Denver’s school district has captured the national spotlight for reforms like closing schools and reopening them with bold turnaround plans. The changes didn’t come easily. It took rancorous debate and a slim majority vote on Denver’s seven-member school board. This election, three seats are up for grabs and voters will decide whether to stay the course or chart a different path. Here’s a transcript of CPR education reporter Jenny Brundin’s report.
Reporter Jenny Brundin: For the last several years, the school board’s voting pattern typically has gone something like this:
DPS School Board Staff: Ms. Merida? Merida: No!
DPS School Board Staff: Ms. Pena? Pena: Aye.....
Board chair: Motion carries.
Reporter: A one vote margin has allowed the district, led by Superintendent Tom Boasberg, to usher in some controversial reforms – opening new independently run charter schools, shutting down failing schools and putting other schools on notice. The minority has decried what they’ve seen as a lack of community input. At times the acrimony reached a fever pitch.
DPS School Board Member: And don’t you accuse me that that’s what I’m talking about. That’s not what I’m talking about.
DPS School Board Member: What are you talking about?
DPS School Board Member: I’m talking about the process where people are disenfranchised.
Reporter: Now, a chance for new board members –- in the city’s northwest and southeast, and an at-large seat --could upset the apple cart. Self-described reform advocates have long seen it as a high-stakes election.
TV Ad: My son Johneil attends a school that’s changing his life…
Reporter: Billboard and TV ads paid for by a coalition of reform advocates have blanketed Denver.
TV Ad: This is what school reform has done for my child…
Reporter: But the “One Chance” ad campaign is subtle. No candidate names are mentioned. Even the word “reform” is rare. And so far, that’s how the election is playing out. There’s not much political rhetoric and differences between candidates can be hard to discern. Paul Teske, dean of the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado Denver, says the public may be burned out on vitriol.
Paul Teske: They want to see people get along and work together in a reasonable way that leads toward progress and that may be why both sides have toned down, so far, some of the rhetoric.
Reporter: Candidates do tend to hold one of two viewpoints: the city’s schools are either on the path to success, or careening in the wrong direction. Reformers point to individual schools that have seen double digit spikes in scores and enrollment. But others focus on something else. Southeast Denver District 1 candidate Emily Sirota, who has support from the teacher’s union, says change isn’t happening fast enough.
Sirota: With a 51.8 percent graduation rate in DPS, we have a long way to go.
Reporter: Several of the candidates, including Sirota, have pledged to put a hold on new schools, and instead improve existing neighborhood schools. Sirota’s opponent Anne Rowe, who has the backing of the reform-oriented Stand for Children and Democrats for Education Reform - had this response in a recent debate.
Anne Rowe: Do we have a long way to go? You bet we do. But we are making progress. Now is not the time to derail where we are going for our kids in Denver.
Reporter: Rowe says it’s time for the district to learn from mistakes and work harder to engage the community. Debates between reform-backed candidate Jennifer Draper Carson and incumbent Arturo Jimenez in Denver’s northwest have a similar philosophical divide. But says DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg, boiling down the races to one’s support for neighborhood versus charters schools is too simplistic.
Tom Boasberg: I think that’s a completely false conflict and I think it’s an artificial conflict for political purposes.
Reporter: Indeed, though several candidates in the at-large race say there’s not enough attention to existing schools, many of their debates have centered on budget transparency and DPS’s management style. Candidate Roger Kilgore, a water systems engineer, has emphasized moving DPS from what he calls a “top-down” decision making style to a more “school-centered” approach. It’s a subtle poke at front-runner Happy Haynes, who has Mayor Michael Hancock’s backing, and who has worked as a DPS administrator. Haynes counters that she wants more innovation schools, which are granted more autonomy than traditional schools. All at-large candidates seem to agree on this point made by Roger Kilgore:
Roger Kilgore: Right now we don’t have a board that offers a diversity of opinions, there’s a yin or a yang or there’s a yes and a no always but there’s not a free flowing of ideas.
Reporter: And each of the five at-large candidates says they’ll bring a fresh perspective – the other three are Frank Deserino, a South High civics and history teacher, John Daniel, a computer systems administrator, and health educator Jacqui Shumway, who has, by the way, sung at most campaign forums.
Shumway [singing]: Well the first days are the hardest days, don’t you worry anymore.
Reporter: For more detailed information on each of the candidates’ positions, go to our website at cpr.org. Jenny Brundin, Colorado Public Radio News.
[Photos: CPR’s Jenny Brundin]
DPS Board At- Large-Candidates
District 1 Southeast Denver:
District 5 Northwest Denver: