Updated: We’ve now added the complete video of the debate.
Central Denver school board candidates Meg Schomp and Michael Johnson went one-on-one Wednesday night, throwing into relief their differences over everything from the school board’s role in community engagement to school choice to the oversight of 2012’s bond and mill levy funding.
“There’s a real choice here,” Johnson said. “Meg and I have some real differences.”
The debate was the first in a series sponsored by the advocacy group A+ Denver, along with EdNews and KDVR Fox31. KDVR’s Eli Stokols moderated the debate using his own versions of questions provided by A+ Denver and by members of the public who submitted questions online.
Each candidate used the debate to emphasize the priorities of their campaign: Schomp focused on community engagement and broadening the curriculum beyond the basics of math and reading, while Johnson advocated for increased school choice and greater school-level control over budgets and programming.
In ten years, Johnson said, he wants the district to graduate every student either prepared to go to college without remediation or ready to enter a career path.
“I think we need to raise our expectations, we need to raise our standards,” Johnson said.
Schomp said that vision needed to be made broader, to ensure that students were not only equipped with the basic academic skills but also with a strong basis in subjects like art and civics.
“I think that college and career readiness are extremely important, but I also think there are other elements that are important for a child’s success in life,” Schomp said.
Here are some of the highlights of major topics discussed over the course of the debate:
Schomp said that her preference is to create a system where the first option for families is to have an excellent neighborhood school that their children can walk to and from.
“I support alternative options for our children,” Schomp said, noting her own child’s enrollment at the Denver Green School, which is an innovation school. “However, I don’t support the possibility of our neighborhood schools being starved as a result of it.”
Schomp argued that the proliferation of charter schools and district-run “innovation” schools that have exemptions from certain district requirements are hurting traditional schools’ ability to function.
“When we’re giving innovation schools and charter schools some latitudes that we don’t give our traditional schools, that’s not a fair playing field,” Schomp said.
Johnson replied that the solution to that problem is to give neighborhood schools the same kind of bureaucratic freedom enjoyed by charter and innovation schools.
“I’d like to see the neighborhood schools have the same kind of flexibility in organizing their day and how they run their schools,” Johnson said.
Johnson said that his priority is to give families access to whatever school program works best for their student, a goal that he said requires the expansion of school choice.
“I would like for us to come as close as we can to have an individualized education plan for every child,” Johnson said.
Both candidates agreed that the district should do a better job engaging families and community members, but they articulated slightly different approaches to how school board members should move to the front lines.
“I think that parents too often have been engaged in problems with our schools too late,” Schomp said. “We don’t have early and often engagement. Our families at times find it hard to access the district.”
As a solution, Schomp proposed that the school board have quarterly meetings outside of the district’s administrative buildings.
“I like that idea,” Johnson responded, “But I think that the first job for community outreach is the elected school board members. I think it’s our obligation to reach out to the community; I think it’s our obligation to go to PTA meetings.”
Stokols asked what the candidates thought the board should do to help schools that are struggling and losing students. In response, Johnson raised an idea that he would emphasize throughout the evening: pushing more decision-making down to the school level.
“Give all the local schools more autonomy so they can develop a program that works well for the community,” Johnson said. “I think if we got rid of the rigid, top-down rules that controls what we do on a daily basis, that would make a big difference.”
Bond and mill levy oversight
Disagreement over the merits of the $466 million bond issue and $49 million property tax measure that passed last year prompted some of the liveliest exchanges of the debate.
Johnson, who helped design and campaign for the mill levy and bond and who currently serves as the co-chair of the levy’s oversight committee, described the measures as an essential step to bring to Denver’s schools the type of arts, physical education and enrichment activities that Schomp argued schools need.
“I wonder how you can run for the school board having opposed that funding,” Johnson said.
Schomp, however, was a prominent critic of the measures, and characterized the design and implementation of them as lacking in community involvement and oversight.
“If I felt it was a good bond, I would support it,” she said. “And I would like to see a new bond.”
Both candidates said they support the proposed $950 million tax increase for education.
Johnson is a strong proponent of the evaluation plan, known as LEAP, that Denver is developing, while Schomp expressed reservations about the weight that the evaluation system places on students’ standardized test scores.
“At this point we are evaluating teachers based on achievement tests that teachers cannot control the factors for,” Schomp said, noting that the results of tests are often influenced by socioeconomic factors such as whether a child has eaten on the day of the exam.
Schomp also expressed concern about the classroom experience level of LEAP’s peer evaluators and principals, arguing that often the evaluators have spent less time in classrooms than the teachers they are rating.
Johnson downplayed those concerns, arguing that the results of the evaluation system has been instrumental in helping support teachers as they improve their practice.
“We’ve developed a system that has buy-in from teachers,” he said. “It’s very fair.”
The next debate, featuring the candidates for the at-large seat, will be held next Thursday, September 26. If you have a question for the candidates, submit it here.