Mayor hopefuls debate schools

The Colorado Statesman

Denver mayoral candidates agreed on at least one thing Tuesday during a debate over how to fix the city’s schools: Go Angels!

It was a full-blown homecoming on the stage of Denver’s East High School auditorium at a forum sponsored by education advocacy organizations. Every one of the candidates — only the top six fundraisers out of 10 who will appear on the May ballot were invited — boasts strong ties to the historic school: Councilwoman Carol Boigon’s two grown children graduated from East; Councilman Michael Hancock took classes there on his way to a diploma from Manual High School and has a sophomore at East; Councilman Doug Linkhart has two children at East; James Mejia is a graduate, as is former state Sen. Chris Romer, who also had two children who attended; and Theresa Spahn has a son going there now.

Doug Linkhart, standing, speaks during a Denver mayoral debate on education Tuesday at East High School. Seated, from left: Carol Boigon, Michael Hancock, James Mejia, Chris Romer and Thersa Spahn. The election is May 3.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Actually, the candidates agreed on quite a lot during the 90-minute discussion. They all said they would support a mill-levy increase to provide additional funding for schools and they all thought it was a good idea to make city and school district facilities available to charter schools. All agreed it was time for downtown Denver to have its own elementary school.

Given the opportunity at the end of the debate by moderators Cynthia Hessin of Rocky Mountain PBS and Fox31’s Eli Stokols to laud comments made by their opponents, several candidates liked Linkhart’s notion of spending money to prevent problems instead of spending more later to clean things up. Mejia’s call for parental responsibility also got nods from more than one rival.

But the candidates clashed over an issue that doesn’t appear to have any backers: whether Denver’s next mayor might have to take over Denver’s school system, as mayors have done in Chicago and Washington, D.C.

Hancock — who has taken hits from opponents over the last month following a newspaper story that said he was considering the idea — told the crowd at East High he was merely acknowledging that it’s an option, not anything he’s proposing.

“I was misquoted in the paper,” he said. “The option of mayoral control is part of the tool chest,” he acknowledged, adding that he has had a lengthy discussion with former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley about it.

“It is in the tool chest, it’s available to mayors, but only as a last resort when the situation has absolutely gone out of control,” Hancock said. “Denver is not at that stage. I believe Denver is going in the right direction.”

Still, he maintained, Denver’s mayor needs to be “as collaborative a partner as possible with Denver Public Schools,” and he went on to fault Boigon for declining to answer some questions during the debate because, as she maintained, she’s running for mayor, not the school board.

“Saying it’s not the mayor’s issue is an old paradigm that just doesn’t work anymore,” Hancock said. “Folks, there isn’t a thing the mayor touches — economic development, crime, quality of life — in our city that doesn’t have a quality, world-class education as its foundation. So the next mayor better be serious about partnering with DPS to turn failing schools around and make sure every child is educated.”

Noting that she’s spent much of her adult life fostering collaborative operations with school districts – including calming “pretty hostile” relations between Denver and DPS under former Mayor Wellington Webb — Boigon shot back at Hancock.

“I take this very seriously,” she said. “But I also believe there are good reasons mayors don’t take over schools.”

She recounted a conversation she had with Webb when a legislative leader approached the mayor to urge he consider taking over DPS, which would take a statewide vote to amend Colorado’s Constitution. She said Webb rejected the idea because independent school boards are necessary “to take the politics of curriculum out of general-purpose politics,” and added that she agreed.

“I promise you, in Colorado, you could have many schools giving up real science,” she said. “I think that’s a great risk.”

But short of an outright mayoral takeover — a notion no one on the stage was proposing — Boigon said the mayor can still do plenty.

“I pledge to be a good partner with Denver Public Schools,” she said. “I pledge to look out for the children of this city, to make sure they’re all educated. But not to take over the Denver Public Schools, to usurp the rights of the independently elected school board members to chose their superintendent and to chose their direction.”

Sparks also flew over last year’s controversial Senate Bill 191, which links job security for educators to performance evaluations.

Romer reiterated his support for the bill, which he said put him at odds with his traditional allies. He said he has a strong relationship with teacher unions, “but on the issue of 191, they were wrong.” He said the bill institutes rules “out of respect for the career” and pointed to “hidden gems” in the legislation he said would also encourage better principals.

“Only a few Democrats stood with Republicans to pass that bill,” Romer said, adding that he “played a vital role to get that out of committee.” (In the end, 13 Democrats in the Senate, including Romer, voted for the bill in its final form and eight opposed it.)

