Nine candidates are vying for control of the Denver Public Schools Board of Education in this year’s November election. The under-the-radar race has major local and national political implications that could set the trajectory for the future of Colorado’s second-largest school district.
Just as was the case two years ago during the last DPS school board race, candidates have drawn a line in the sand. The unpaid board is nonpartisan, though the majority of its makeup is Democratic. But that hasn’t stopped candidates from creating factions.
On the one side are so-called “reformers,” candidates who align with Superintendent Tom Boasberg and the administration’s focus on weeding out under-performing neighborhood schools and teachers, while creating high-performing charter and innovation schools. The so-called “Denver Plan” began with now-U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet when he was appointed superintendent eight years ago.
Reform candidates include :
• Former Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien, who is running for an at-large seat, held by reformer Mary Seawell, who is not running for re-election;
• Former Denver City Councilwoman Rosemary Rodriguez, who most recently ran Bennet’s state office. Rodriguez is vying for Andrea Merida’s District 2 seat, which represents southwest Denver;
• School finance attorney Mike Johnson, who is seeking neighborhood-oriented board member Jeannie Kaplan’s District 3 seat, who is term limited. The seat represents central Denver; and
• District 4 incumbent Landri Taylor, head of the Denver Urban League, who was appointed in March because of a vacancy. The seat represents northeast Denver.
On the other side are the so-called “non-reformers.” But don’t tell them that. These neighborhood-oriented candidates believe in change, just not the “top-down” approach that the administration has put forward, according to their own accounts.
The neighborhood-oriented candidates believe that change comes from within existing schools. Instead of placing an emphasis on closing neighborhood schools and focusing on transporting students to charters, these candidates believe the solution is to empower parents, teachers and communities to fix existing schools. Privatization of schools and choice is an option for neighborhood-oriented candidates, but not the focus.
Neighborhood candidates include :
• Michael Kiley, a northwest resident who was instrumental in creating Northwest Middle Schools NOW, a group that focused on community involvement to improve performance. Kiley is facing O’Brien for Seawell’s at-large seat;
• Rosario C. de Baca, a community organizer who is challenging Merida for the District 2 seat;
• Meg Schomp, an active DPS parent who is daughter of former board member Kay Schomp and Ralph Schomp, who started the well-known auto dealerships. She is facing Johnson in seeking the District 3 seat; and
• Roger Kilgore, a water resource engineer who ran unsuccessfully against Happy Haynes in 2011 for an at-large seat. He is seeking Taylor’s District 4 seat.
On the outskirts is Merida, who was considered a neighborhood-oriented board member until she supported the non-renewal of about 220 probationary teacher contracts this spring because of poor teacher evaluations. Despite massive community protest, Merida sided with the administration. She lost the support of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, which is now supporting de Baca and the other three neighborhood candidates.
The board currently leans reform, with Seawell, Haynes, Taylor and Anne Rowe usually siding with the administration, while Kaplan, Merida and Arturo Jimenez usually vote with the neighborhoods. With two seats vulnerable on each side, the tilt of the board is up for grabs.
Campaigns are technically not official until canddiates collect the necessary 50 signatures needed to qualify for the ballot. They may begin collecting those signatures on Aug. 7. The process is viewed largely as a formality.
A large part of the school board race will be fueled by campaign donations from outside special interest groups, nonprofits and wealthy individuals. Hundreds of thousands of dollars poured into the race in 2011, and similar funding is expected this year. Disclosures aren’t required until October, so a snapshot of contributions isn’t yet available.
Independent committees are not required to file disclosures until November, so their spending won’t be available until just before the election. Amendments can also be filed with the secretary of state after the election — as was done by committees in 2011 — so the full spending picture won’t be available until after the election.
One committee that is expected to donate is Great Schools Denver, a pro-reform expenditure committee. Oregon-based Stand For Children, which is also a pro-reform organization, has political and small donor committees filed in Colorado. They have about $33,000 cash on hand, as of its most recent filings from last year.
Controversy already erupted this week with a reform-focused nonprofit, Community Campaigns for Educational Justice (CCEJ). Kiley’s campaign on Monday filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service after the organization sent e-mails advocating on behalf of reform candidates Johnson and O’Brien.
As a 501(c)(3), the nonprofit is prohibited from campaigning directly for or against candidates. Case law includes so-called “magic [electioneering] words” like “vote for,” “elect,” “support” and “cast your ballot for,” to name a few.
The e-mail issued by Community Campaigns for Educational Justice sought “support” for Johnson and O’Brien.
