Four seats on DPS Board draw 11 candidates

By Katy Schultz
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

All 11 candidates for four seats on the Denver School Board qualified for the ballot by the Aug. 28 deadline to run in the Nov. 3 election, and each one has a unique view of what the future should hold for the Denver Public Schools.

Voters citywide will decide who will take the at-large seat left vacant when incumbent Jill Conrad decided not to run for re-election, citing personal reasons.

The three district seats up for election in 2009 are in District 2, in southwest Denver; District 3, which includes Capitol Hill, Congress Park and Lowry; and in northeast Denver’s District 4.

The coveted citywide at-large seat has drawn three candidates; early childhood educator Deborah Sims Fard; systems analyst Christopher Scott and Mary Seawell, associate director of Get Smart Schools, a nonprofit agency aimed at creating standards for an MBA in school leadership.

Fard has been associated with DPS for the past 15 years as an administrative professional, teacher and parent. She earned her associate’s degree from Community College of Denver and will be awarded her teaching certificate from the University of Northern Colorado this semester.

“I am an educator, for me, I would like to have a voice in what is happening as it relates to policy and children,” said Fard who focuses on bringing teachers, students and parents together. “I believe in the teachers, the students who come to school to learn every day and the parents who send them”

Fard said she doesn’t like the role money is playing in the School Board race, noting that there’s no cap on the amount candidates can spend, making it possible for individuals to buy a seat on the board and use it to catapult a political career.

She also believes members of the School Board should be compensated for the time spent on DPS business.

“Why is it that when it comes to our children and making decisions about education it’s voluntary?” asked Fard. “I think Colorado’s smarter than that. I just think that voters don’t know that, and people don’t know they’re just buying their seat and using it as a platform for other political offices. I’m doing this because (education) is my chosen profession.”

Another contender for the at-large seat is systems analyst Scott, a DPS parent and former business consultant who said he became active in education reform when he became involved in various political campaigns.

Scott said he is displeased with the direction of DPS.

“The (low) rate at which DPS students enter higher education is frankly appalling, and the number that succeed is even more appalling,” said Scott. “That’s something that’s got to be dealt with. I’m not saying that every student at DPS has to go to college, but what are we doing to create options for those kids?”

Scott said school performance can be improved starting at the grassroots level by working on neighborhood schools, increasing community engagement and redrafting district plans.

“A plan isn’t as important as the planning,” said Scott. “We can use this as a way to unite the community instead of splitting it up — when I say community, I don’t mean just parents. I mean teachers, parents, principals and businesses. Schools should be the place our community comes together.”

Scott’s opponent, Seawell voiced similar disappointment.

“I worry DPS hasn’t done a good enough job,” she said.

Seawell said that although she hasn’t been trained as an education professional, she knows how to bring teams together. Seawell plans a door-to-door campaign for the at-large seat, talking to as many people as possible.

Seawell said that, if elected, she will engage the community by supporting neighborhood and charter schools.

She believes her strength lies in her pragmatism.

“I will … encourage the best choices families have,” said Seawell. “I think as a School Board member, I’ll have a lot of skills to bring people together.”

The incumbents in Districts 2 and 4 are term-limited, leaving District 3’s Jeannie Kaplan as the only board member running for re-election. The mother of two DPS graduates, former PTSA president and former director of the Colorado Electronic Election Pool is unopposed in her southeast-central Denver district.

“I really believe in public education as a fundamental cornerstone of democracy. I come from a very strong public education background," said Kaplan, whose candidacy has been endorsed by former Denver Mayors Wellington Webb and Federico Peña, former state Sen. Ken Gordon, D-Denver, and former School Board member Lucia Guzman.

If re-elected, Kaplan plans to make middle-school children the focus of her efforts to increase the currently “horrendous” 77 percent DPS high school graduation rate.

She notes that after 8th grade, CSAP scores in Denver decline.

