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Denver Public Schools Election Offers Voters Two Paths

Originally Posted by Denver Post on October 15, 2013. Copyright © Written by Zahira Torres.

Denver Public Schools is at a crossroads.

The district can double-down on Superintendent Tom Boasberg’s reform efforts, which include shuttering low-performing campuses, fostering the growth of charter schools and encouraging the development of campuses that have the ability to waive certain teachers’ union rights.

Or DPS can move toward a more traditional model that could place a moratorium on new charter schools in the district, bring greater focus to improving existing campuses and seek to minimize the role of standardized testing.

Voters this week will begin receiving ballots in the mail for the November election, which will determine the direction of the 84,000-student school district. Four of the school board’s seven seats are up for grabs, and a shift away from the majority support Boasberg now enjoys could threaten his agenda and even his job.

“It’s very important that we, as a community, have a vigorous debate about what’s best for our community’s public schools,” Boasberg said in an email. “My hope is that this debate focuses on what’s best for our kids, not on political ideologies.”

School board candidates for the seats generally split into two camps.

One group, made up of Barbara O’Brien, Rosemary Rodriguez, Mike Johnson and Landri Taylor, favors many of the initiatives Boasberg has spearheaded.

The other slate, which has the support of the teacher’s union, consists of Michael Kiley, Rosario C. de Baca, Meg Schomp and Roger Kilgore. They are critical of the district’s direction, at times calling it corporate reform that could lead to the privatization of schools. Board candidate Joan Poston appears to lean toward taking a more traditional approach to public education, but her views do not fall squarely in line with either group of candidates.

Candidates found common ground on some issues, such as the need to close the achievement gap between poor and affluent students and minority children and their white counterparts.

“This is the greatest challenge facing Denver,” O’Brien said. “We need to work tirelessly to give students who are behind the support they need to catch up at an accelerated pace.”

O’Brien, who is running for the at-large position on the school board, said closing the achievement gap would be her main goal. She said she would work to increase after-school and summer programs, improve programs for English learners and better align teacher preparation programs with state standards.

While the candidates may agree on the need for academic improvements in certain areas, they have strong differences on the approaches to reaching those goals.

One area of contention centers on the growth of charter schools and charter-like campuses.

Schomp, a homemaker whose family owns Denver-area car dealerships, has two children who attend school at DPS. One of her children attends a magnet school, and the other is a student at an innovation school in her neighborhood. Innovation schools are district-run but have more flexibility, including the ability of teachers to forgo certain union rights.

Schomp said that she believes there is a place for alternative options such as innovation schools but they should serve as a supplement to traditional neighborhood schools, not replace them.

“As we continue to open more charters and innovation schools, I believe that we are doing so at the expense of our traditional schools,” Schomp said. “By focusing on a quality school in every neighborhood, we can provide more options for families that struggle with the choices that are currently available.”

Her opponent, Mike Johnson, said he too wants quality schools in each neighborhood but he would not place a moratorium on charters and charter-like campuses.

“I am in favor of more choice options for Denver families and more autonomy for schools so that more decisions are made by the parents, the teachers and the principals in our schools and fewer by a centralized bureaucracy and rigid rules imposed from the top down,” Johnson said.

Views also vary on the role of standardized testing in a child’s education.

Taylor, the only incumbent in the race, is an ardent supporter of standardized testing. He touts it as a way to make sure all children are being served by the school district.

Poston, who is in a three-person race for the at-large seat being vacated by board President Mary Seawell, said she “hates” standardized testing. She said she administered such tests while she worked at DPS as a paraprofessional and “never saw the value of losing valuable teaching time to bubble in answer sheets that did not truly reflect the education received.”

Each candidate said they would not support using taxpayer dollars to give private-school vouchers to public school students.

The subject already has seeped into the race for the at-large seat on the school board.

Kiley, one of the candidates in that race, has repeatedly criticized O’Brien for her past support of a voucher program targeted to low-income children in inner-city schools.

O’Brien said she is opposed to vouchers and will “absolutely” vote against them.

But Kiley said O’Brien’s past support of a limited voucher program and her support of charter and innovation schools suggests that she is for the privatization of schools, an accusation O’Brien disputes.

“Vouchers take money away from public schools,” Kiley said.

“We should not be giving up on our public schools by sending money out to religious and private institutions.”

Boasberg said his reform plan does not include school vouchers. But some candidates still worry about the superintendent’s strategies for improving academic performance at the district.

“I believe he is hardworking and has good intentions,” said Kilgore, who is running for a seat representing District 4.

“He over-relies on free-market mechanisms and leads a school administration that is top-down in its approach.”

Rodriguez, a Boasberg supporter who is vying for the seat representing Southwest Denver, said the superintendent successfully managed a budget through economic crisis without massive layoffs and has taken steps to increase achievement.

She said Boasberg’s greatest challenge is in community relations.

“He doesn’t have a great bedside manner and needs to develop better community input into some of the district’s decisions,” Rodriguez said.

De Baca, Rodriguez’s opponent, could not be reached for comment.

Zahira Torres: 303-954-1244, or