Denver mayoral candidates talk about schools in mostly agreeable final debate

The Colorado Statesman

The seemingly endless series of forums and debates in Denver’s mayoral race came to a conclusion on Tuesday night the same way it began, with the candidates talking about education.

When it comes to education policy, there was little separating former state Sen. Chris Romer and City Councilman Michael Hancock at an hour-long debate held before a standing-room-only crowd in the auditorium at Teller Elementary School, though the two sparred mildly over their respective styles. Almost exactly a week before results in the all-mail election will be announced, the two runoff candidates found plenty to agree on over what has become a signature issue for both campaigns.

Mayoral candidates Michael Hancock and Chris Romer shake hands and talk with audience members prior to a debate on education issues on May 31 at Teller Elementary School in Denver. Romer chats with Councilwoman Carol Boigon, seated at left, who was in the race until late April, when she withdrew and threw her support to Hancock.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman
Mayoral candidate Chris Romer, left, and his wife, Laurie, walk toward Teller Elementary School ahead of a crowd of cheering supporters on May 31 in Denver.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Both made impassioned pleas to keep various reform measures moving ahead, both lamented ongoing cuts to education funding, both said they plan to make endorsements in this fall’s Denver Board of Education elections, and both had nice things to say about each other.

The debate — mirroring one of the very first candidate match-ups, in early February, when a multitude of candidates filled the stage — centered on questions about the direction of Denver Public Schools, including how much influence a mayor can have over the independently elected board that governs the system.

“Frankly, I think in many ways these two have more in common on education issues than they did with maybe the eight candidates who were here previously,” said forum moderator Alexander Ooms, referring to mayoral candidates who didn’t survive the first round of voting on May 3. Romer and Hancock both align with the so-called reform movement driving substantial changes in Denver Public Schools, and both can point to major education policies both statewide and locally they have had a hand in developing.

“I know I’m going to be proud of the education history, track record and engagement of the next mayor, no matter who it is,” Ooms continued, and then invited the candidates to talk about something they admire on each others’ education resumé before getting into any disagreements.

Hancock said Romer’s involvement with the I Have a Dream Foundation — something he founded along with fellow East High School graduates on the occasion of their 10th class reunion — demonstrated that “one of the most powerful roles the mayor can play is not so much on the inside of the school door but recognizing the school door swings both ways.” Hancock said he has been amazed at the difference adults can make in schools by stepping in to lend a hand.

“I’m standing here today because an adult entered my life,” he said, and then told Romer, “Thank you for standing in the gap for children in our city.”

Romer heaped praise on his opponent when it was his turn. He credited Hancock for helping put together the Far Northeast turnaround plan DPS approved last fall, telling Hancock “you knew it was going to be controversial, and I thought it was a moment of what you’re supposed to do as a politician.”

But he didn’t stop there, adding that Hancock deserved kudos for helping write a 2008 piece of legislation designed to encourage innovation in schools and for “choosing his own school for his own son,” an effort Hancock highlighted in his campaign’s first television ad.

The candidates generally agreed that school funding has reached a crisis point.

Noting that he helped craft the statewide ballot initiative Amendment 23, Romer protested that the measure’s intended 10-percent growth in state school funding has been erased over the last three years of budget cuts. “We’re right back where we all started — working hard, carrying petitions,” he said, referring to a petition drive underway to raise state taxes to pay for education. Both candidates have said they support the proposed ballot initiative sponsored by state Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder.

Then Romer turned his ire on GOP lawmakers, including those who had been his allies last year when he was one of a handful of Senate Democrats backing Senate Bill 191.

“I’ve been really frustrated with my Republican colleagues,” he said, adding that key to his support for the radical tenure overhaul was that “they would start having an authentic debate about really funding schools. And now all of a sudden we keep moving the goal posts again.”

Later, Romer said Colorado has a duty to fund its schools at least to the national average. “Between city hall and schools,” he said, “I’ll take schools every day of the week, and that’s one of the reasons I’m running for mayor.”