“All of us want reform,” said Kaplan. "We've instituted part of a solution, but I don't think (it’s) enough…. I would really like to have a public community conversation. I want to facilitate that conversation and stop the finger-pointing.”

In contrast to Kaplan’s unopposed bid, five candidates have entered the fray in northeast Denver’s District 4 — Jacqui Shumway, Nathaniel Easley Jr., Andrea Mosby, Alton Clark and Vernon Jones Jr.

The upcoming election has attracted several sons and daughters of DPS, including Montbello High School grad Easley. Easley went on to earn undergraduate and graduate degrees from Colorado State University and a
Ph.D. in education from American University.

“I know how powerful education can be from my own personal experience,” said Easley, who heads the Denver Scholarship Foundation, a job he says has taken him across the United States as he smoothes the path for disadvantaged students working their way through the education system.

“I want to have an opportunity to help others pursue their educational dreams,” said Easley. “I believe in public schools. I don’t believe there are many people out here who believe in public schools as much as I do. And I know DPS has an amazing amount of potential.”

If elected, Easley plans to focus on increasing parental involvement, improving the environment for teachers and preparing students for life after high school.

Another of the hats in the ring belongs to Mosby, who believes that her background as a motivational speaker, community volunteer at Gilliam Detention Center and DPS parent qualifies her as a serious candidate for the District 4 seat.

“Overall, I have a deep desire to see our kids throughout DPS have the expectations raised for them — and see what happens when you set the bar high,” she said.

“I hope I'll be able to bring in a perspective that really does engage the community, so we can have real reform.”

If elected to the School Board, Mosby plans to focus on increasing parental engagement and DPS retention rates.

“I’m not happy people are leaving DPS — because I know the power behind the school district,” Mosby said.

Shumway is a DPS parent, fitness educator and community organizer who believes the key to educational success is going beyond the basics. She stresses the importance of “AMP” — art, music and physical fitness.

“We have got to have physical activity and keep the art and music alive in these kids,” said Shumway. “We have a lack of creativity, which translates into a lack of initiative.”

Shumway calls herself a “Jacqui of all trades” and says she is confident that her efforts to shine a little
happiness on learning will go a long way toward solving the crisis in the DPS.

“There is so much fear driving education,” said Shumway. “They’ve taken all the joy out of education. I know what they should teach, and they’re pushing that aside.”

The remaining candidates in the District 4 race, Alton Clark, and Vernon Jones Jr., a DPS parent and pastor of the Kinship Missionary Baptist Church, were unavailable for comment, despite numerous efforts to reach them.

The southwest Denver District 2 seat being vacated by term-limited Michelle Moss has attracted the attention of two candidates — Ismael Garcia and Andrea Merida.

Garcia is a father to three DPS students, a founder of Denver West Prep charter school and a student adviser at Community College of Denver.

“I want (students) to have the best access to quality education,” said Garcia. “Our kids can achieve high when the bar is set high.”

As a faculty member at a local post-secondary institution, Garcia said that he sees many DPS graduates who aren’t proficient in math and English and need remediation.

Garcia said that, if given the opportunity to be a member of the Denver School Board, he will work toward increasing student proficiency in core curriculum. He also wants to focus on boosting parental involvement, improving teacher development and bringing technology into classrooms.

“To me the biggest issue is low-performing schools and what we are going to do about it,” said Garcia. “Are we just going to continue the same thing and expect a different result? We need to look at different ways to help our schools be successful.”

Garcia’s sole opponent is Merida, an alum of Abraham Lincoln High School, military veteran, former DPS parent and a Democratic and community activist. She said she is inspired by the “American Dream” and President Barack Obama, and believes that education is a great equalizer in American society.

If elected to represent the constituents of District 2, Merida said she will strive for more transparency throughout DPS, taking a hard look at teacher development and evaluation.

“This is about the kids, and all of our resources and everything we do needs to be geared towards excellence,” said Merida. “I’m going to be working really hard to remove all the roadblocks.”

Katy@coloradostatesman.com