By Katy Schultz
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
Candidates for the Denver School Board express a wide range of opinions about the involvement in the upcoming election of Stand for Children, which defines itself as a national grassroots organization that “seeks to make children and their needs a higher political priority.”
Since opening its Denver office in March, the nonprofit organization based in Portland, Ore., has attracted donations from the Piton Foundation, the Daniels Fund and the Marquez Foundation.
It has announced plans to endorse up to four candidates in the Denver School Board race and to support the chosen candidates through in-kind contributions such as neighborhood canvassing and distribution of lawn signs.
“I think there’s some skepticism around the fact that people view it as an outside community even though their MO is ‘grassroots,’” said Jeannie Kaplan, the only incumbent in race. “I wish they had a more positive, more collaborative message.”
Kaplan, a mother and journalist, is uncontested in District 3, which includes the Capitol Hill, Congress Park and Lowry neighborhoods.
Jacqui Shumway shares Kaplan’s skepticism.
“It’s going to be the kiss of death,” said Shumway, one of five candidates for the open seat in northeast Denver’s District 4, which includes City Park, Park Hill, Stapleton and Montbello.
Shumway said she believes only local residents should attempt to influence the outcome of local races.
“It is the wrong place to try and intervene. This is just wrong. It’s big money and people outside the state telling us what to do,” she said.
Stand for Children also has fans among the candidates, including two of Shumway’s opponents in District 4, motivational speaker Andrea Mosby and Nathaniel Easley, deputy director of the Denver Scholarship Foundation.
“I think that it’s great,” said Mosby. “How can you not back it? They’re just trying to make sure we’re really about the kids and that we’re keeping our kids bipartisan.”
Easley voiced similar support.
“If they’re going to be a positive force for improvement in Colorado, so be it,” he said. “They seem like a fine group of people really interested in education reform.”
Denise Gomez, an organizer for Stand for Children, is one of three full-time staffers based in Denver. Gomez said that because turnout for a school board election is typically low, canvassing for a candidate can make a powerful difference.
Gomez said that Denver’s progressive atmosphere and the potential of DPS make it a place where the group can be very effective.
“There is an achievement gap in Colorado. A quarter of students don’t graduate high school — and it’s worse for students of color,” she said. “Yet, Denver has an atmosphere of leadership and Colorado is a swing state, so there is potential to develop great leadership.”
Stand for Children, which also has a presence in Washington, Tennessee and Massachusetts, is divided into two operations. The public outreach side works to develop leadership skills among low-income parents in order to break stereotypes, and the political side supports the election of School Board members who promote the organization’s goals.
Funds from the Daniels Fund, the Piton Foundation and the Marquez Foundation are being used only for the public outreach effort.
Daniels Fund spokesman Peter Groege said his group’s donation would help Stand for Children hire staff, draw up outreach plans and perform other administrative functions.
He said the fund — which gives 700 grants each year to such education-oriented nonprofits as charter schools and Teach for America — chose to back Stand for Children because it provides a valuable resource to the community by getting parents in low-income neighborhoods involved in education.
“Where there might be the stereotype that urban families lack the time and desire to get involved with their child’s education, Stand for Children has demonstrated the ability to equip and empower those parents,” said Groege.
Groege stressed that the Daniels Fund’s support for Stand for Children, as with all their public donors, does not extend into political support for any candidate in the upcoming School Board election or to involvement with any election.
“The Daniels Fund is strictly prohibited from being active in any type of election,” said Groege. “We do not take any position nor identify with any candidate. We hope — whatever the outcome of the election is — the maximum benefit is to the students the district is serving.”
Gomez confirms that Stand for Children’s political arm will be endorsing candidates in the upcoming Denver School Board elections, just as it has in school districts across the country. Stand for Children has seen victories in 109 state and local elections since being founded 1999 and has leveraged more than $2.4 billion in public funding for education programs.
She said Stand for Children will base its endorsements on criteria established after polling parents in the community and exploring each candidate’s knowledge of School Board issues and ideas for improving education.
Sharon Kelly, a parent team leader for Stand for Children at Montclair Elementary School, said her team is looking for candidates who are qualified and dedicated to improving schools.
It remains to be seen how much Stand for Children knows about Denver’s unique issues. Kaplan’s and Shumway’s doubts are reiterated by Andrea Merida, a candidate in southwest Denver’s District 2. Merida, a former member of the armed forces and DPS parent, said Stand for Children is working backwards by mobilizing before doing their homework.
“I worry about the fact that Stand for Children has only been here four months, and I don’t think they understand the complexity,” she said.
Despite her reservations, Merida sees similarities between her aspirations for DPS and Stand for Children’s goals for Denver.
“I welcome any national attention because there are groups who can help us,” said Merida. “I think we’re aligned in good choices and high performing schools, whatever form they come in.”
Gomez said Stand for Colorado’s Denver chapter now has about 100 members and plans to expand.
“We try to channel that community voice,” said Gomez. “In addition to a strong Denver constituency chapter, we’d like to see it statewide.”