Acknowledging that there is still widespread disagreement on the law, Romer said he wanted “respectful dialogue” and said he’s anxious to talk.

“Judge me as I am,” Romer said. “You may not always agree with me, but I promise you, we’re going to have the conversations that are long overdue. And quality teaching is a conversation that’s long overdue, and Senate Bill 191 was a good bill.”

Asked to give brief responses, the other candidates differed on the bill. Boigon, Linkhart and Spahn said they opposed it. Spahn added that she was just unhappy with it because of the problems developing fair evaluations. Hancock and Mejia said they supported it, though Mejia said only if the state also provided adequate resources for schools.

It was a point Mejia made earlier when asked what he thought about ranking schools.

“Let’s get away from the politics of when you rank those schools, who gets hammered,” he said, adding that it was key to provide “the tools and resources for teachers in every classroom to make sure they can get the job done.” Ranking cuts both ways, he said. “Until we’re a much higher rank than 48th in the country, we’re not doing a good enough job getting resources to teachers,” he said, referring to some estimates that list Colorado near dead-last when it comes to public funding of education.

Pointing to a similar ranking, Linkhart called it “embarrassing” that Colorado is 49th in the nation for school funding. The approach is wrong, he said, spending too much money “on the wrong side of each problem.” He listed costly expenditures on jails, police, emergency rooms and power, suggesting instead the city could get a lot more bang for its buck funding preventative efforts and energy conservation. “Take the same money and move it to the front end and help ensure a better future for all the people of Denver.”

Mejia brought up another statistic: “When 7 percent of kids graduating from West and North (high schools) graduate ready for college without remediation,” he said, “we’re not doing a good enough job.”

Parents, he said, need to step up.

“We’re not having a strong enough conversation about parental responsibility,” Mejia said. “We’re not having a conversation about parents not being willing to take up the mantle of the first of their children’s teachers and always be advocates for their children.”

Boigon also said that the usual questions — whether to blame teachers and how much — sidestepped the discussion reform advocates should be having. Pointing to a candidate survey about schools organized by Education Reform Now, one of the forum’s sponsors, she said the premise was faulty.

“Every question on teaching and learning was, how do we hold teachers accountable,” she said, “not how do we teach differently in our classrooms. It’s not a mystery.”

Boigon proposed going to the DPS superintendent and offering to “take the three most stubborn elementary schools that are not turning around,” and bring in specialists to customize programs for every child. “This is science, this isn’t politics,” she said. “If we take seriously the great work that’s been done on education and move it into the general classroom, we’ll lick this problem and then we can talk about all these other questions.”

Among questions consuming at least part of the crowd — volunteers on both sides handed out fliers — is the simmering recall election effort aimed at DPS board president Nate Easley. Not one of the candidates said they backed the recall, though Boigon punted on the question, saying she thought it was a question for schools, parents and voters.

“We need to have bold reform,” said Van Schoales, executive director of Education Reform Now, in an interview before the debate.

Whether Denver’s next mayor helps steer the schools through greater collaboration, the bully pulpit or an actual takeover — an option Schoales has suggested should be on the table but one he also acknowledges would be “enormously challenging” because of constitutional requirements — he said his organization wants to encourage aggressive approaches because the current situation is “a huge, long-term problem for the city of Denver.”

That’s why the organizations sponsoring the debate also asked candidates to fill out a detailed survey (available on the group’s website under the “Reports” link at www.edreformnow.org). He said he hoped candidates’ answers would help “move beyond the superficial pablum that you often hear — ‘We love kids, public education is important and we should support our schools,’” and instead “require folks step up and clearly state where they stand on the specifics.”

In addition to Education Reform Now, the other sponsoring organizations were Colorado Succeeds, Get Smart Schools, Colorado League of Charter Schools, Denver Public Schools Foundation, Colorado Stand for Children and Democrats for Education Reform.

Other candidates who qualified for the mayoral election — but weren’t invited to the education debate — include Thomas Andrew Wolf, Jeff Peckman, Danny F. Lopez and Ken Simpson. Perennial candidate Paul Fiorino didn’t turn in enough valid petition signatures to make the ballot but has said he plans a write-in campaign.

Mail ballots for Denver’s municipal election go out April 15. The election, which also includes races for auditor, city clerk and recorder, and city council seats, will be conducted entirely by mail. Voting centers will also be set up around the city in late April. If no candidate gets a clear majority in the May 3 election, there will be a run-off between the top two finishers on June 7. Mail ballots for that election go out May 20.

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com