Hancock said parents know how much schools are hurting every time they stock up on school supplies and “just about buy the entire aisle” at local discount stores. “I’ve been asked to bring toilet paper to schools, paper towels — don’t just buy one box of crayons, buy a whole case of crayons.” But that’s only the first sign of the problem, he said. “The second sign is when children don’t have books to bring home.” In the face of draconian cutbacks, he said, it’s no wonder innovation is difficult to bring to schools.

“In order to educate a well rounded child, they need more than just the three Rs,” he said. “We need to make sure our lobbyists and state delegation are in a lock-step with the values of the city and county of Denver. They need to fight for us…We know the state’s in trouble, we’re all competing for resources. But that’s why we have to encourage our state delegation to look for different, sustainable ways in which to fund our education system.”

He suggested business partnerships and philanthropic entities could help and added, “We can’t do it all by ourselves, and, yes, we have to get more creative and think outside the box.”

Romer and Hancock agreed when asked whether they planned to back candidates in the upcoming DPS board elections.

Echoing comments made by several mayoral candidates throughout the campaign, Hancock declared, “There’s no election more important than the November Board of Education election.” He added: “We need some bold, solid leadership for the Board of education — absolutely, I’m looking for some bold solid leaders.” However, he declined to name which candidates he might support in the election, which will see three seats up for grabs.

Asked the same compound question, whether he planned to make endorsements and who might be the recipients, Romer answered succinctly, “Yes. No.”

In closing, Romer returned to his contention that education underlies his civic vision.

“This issue of schools really matters,” he said. “It may be, in the long run, the only thing that matters.”

It was the first time the candidates had crossed paths since a Denver Post/9News poll released on Sunday showed Hancock with a 10-point lead over Romer. A Survey USA poll conducted last week had Hancock with 49 percent support among likely voters and Romer with 39 percent. According to the automated telephone survey, which carries a margin of error of 4.3 percent, 11 percent of voters were undecided. Schools were named the most important issue by 22 percent of voters, trailing only economic development, which most concerned 30 percent of those polled.

A Romer spokeswoman disputed the poll’s accuracy and called into question the polling firm’s track record gauging voter opinion in the state.

“Unfortunately for Colorado voters, Survey USA has a history of wildly inaccurate polls with responses at complete odds with the final election results,” said Laura Chapin. “They went 0-for-4 in Colorado last year.”

She pointed to a Survey USA poll that showed former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff leading U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet in the Democratic U.S. Senate primary, even though Bennet won the election a week later, along with curious results that showed Democrat John Hickenlooper trailing fellow gubernatorial candidate Tom Tancredo — a notorious opponent of illegal immigration — among Latino voters, in addition to other polling that didn’t match up with eventual results.

A review of polling data from the 2010 election shows Survey USA polls conducted in the weeks before elections accurately predicted results in seven of eight statewide primary and general election contests.

An email from Hancock to supporters said the campaign was “energized” by the results but cautioned against assuming the race was won. “Still, the only way to make these poll numbers come true is to work hard to the very end of this campaign,” he wrote. He went on to quote former Mayor Wellington Webb, a prominent Hancock supporter: “A poll is just a snapshot in time. The only poll that actually matters is the one on Election Day.”

Through Tuesday, with a week left to vote, the Denver Elections Division reported that 42,119 ballots had been returned out of just over 300,000 sent to registered voters. Of those, 832 had been rejected, mostly for signature problems. The turnout rate of 14.4 percent is slightly higher than the rate at the same point during the first round of voting, which finished on May 3, when a total of 113,845 ballots were accepted. A flood of ballots arrived on Election Day in the first round, boosting the final turnout to 38.91 percent.

Ballots for the runoff are due to the city by 7 p.m. on June 7 and must be received by that time to count. Election officials suggest dropping ballots at more than a dozen voter services centers, rather than into mail boxes, any time after Friday to make sure they arrive in time. Officials also point out that the postage rate went up after the May election and that a ballot costs 64 cents to mail this time.

The campaigns have set election night watch parties at popular venues near Lower Downtown. The Romer campaign will gather at 6 p.m. at Blake Street Tavern, 2301 Blake Street. About a mile to the northeast, Hancock’s campaign will kick things off at 6 p.m. at EXDO Event Center, 1399 35th St.

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com