By Janet Simons
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
If Election Day pundits are to be believed, when the new Denver School Board sits down for its first meeting at 4:30 p.m. on Dec. 14, members of the reform faction and members of the union-backed faction will be glaring at one another as they struggle for control over a highly politicized seven-person panel.
Most media accounts of the election have focused on the shift in the board’s majority away from supporters of charter schools (or “reform”). Mary Seawell, who won the board’s at-large seat by a large margin, supposedly represents the reform side.
Under this model, the board is now controlled by supporters of neighborhood schools (also known as members of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association) — the side supposedly represented by victors Andrea Merida in southwest Denver’s District 2, unopposed incumbent Jeanne Kaplan in central Denver’s District 3 and Nate Easley in northwest Denver’s District 4.
Oddly enough, however, none of the victors in the Nov. 3 election anticipate any tension or serious disagreement on the newly configured board.
Seawell — whose race against Christopher Scott for the board’s at-large seat turned nasty over issues that had nothing to do with ideology — says she never visualized the contest as “a clash of factions.”
“These were all Democrats running against each other,” Seawell said. “There are no huge political differences between us. I’m not going to say we won’t have our differences, but I don’t think they’ll be predictable. When you have a board that’s 90 percent in agreement, any member can be the swing vote on any issue.”
Seawell was the only winner among the three candidates backed by Stand for Children, a new-to-Denver organization that touts a reform agenda. The group also endorsed Vernon Jones, who was among the four candidates easily bested by Easley, and Ismael Garcia, who lost a tight race to Merida.
Seawell — who took the at-large seat with more than 70 percent of the vote — also was supported by Denver businessman Thomas W. Gamel, who contributed more than $90,000 to her campaign — and who also contributed heavily to the campaigns of Jones and Garcia.
Scott’s big loss triggered an election night press release aimed at Gamel that dripped with angry irony.
“I hope Mr. Gamel is as personally committed to DPS and our children as he is financially,” Scott said. “As we like to say in the consulting business, ‘You buy it, you own it.’ We will hold Mr. Gamel accountable for the actions of the board members his money has supported.”
Lindsay Neil, executive director of Stand for Children’s Colorado office, said in an interview with The Colorado Statesman that mutual support of the same three candidates doesn’t mean that there’s any connection between Gamel and her organization.
“I’d like to clarify. We don’t do much with money. That’s a misperception. We organize volunteers, and we work at a grassroots level,” said Neil, who added that Gamel is not among the organization’s 100 dues-paying members.
Stand for Children — which is headquartered in Portland, Ore., and also operates in Arizona, Massachusetts, Tennessee, and Washington State — defines its mission as “to use the power of grassroots action to help all children get the excellent public education and strong support they need to thrive.”
In the Denver School Board election, an endorsement by Stand for Children has virtually served as code to label a candidate as a member of the reform slate. And that did not sit well with Merida, who won by only 140 votes in her race against Garcia, the candidate endorsed by the group.
“Trying to label one side as reform and one side as counter reform is simply irresponsible,” Merida said. “I don’t always side with the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, but to suggest that the union is somehow against achieving improvement is false and unfair.”
Merida characterized herself as a consensus builder who likes to take the best from proponents on both sides of an issue. And — although media reports have placed her in a faction that might want to oust the district’s new superintendent — she says she rather likes him.
“I already have a very cordial and open line of communication line with Tom Boasberg,” she said.
Stand for Children founder and ceo Jonah Edelman, interviewed by phone at the group’s headquarters in Portland, Oregon, said he’s proud of Colorado’s young chapter.
“It probably took us a year to get 100 members in Portland,” said Edelman, who is the son of Children’s Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman. “I’m thrilled with their progress. The level of membership is solid. Our members in Denver knocked on 6,000 doors, made 3,000 phone calls and put out 500 lawn signs.”
He noted that 56 of the Denver organization’s 100 members volunteered more than once.
“It wasn’t ideal,” he said, “but our contribution was outstanding.”
However, Kaplan, who was unopposed in central Denver, joined Merida in expressing qualms about Stand for Children’s involvement in the school board race. The group got off on the wrong foot for her, she said, by moving into Denver immediately before the school board election and endorsing a slate of candidates they labeled as the standard bearers for reform.
“From the beginning, I’ve had just one question for Jonah: ‘What happens on Nov. 4?’” Kaplan said. “You’ve come here with a really divisive message. You’ve done some really great stuff, but why did you come in which such a divisive message? It’s a legitimate question.”
Kaplan is hopeful that, with the election over, Stand for Children will shift its focus to its other goal — training parents in low-income neighborhoods to be advocates for their children.
According to Neil, Kaplan has nothing to fear.
“Of course we would have loved to win all the races, and Stand for Children and our members are sorry that all three of our candidates weren’t elected,” said the director of Colorado’s Stand for Children.
Nevertheless, Neil said, the organization is in Colorado for the long haul, its work will go on and “we will continue to be true to our process.”
Meanwhile, Kaplan anticipates no problems on the board.
“The media has been trying to make this into a black and white situation, and there’s a lot of gray,” she said. “I would suggest that (the board members will) agree on 80 to 90 percent of the issues.”
Easley, who won in northwest Denver’s District 4, also believes the reform candidates and the union candidates will coalesce into a unified board that will find it easy to focus on similarities rather than differences.
“I have no doubt we’ll all be able to work together,” he said. “I have a great deal of respect for all six of those guys, and I can’t imagine being unable to work with any of them.”
Easley says the split between factions on the board has been blown out of proportion.
“In our politics these days, there’s a tendency to demonize the other side. But I don’t think that works in a school board race.”
He doubts that anyone looking for money or power would be likely to run for the Denver School Board.
“We all ran for this because we care about kids and we care about the district. Now it’s time to forget about differences and work together to do a much better job of preparing our children for life after high school.”