportunity to conduct a thorough vetting process to select a plausible candidate from within their own ranks.

The recent resignation of Joyce Rankin as the State Board of Education representative from the Third Congressional District offered the Republicans the opportunity to vet and select someone to replace Rankin who might be acceptable to all the constituents in CD3.

The party failed to do so when it selected Stephen Varela to replace Rankin. Varela was recently defeated by Nick Hinrichsen in his bid for the State Senate District 3 seat.

To the extent the party believed that selecting someone with a Latino surname would ingratiate them to the Pueblo Latino community, it failed miserably.

With minimal effort, Republicans would have discerned Varela has a very fractured relationship with the Latino community as a result of his tenure on the Board of Directors of Chavez Huerta Preparatory Academy (CHPA), a Pueblo charter school. CHPA serves a predominantly Latino community.

Varela was involved in securing the CHPA campus for a local Republican Party event in March 2022. Schools in Pueblo are customarily used for these events.

The political event was held on the same day CHPA was conducting its longstanding annual basketball tournament which raises funds for the basketball team and student scholarships. Instead of moving its meeting, the Republicans displaced a portion of the tournament at a loss to CHPA. The CHPA community was incensed and infuriated over this lack of sensitivity.

To exacerbate the situation, Varela and the Republicans saturated the campus with Lauren Boebert re-election signs. Boebert is known as fiercely anti-immigrant and is the antithesis of everything Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta championed.

Certain staff members engaged in a walkout to protest the displacement of the tournament. The staff was threatened with repercussions for the walkout prompting the board to commission an independent investigation to determine what action, if any, it would take as a result of the staff walkout. Much to the chagrin of the board, the investigation suggested the school board had much work to do in improving its relationship with the staff and community.

Republicans, with a little research, would have known Varela’s tenure on the school board, including his stint as president from July 2022, until his resignation in November 2022, was marked with repeated requests for his resignation from the school staff and community members. Allegations for demanding his resignation included his failure to comply with the school’s policies and bylaws, and a lack of financial transparency which continues to haunt the school.

Varela further incurred the wrath of the school community when he presided over the process to select a new CEO to replace Dr. Richard Duran who would retire on June 30, 2022. The full board concurred in the new hire.

The new CEO immediately ran afoul of staff and the community by terminating a tenured HR employee and making other staff changes prior to meeting with school personnel. Other personnel chose to resign rather than continue to work in what they described as a toxic environment. The community demanded the CEO’s resignation which was tendered within 10 weeks from the date of his hire. Varela followed by resigning as board president after serving fewer than five months in his term. CHPA’s legal counsel resigned by the end of July 2022. A senior administrator with expertise in school finance resigned during the time employee contracts were being negotiated. Varela’s tenure as board president was catastrophic.  

One important aspect of popular elections is allowing voters to scrutinize the candidates who will be serving them. The voters in CD3 did not have the opportunity to do so with Varela. The electorate in CD3 have the right to know what Varela stands for on the many critical issues facing public education today.

The public has a right to know how Varela stands on vouchers, critical race theory, issues facing the LGBTQ community, charter schools, what he means by advocating for, in his words, “taking the politics out of our classrooms.” How does he intend to strengthen collaboration between teachers and parents in light of his tumultuous relationship while president of the CHPA board?

He should be held to explain his position on the relevance and significance of robust discussions within the classroom and school administration concerning diversity, equity and inclusion. Varela should, in the very near future, hold a public forum, particularly in Pueblo, for an opportunity to discuss these and other issues.

We can only hope Varela will not walk in lockstep with the fringe element of the Republican Party. If his stated position remains that the turmoil at CHPA occurred because the community misunderstood the role of the board and was fueled by politics in his run for the state senate, he insults the intelligence of the staff and the community and change cannot be expected.

Nevertheless, if Varela intends to run for the CD3 seat on the SBE next year, he should be aware his policy positions will be closely monitored. He would be wise to behoove the results of his last election.

Dennis Maes served 24 years as a 10th Judicial District judge in Pueblo and was chief judge for 17 of those years. He previously served as director of Pueblo County Legal Services, Inc.; as a public defender and as an attorney in private practice.

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