School board candidates defend support of vouchers

Denver candidates also dispute alleged conflicts of interest
The Colorado Statesman

The Denver Public Schools Board of Education race has turned into a discussion on vouchers and conflicts of interest as the reform versus neighborhood-oriented battle continues for control of the seven-member board.

Two factions have emerged in the school board race, which will be decided this November. The two sides include reformers, who support the administration, and neighborhood candidates, who support traditional schools. Most candidates and current school board members are Democrats, though the board is nonpartisan.

The board currently leans reform, with Mary Seawell, Happy Haynes, Landri Taylor and Anne Rowe usually siding with the reform-minded administration led by Superintendent Tom Boasberg. Jeannie Kaplan, Andrea Merida and Arturo Jimenez make up the current neighborhood side of the board.

Reform candidates have in the past been supported by hundreds of thousands of dollars from outside groups. Financial reports aren’t due until November, so a clear picture has yet to emerge this year.

The reform candidates include former Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien, former Denver City Councilwoman Rosemary Rodriguez, school finance attorney Mike Johnson and Denver Urban League Chief Executive Taylor, who was appointed to the board in March due to a vacancy.

The Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the union representing Denver teachers, is supporting the neighborhood candidates again this year. Those candidates include Michael Kiley, Rosario C de baca, Meg Schomp and Roger Kilgore.

Merida last month announced that she would not run for re-election. She had become embroiled in several controversies. She also supported the non-renewal of about 220 probationary teacher contracts this spring. DCTA decided not to endorse her this year.

With two seats vulnerable on each side of the debate, the tilt of the board is up for grabs.

Controversy over vouchers

O’Brien, who is running for an at-large seat, has received the brunt of campaign attacks after supporting a voucher program in 2003. As then-president of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, O’Brien was struggling to identify meaningful reform for low-income children in a Denver school district that at the time had few options.

She joined with then-Attorney General Ken Salazar, a prominent Democrat, to support a Republican legislative proposal to provide vouchers for students to attend nonpublic schools. The courts later ruled the program unconstitutional.

While O’Brien says the voucher program was a small pilot, Denver Public Schools approved most of the applications they received from nonpublic schools wanting to accept students at public expense. The Denver board allowed at least 69 nonpublic schools to participate, according to reports at the time.

Outcries were heard as almost all of the nonpublic schools seeking entry into the program were Christian. The Denver board found itself rejecting Silver State Baptist School at the time because its application included biblical citations and said participating in homosexuality was prohibited. The Denver board found this to violate anti-discrimination laws.

O’Brien’s campaign has been defending against the attacks, adamant that she does not support vouchers. At a forum Tuesday for at-large and District 3 candidates, hosted by the League of Women Voters of Denver, O’Brien was asked where she stands currently on vouchers.

“I would never support vouchers,” promised O’Brien. “When I was at the Colorado Children’s Campaign, a mother came to me with a 14-year-old son and said… she just learned he did not know how to read. She was desperate. She said to me, ‘By the time this state’s changes in education took place he would probably be a parent and he wouldn’t be able to support his family.’

“I knew from the mission of the Children’s Campaign that I needed to keep working to strengthen public education for all students, but I also needed to work to find creative solutions so young men like that boy in a desperate academic situation had some options,” O’Brien continued.

“What I worked on… was creating special options for the most vulnerable kids to get immediate extra education help by community providers while working to strengthen education,” she added.

But Kiley isn’t convinced. In a recent news release, Kiley called O’Brien “too extreme for Denver Public Schools.”

“I will never support vouchers,” he said.

“This is a topic today because my opponent made it very clear, at least back in 2003, that she did support vouchers, and I think that’s a very clear distinction in values here. I would never ever support vouchers.” Kiley continued.

“I think it would decimate our public school education system, it routes money away from schools when they need it the most, it is waving the flag of surrender that we don’t know how to educate our kids, and frankly, it’s insulting to the folks that came before us because they educated us pretty well… and my parents were well educated,” he added.

Taylor is also fighting against accusations that he supports voucher programs. He is battling Kilgore to maintain his seat representing the northeast in District 4.

At issue is a comment Taylor made to Rocky Mountain PBS in a special report from the I-News Network back in January for the network’s investigation called “Losing Ground.” The report took an in-depth look at racial disparities in education.

Taylor stated in the report, “This whole revelation in my own mind and where I sit as CEO of the Urban League is that at one time I was really against charters and vouchers in public education. Now I am 100 percent for charters. I’m 200 percent for vouchers.

“I am at the point where we cannot afford to let parents stay shackled in any environment, suburban as well as urban, when it comes to kids’ education,” Taylor continued. “They have to have the freedom to take that piece and go anywhere they so choose. That education will respond to that by making it more competitive for kids to want to go to one school over another.”

But after his comment caused uproar, Taylor said he misspoke and did not understand the question asked of him. He said he is unequivocally against vouchers.

“I didn’t know I supported vouchers. When did that happen?” laughed Taylor.

“It was a phone interview that I gave and I either misspoke, or if they sent me a draft and I received it, I simply didn’t read it before they printed it,” he explained. “The body of evidence is what one should point to. And I have never supported vouchers regardless of either misspeaking or whatever happened in January. It’s been totally the opposite.

“I’ve been working my ass off inside the schools for more than 20 years,” Taylor continued.

He believes the neighborhood faction of the debate has been attacking him simply because they have no other ammunition left in the war chest.

“This is beneath them to continue this course,” he said. “It’s actually caused more people to support me and send me money because they know I’ve never supported vouchers.

“I think it is representative of desperation,” Taylor said of the attacks.

Kilgore said he is pleased to learn that Taylor is against vouchers, but suggested that the appointed school board member flip-flopped after criticism was raised.

“Vouchers would destroy public education in Denver and it is a relief to know that Mr. Taylor is on board with keeping them out of the Denver Public Schools,” said Kilgore.

“However, given that Mr. Taylor and his backers have DPS on a path toward outsourcing and privatization, it is only natural that voters would wonder how far he is willing to go and what his views on vouchers will be next year,” he continued.

Conflicts of interest

Vouchers aren’t the only controversy raised by the neighborhood faction. Conflicts of interest have also become a popular topic. Johnson, who is running in District 3, knows about this all too well.

As a lawyer with the Denver office of Kutak Rock, Johnson served 15 years as outside legal counsel for DPS on school finance issues. The neighborhood side points out that the firm was paid for bond work. They are concerned that existing bonds often come up and there could be a significant conflict of interest.

Johnson has repeatedly 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. But his opponent, Schomp, believes the damage has already been done.

“My opponent has been paid by the Denver Public Schools to purchase bonds, purchase mill levies, to help us finance and refinance important pension funds from our teachers,” explained Schomp at Tuesday’s forum. “I believe that when we have somebody who is not only on our [Community Planning and Advisory Committee] determining where our bonds will be spent… to also be on the oversight committee — a committee that is heavily weighted towards the industry that will benefit the most, not our children — that we have a definite conflict of interest that we need to look at and address.”

Johnson, however, responded by once again pointing out that he has no ongoing relationship with DPS.

“I resigned completely, severing my links to the Denver Public Schools before I announced my candidacy,” he said. “I was very careful about this. We obtained outside legal opinions… from staff with Denver Public Schools. There is no conflict of interest. It’s clear and conclusive.”

Johnson then threw the mud back at Schomp, pointing out that her husband, David Schachter, works at the law firm of Sherman and Howard, which has served as bond counsel to DPS.

“If this is going to be an issue… I’d like to point out that Ms. Schomp’s husband’s law firm was involved during that entire period also representing DPS and currently represents DPS…” said Johnson. “Let’s not start pointing fingers. I don’t think this should be the issue, I think this should be about Denver kids and what makes good classroom instruction.”

Schomp appeared frustrated by Johnson’s assertion, pointing out that her husband is not a school finance attorney.

“Neither my husband nor I have ever received any money from the Denver Public Schools,” she responded. “My husband is an intellectual property attorney. He’s a trademark lawyer. He wouldn’t know a bond if it hit him in the head.”

Also facing the conflict of interest issue is O’Brien, who serves as president of Get Smart Schools, a nonprofit dedicated to school reform. Get Smart does business with the district and O’Brien has signed independent contractor agreements with DPS for recruitment and professional development services.

During the forum, candidates were allowed to ask questions of each other. Kiley asked O’Brien, “It’s my understanding that you would remain the executive director of Get Smart Schools and serve concurrently on the school board should you win, and that to me is a clear conflict of interest. You received over a quarter-million dollars from DPS in the last three years, so… would you rethink that decision, would you resign from Get Smart Schools should you win this election?”

O’Brien acknowledged the conflict, but said it would be so miniscule that she would not have to resign. She said if a conflict arose, she would recuse herself from votes.

“When I was thinking about running I talked with a lawyer for Denver Public Schools and asked about the conflict of interest…” explained O’Brien. “Get Smart Schools trains principals to run schools in low-income neighborhoods. We put them through training and then they have to compete for jobs just like anyone else being interviewed.

“The money you’re talking about goes to pay stipends for these principals while they’re in training…” she continued. “What [the lawyer] said was maybe 1 percent of all board decisions would actually involve a school for one of our graduates who is principal and in that case I should recuse myself from those votes, but that it was such a small portion of all board votes he thought there was no real conflict as long as I talked to the rest of the board members about Get Smart Schools. I would definitely recuse myself if one of our trainees came up as an issue that the board had to deal with.”

Taylor is facing similar accusations as the chief executive of the Denver Urban League. He has signed an independent contractor agreement with DPS for fulfilling the terms of a grant agreement. The contract is for just under $143,000.

But Taylor said the agreement predates his time on the board, starting in 2009, and therefore only represents ongoing work.

“The work with the Denver Public Schools has been going on for four years, so that preceded even the interest sitting on the board this year,” explained Taylor. “We began doing work with Denver Public Schools in 2009. So, this is nothing new, and is definitely no conflict of interest since there is money given for a grant that the Urban League receives no program fee for. It simply goes directly into programs.”

He said there would be no reason for him to recuse himself since the grants are not board authorized or approved.

“I applaud them for continuing to try, but it has been addressed more than once…” Taylor said of his opponents. “It’s getting to the point that they’ve got to Google my name and find something.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com