“I am contacting you because the organization I am with is currently working on gaining support for the candidates Mike Johnson and Barbara O’Brien in the upcoming Denver School Board Election, and are looking to see if you, or any members of the Denver Green School PTA would be interested in volunteering with us, or simply talking one on one over a cup of coffee to discuss these candidates more in depth,” states the e-mail obtained by The Colorado Statesman to “Ms. Adair” from Zoe Braun, with CCEJ. Debra Adair is the school’s PTA president.
A spokeswoman for CCEJ pointed out that the organization filed for 501(c)(4) status on May 3, launching Students for Education Reform (SFER) Action Network. CCEJ became a project of SFER Action Network on June 3, before the e-mail to Adair was sent on June 20.
As a 501(c)(4), the group is able to engage in electioneering, as long as that is not its primary function.
CCEJ quickly updated its website on Monday after the complaint was made public. The website originally described CCEJ as a project of SFER, and labeled SFER as a 501(c)(3). The website was updated to reflect its new 501(c)(4) status.
The nonprofit had still yet to file with the Colorado Secretary of State as of press time, though it told The Statesman that it plans to complete all necessary filings.
As a 501(c)(4), the organization does not have to disclose its donors, and it can spend unlimited amounts of so-called “dark money” on independent expenditures and electioneering communications.
A spokeswoman, Alexandra Wolk, an organizing fellow at CCEJ and a self-described “rising junior at the University of Colorado at Boulder,” said the primary function of SFER is to promote K-12 education reform, “while building the civic engagement, organizing and advocacy skills of undergraduate students.”
“SFER Action Network, from time to time, supports candidates who share our goals of quick action to fix our public schools and improve education for all students,” said Wolk.
“The reality is that CCEJ is a project of a (c)(4) organization,” she continued. “We can support candidates who share our commitment to making sure that every student gets the chance to attend a great school, regardless of zip code. It’s unfortunate that some people, without a grasp of the facts, are trying to attack us over a now-adjusted website for political gain when we are knocking on doors and trying to make a real difference as college students to improve Denver Public Schools.”
Still, Kiley’s campaign, along with the Schomp campaign, is calling on the reform candidates to renounce the “illegal activity.”
“The community feels the campaigns appear to be colluding with CCEJ/SFER,” read a statement from Emma Donahue, campaign manager for Kiley for Kids.
“We call for an immediate cease and desist of these activities and all other activities in support of these candidates,” she continued. “We challenge these candidates to repudiate these illegal activities and run campaigns that are law-abiding.”
All eyes on Denver
The reform candidates explained that much of the nation is looking at Denver’s effort, which in many ways is leading one of the largest urban school reform efforts in the country. As a result, they say it is not surprising to see money pour in from all across the nation.
“This is really about trying to see if Denver will stick together as a community to solve some very tough urban education issues,” said O’Brien. “You look around the country, we’re considered a model. Very few urban districts around the whole country are making the kind of progress Denver is.
“I think it’s more about bringing people together and figuring out how to keep solving these difficult problems one at a time, or in groups,” O’Brien continued. “Focusing more on how we go forward and less on finding reasons to sort of attack each other’s best intentions.”
Taylor is also comfortable with the contributions. He said he was in the process of filing his committee and opening a bank account. When The Statesman spoke with him on Tuesday, he was getting ready to leave for the 2013 National Urban League Conference in Philadelphia. Taylor said he planned on looking for national contributors.
“I’ve gotten a lot of attention, Denver’s gotten a lot of attention, and the state has gotten a lot of attention. So, I anticipate that not only will money be coming in from in-state, but of course out of state, because the state has always been one that has been in the leadership position,” opined Taylor. “It has not really been following to see what other cities and other states do. We’ve always been in a leadership position here, where others then copy what we do. And I see this to be no different from that.”
Johnson acknowledged that big campaign spending can be problematic, but he said it is a reality of the political world.
“It’s a shame in American politics that we spend so much money on campaigns… If I could create a world in an image of my own, I would have a constitutional amendment that severely limited campaign contributions, created public forums and gave free media time to candidates, up and down the line from school board all the way up to president,” declared Johnson.
“Unfortunately, we don’t live in a world like that, and the rules are the same for everybody,” he continued.
Rodriguez said she plans on limiting contributions to $3,000 because that is what her constituents want. But she understands why outside interests want to spend money in Denver.
“I’m not going to take some of the bigger checks that some of the reform people will, not because I’m judging them, but because the people in my district, when you talk about a huge contribution, they just don’t get it,” affirmed Rodriguez.
Another factor neighborhood candidates will be forced to deal with are major endorsements. Certain of the reform candidates already have support from such big Democrats as former Denver Mayor and U.S. Transportation Secretary Federico Peña, former school board Director Theresa Pena, Denver Deputy Mayor and former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy, former state Sen. Polly Baca, Reps. Dan Pabon, Beth McCann and Lois Court, Sen. Mike Johnston, former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, former state Sen. Joyce Foster, former Denver City Councilwomen Elbra Wedgeworth, Carol Boigon and Marcia Johnson, U.S. Reps. Diana DeGette and Jared Polis, and former House Speaker Terrance Carroll.
Neighborhood candidates have raised questions over how endorsements are being made. For example, Democrats for Education Reform, a pro-reform group, made its endorsements without issuing a questionnaire to candidates.
But Moira Cullen, outgoing state director for Democrats for Education Reform, explained that an advisory committee met to make endorsements.
“DFER-CO made these endorsements based on our knowledge of the candidates, their past and current positions, and internal deliberations about who would best serve Denver’s kids,” said Cullen. “We are incredibly confident that the four candidates we have endorsed will make strong additions to the board, and will put their energies where they belong — giving every DPS student the chance at a great education.”
Neighborhood candidates are likely to see larger donations from unions. Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA) has already pumped $22,500 into its four candidates. DCTA still has another $249,430 to play with.
Merida raises eyebrows
One candidate who will not see DCTA’s money is Merida. She has caught several headlines over the years for her outspoken and brazen approach to policy. When she was elected in 2009, she refused to wait for her swearing-in date, opting to have a judge swear her in early. In doing so, she deprived her predecessor, Michelle Moss, of one last vote on school reform. Many in the education and political communities viewed the secret swearing in as an underhanded, unprofessional maneuver.
Merida also faced a recall effort, but proponents did not collect the signatures needed to force an election. She was criticized for writing an op-ed in 2010 that was critical of Bennet, without disclosing that she was on the payroll of his opponent, former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff. Merida quit working for the Romanoff campaign after the controversy peaked.
She also ran into trouble for exceeding her $5,000 expense account limit by nearly $7,500.
But she does not believe her eyebrow-raising actions over the last four years have hurt her chances.
“When you unfailingly stand up for the non-money interest in a district, I think that opens you up,” she said. “As a progressive education policy person, I’m not afraid to say what needs to be said, and I’ve protected the schools in my district. The results are paying off.
“Folks are going to try to make hay with it,” Merida continued. “But at the end of the day, parents aren’t asking about those kind of things. Parents are asking, ‘Why is the discipline policy not working for me? Why are our teachers being fired without… having due process?’ Folks in southwest Denver are really about making ends meet, seeking equity, seeking fairness, and they know very well who has been championing their interests and protecting their tax dollars on the school board, and that’s me.”
Losing the DCTA comes as a blow to Merida, who could use its financial support. But she does not appear to be overly concerned.
“It’s clear that this decision is in retaliation for my vote to support the termination of the ineffective teachers among the more than 200 probationary teachers terminated just three weeks ago,” Merida said in a statement. “It unfortunately is an action that does not reflect the work of thousands of good teachers in Denver Public Schools, and underscores why DCTA’s leadership represents one of the most substantial barriers to real and meaningful reform in Denver and fulfilling the promise of so many Denver children and families.”
DCTA President Henry Roman, however, said his union simply made a determination based on who it felt would be the stronger candidate. He pointed to de Baca’s long history as a community organizer, suggesting that she is the better candidate.
“What we do as an organization, we as much as possible try to look at the big picture and see who would have a better chance to have a competitive campaign, and after an extensive analysis of resources, an extensive analysis of each of the individuals, the decision was really a very, very difficult decision,” explained Roman. “At no point in time did we ever, ever question Andrea’s advocacy for teachers, that was never on the table. This was more about what is the likelihood of someone getting elected… I think as much as we want, we shouldn’t take this personally.”
Merida and de Baca will likely battle out who is truly the neighborhood candidate. For her part, de Baca believes she is the stronger candidate, with more experience having had five kids go through the DPS system.
She also believes she more strongly represents teachers and parents by taking a levelheaded approach to policymaking. Unlike Merida’s spitfire approach, de Baca says she is willing to work with the board.
“I expect to see that the schools still retain respect for parents who don’t have a lot of influential connection other than they care for their kids, and I’m going to work hard with the district,” said de Baca. “But I’m not the sort of person who just demands. I like to sit at the table and understand why things aren’t happening and work to make them happen. That’s what we expect our kids to do.”
Merida rejects the notion that her fiery personality has caused a wedge within the board and halted progress.
“The good thing about this particular board is that we do have particular ideological mindsets, but we have been pretty good about getting to where the rubber meets the road and how do our decisions affect the kids in the classroom,” remarked Merida. “So, we’ve been able to have some good, honest conversations.”
Reform versus neighborhood
Meanwhile, Rodriguez cringes when she hears that she is viewed solely as the “reform” candidate in the District 2 race. She says she is more of a hybrid, who truly wants to see neighborhood schools succeed.
“I’m not 100 percent a reform candidate, but I’m more of a reform candidate than a non-reform candidate,” she explained. “I’m comfortable being, if it’s easier for a voter to understand me as, a reform candidate. I’m very comfortable with that.”
O’Brien also takes issue with being boxed in as a reform candidate. She believes the labeling has hurt the discussion, noting that as president and chief executive of Get Smart Schools and former president of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, she has advocated both for charter and neighborhood schools.
“I’ve been around the block enough times to know that everybody is an individual and labels do not sum up what a whole person is about,” said the former lieutenant governor. “I have worked hard for charter schools and I’ve also supported more funding for the existing school system. So, where would that put me?”
O’Brien’s campaign is being managed by Democratic Rep. Brittany Pettersen of Lakewood. Some have questioned Pettersen’s involvement, noting that she is working for a candidate in another district while sitting on the House Education Committee.
But Pettersen points out that she is a citizen legislator who is working for a candidate over the summer when the legislature is not in session, pointing out that she simply wants to rally behind the reform cause.
“Every lawyer doesn’t have to take a pass on voting for issues that affect their practice; every teacher doesn’t take passes because they’re voting on things that are relevant to their careers,” explained Pettersen. “So, this will definitely not be a conflict of interest.”
Taylor also believes that the finger pointing and labeling is a distraction. But he happily accepts himself as a reform candidate, pointing to his work improving schools in far-northeast Denver by renovating buildings and granting innovation status to schools that make up the shared campuses.
“It’s labeling so that the camps can divide and at the same time distract on what the issues are really about,” stated Taylor. “I don’t talk about it in terms of that. But I will say I am a reform person.”
Johnson also unapologetically aligns with the reform side of the conversation, going as far as to say that a flip in the school board would be a huge setback.
“We’ve got a 4-3 majority for continuing to move forward, and if the board flipped the other way, then I think it would be disastrous to DPS,” asserted Johnson. “I would love to see a bigger majority. I’d love to see a 7-0 majority so that what we were arguing about wasn’t whether or not we’re going to move forward, it’s arguing about what’s the best way to move forward and how fast can we move forward.”
Schomp’s campaign pointed out that as a lawyer with Kutak Rock, Johnson served 15 years as outside legal counsel for DPS on school finance issues. But Johnson explained that his firm resigned the role with DPS on May 6 so that he could run for the board seat without a conflict moving forward.
“I have heard people say that somehow I have some kind of a financial conflict of interest. If anything, I would argue exactly the opposite,” responded Johnson. “I am walking away from a significant client with significant revenue in order to serve in a free, voluntary position.”
Reformers like Johnson point to statistics that show that DPS has posted improving numbers over the last several years. The on-time graduation rate in Denver was 58.8 percent last year, a 2.7 percentage-point increase over the year before. The rate has improved 20 percent over the last five years. The district’s dropout rate has also fallen to 5.7 percent from 11.1 percent in 2006.
Still, neighborhood candidates take issue with the assertion that they are not interested in moving forward. They simply believe they have a different approach, and argue that the administration’s strategy isn’t working fast enough. They point out that the Denver Plan called for the 2012 graduation rate to be at 78 percent.
“To call it reform is really a misnomer because I’m not sure that things were as bad as they would like us to believe they were 10 years ago…” said Schomp. “When you look at the district having a 58 percent graduation rate and a 60 percent remediation rate, I don’t think that’s success.”
Kiley agreed. He said people ask him all the time whether he would fire Boasberg if he had the power. Kiley said he doesn’t think in those terms.
“Chaos is not what I’m looking to replace with what we’ve got currently,” he said. “I think the job description of the so-called administration needs to be seriously rethought.”
Kilgore agrees that little progress has been made, suggesting that the numbers presented by DPS “can be played any number of ways.” Instead, he wants to connect the administration with neighborhoods.
“There are over 1,000 people… that are responsible for guiding and supporting our district-run schools, and more often than not the actions taken there are running against what the teachers and community folks and parents in particular schools have asked for,” opined Kilgore. “The district is more of a barrier than a facilitator.”
For de Baca, reform can’t happen until parents are given more of a voice: “Reform to one person is different than to another person, and at the end of it all, the only thing that matters is whether parents actually have a voice, and I think with the district, many parents feel shutout,” she said.