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Reformers sweep DPS school board election: What does it mean for future of district?

Originally Posted by Westword on November 6, 2013. Copyright © Written by Melanie Asmar. Read here.

The four candidates supportive of Denver Public Schools’ brand of education reform swept the school board election yesterday. Barbara O’Brien, Rosemary Rodriguez, Mike Johnson and Landri Taylor will fill the four open slots on a seven-member board that has been characterized by clashes between its reform-minded majority and a vocal three-person minority.

The winners’ supporters and opponents agree that the board will be more harmonious from here on out — but they disagree about whether that’s a good thing.

Van Schoales, CEO of the advocacy organization A Plus Denver, is happy with the results. “In the past, it’s been reform versus non-reform and a lot of sniping back and forth,” he says. “There hasn’t been the more substantive leadership role that the board could play in terms of saying, ‘We want quality schools.'”

This new board, which will likely feature a six-to-one majority, with sitting board member Arturo Jimenez serving as the sole remaining minority voice, is “going to be in a position to push the district harder in terms of delivering on their promise to the community,” Schoales says, “instead of being a rubber-stamp for what the district wants to do.”

In total, nine candidates were running for four open seats on the board. The candidates were pretty evenly split between those who think DPS is heading in the right direction — the so-called reformers — and those who don’t. Many saw the race as a referendum on DPS’s reform strategies, including closing and replacing failing schools, encouraging charter and innovation schools and tying teacher evaluations to student test scores.

The reform victory, Schoales says, “was a very clear message that the Denver electorate wants our schools to be better and that they are not satisfied with the status quo, and that they’re supportive of a number of things the district is doing in regards to creating new schools and in terms of having more high-quality choices.”

Sonja Semion, the executive director of Stand for Children Colorado, a pro-reform organization that contributed to the victors’ campaigns, says she’s “thrilled” with the election results. “These guys are some of the smartest, most experienced school board members I’ve ever seen,” she says.

And she expects that they’ll make progress that would have been impossible with the current board. “There was constant questioning of each other instead of thinking about, what can we all do together?” she says. “Now that…the board is functional, they can disagree without being disagreeable. I’m optimistic that it does mean that there’s going to be a lot more movement and faster movement.”

But those who backed the non-reform candidates think that movement will be detrimental to Denver’s kids. “I’m really disappointed,” says Kristi Butkovich of the Denver Alliance for Public Education. “In my opinion, the Denver school board was for sale.”

As of November 1, the four winning candidates — O’Brien, Rodriguez, Johnson and Taylor — had raised a total of nearly $600,000 in monetary contributions from big-money donors that included billionaire Phil Anschutz, University of Colorado president Bruce Benson and former hedge fund manager John Arnold and his wife Laura, who live in Texas.

By contrast, the candidates who didn’t win — Michael Kiley, Rosario C. de Baca, Meg Schomp andRoger Kilgore — raised a total of about $150,000 in monetary contributions. Most of that money, plus about $125,000 in non-monetary assistance, came from the teachers unions. (Candidate Joan Postondidn’t take donations at all.)

In Butkovich’s view, the reformers’ win means that DPS “will continue with corporate reform, charter schools, privatization, high-stakes testing, top-down mandates and demoralizing teachers.” The new board members, she adds, “will go along with what’s going on, and I believe wholeheartedly that we are not going to see improvements.”

She thinks transparency will fall by the wayside, though she says the Denver Alliance will be keeping a close eye on the new board. “I’m hoping we can work with the board, but if we can’t, we’re going to become a watchdog organization,” she says. “Our number-one priority is, let’s make decisions that make sense for the kids, not for business.”

Outgoing board member Andrea Merida, who was a member of the three-person minority but decided not to run for reelection, thinks the non-reform candidates should have begun campaigning sooner. “You don’t start a campaign six months before election day when you’re up against this kind of money,” she says. “I’m actually really sad that the (Denver Classroom Teachers Association) couldn’t help these candidates understand.”

Merida also says she’ll be watching the new board — especially Rodriguez, who was elected to take Merida’s seat representing southwest Denver. Merida says she’s proud that as a board member, she protected southwest Denver from many of the reforms she sees as harmful. “I’m going to watch to see that the legacy I’m leaving behind of my schools not being privatized and charter-ized stays intact,” she says.

Jimenez was not up for reelection this year and remains on the board as the sole member of the minority. He, too, is disheartened by the election results. “This was a big defeat for those who advocate for education of the whole child, and the emotional and academic development of our children,” he says.

He says he’s disappointed that voters didn’t make the connection between Amendment 66, which would have raised $950 million for education statewide, and the DPS school board race. At the same time voters rejected Amendment 66, they voted for school board candidates who support the reforms advanced by the measure, he says.

“People decided not to give more taxes to education because they were frustrated with how their taxes were spent previously,” he says. “But the status quo won.

“We’ve had this regime of outsourcing and privatizing our educational services…and it’s going to be expanded to the detriment of Denver’s kids. We have a huge achievement gap, we have rampant segregation and we haven’t shown any results with this status quo. But they still have the majority. There is no true reform to be had here.”

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