the race is on

Barbara O’Brien has three challengers for her DPS board seat so far — and one almost pulled a big upset two years ago

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
DPS board vice president Barbara O'Brien. left, and board president Anne Rowe.

A Denver father who narrowly lost a seat on the Denver Public Schools board to a well-known incumbent two years ago is running again this year, one of three candidates challenging another well-known incumbent, former Colorado lieutenant governor Barbara O’Brien.

O’Brien’s at-large seat is among four on the seven-member board up for grabs this fall. Incumbents are running in three of the four races, and every race is now contested.

The stakes are high: All seven current board members support district leaders’ brand of education reform, which includes closing low-performing schools. Victories by candidates who oppose those reforms would increase disagreement on a board that often votes 7-0. A sweep by those candidates could potentially change the direction of key district policies.

The field for the at-large seat is the biggest thus far. Of the three candidates vying to unseat O’Brien, Robert Speth is likely the most familiar to voters after his showing in 2015.

The father of two was a political unknown when he emerged late in the campaign to challenge former city councilwoman Happy Haynes, who at the time was president of the DPS board.

Haynes had recently been appointed head of the city parks department, which raised questions about whether it was a conflict for her to hold both that job and an at-large seat on the volunteer school board. The Denver Board of Ethics said it was not.

Robert Speth

But Speth called for an “absolute separation” between the two roles. He also criticized the district’s embrace of charter schools and co-locating different schools in the same building, arguing that DPS often ignored the wishes of family and community members.

On Election Day, he lost to Haynes by 913 votes.

Speth, 45, said he’s been watching the board for past two years and doesn’t agree with its approach to closing low-performing schools. It was “just heartbreaking,” he said, to hear parents and teachers at three schools the board voted to close last year begging for another chance.

“School closure has got to be viewed as an absolute last resort,” Speth said. “Now the way we’re operating, it’s, ‘Sure, no problem.’”

If elected, he said he’d also work to rein in the number of standardized tests students take, slow the pace of new charter school approvals and increase community engagement. Having children in DPS schools sets him apart from his opponents, he said.

Speth has the formidable task of trying to unseat O’Brien, 67, who recently stepped down as president of Catapult, a development program for leaders of low-income schools.

She is well-known in Colorado politics, having served as the state’s lieutenant governor from 2007 to 2011. Before that, she was the longtime president of the Colorado Children’s Campaign and helped create the Colorado Preschool Program for at-risk children.

O’Brien said she’s running for re-election to continue to push for gains in the areas she’s most passionate about, including getting young learners off to a good start and ensuring that high school graduates can afford college or vocational training.

O’Brien is most proud of the increased autonomy the district has granted school leaders during her tenure on the board, how it’s empowering teachers to coach other teachers and how leaders worked with a community organization to craft a policy that limits suspensions and expulsions for students in preschool through third grade, she said.

She voted for the recent school closures, explaining that while the district should do all it can to help a school improve, it also can’t let children languish in programs that aren’t working.

“Sometimes you just need a fresh start,” O’Brien said.

Candidates Julie Banuelos and Jo Ann Fujioka are also vying for the at-large seat.

Banuelos, 44, spent her early childhood in northeast Denver, where she attended an elementary school that later was turned into a magnet school for gifted students. Until this past October, Banuelos was a DPS teacher, working with Spanish-speaking elementary school students, and was on the board of directors of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association union.

She said “a lot of frustration with the reform that is taking priority in DPS” caused her to leave her job. She called the criteria the board uses to close low-performing schools “flimsy” and said the district’s school choice system should be reworked to ensure it’s providing equal opportunity to low-income families who can’t drive their children to schools across town. And she’d like the district to pause on approving new charter schools with strict behavior policies.

“They promote values that don’t reflect our community,” Banuelos said.

Fujioka is a former Jeffco Public Schools nurse and administrator who oversaw special education in a lower-income area of the suburban district. She’s also a North High School graduate whose daughter graduated from DPS, as well, and she has been active for years in the Denver Democratic Party. Fujioka is Japanese American, and she and her family were in an internment camp when she was a toddler, she said.

She disagrees with closing low-performing traditional schools and said the expansion of charter schools in Denver has created “a system of unequal education where it does depend on where you live and if you have the means to really choose and get your student there.”

Fujioka said she thinks DPS should shift funding away from administrative staff and into classrooms to lower class sizes and provide more professional development for teachers.

The other seats in play represent the southwest, northeast and central east parts of the city.

Incumbent Mike Johnson is running for re-election to represent central east Denver. DPS teacher Carrie A. Olson told Chalkbeat she intends to run against him. Olson is a social studies and English language development teacher at West Leadership Academy.

Incumbent Rachele Espiritu is running to continue representing northeast Denver. She has two challengers: recent high school graduate Tay Anderson, and Jennifer Bacon, an attorney and community organizer who works for Leadership for Educational Equity, a nonprofit organization that trains educators to advocate for education policy changes.

The board member who currently holds the seat representing southwest Denver, Rosemary Rodriguez, is not running again. But she has endorsed one of the candidates: former DPS teacher Angela Cobian. DPS parent Xochitl “Sochi” Gaytan is also running for the seat.

The field will not be set until Sept. 1, the deadline for filing petition signatures to qualify for the November ballot.

Rallying cry

At DeVos protest, opponents seek to tie Trump education appointee to Denver school board

Hundreds of protesters circled the hotel where Betsy DeVos is scheduled to speak Thursday. (Photo by Marissa Page/Chalkbeat)

Several hundred protesters, many of them teachers, gathered at the state Capitol Wednesday to rail against what they called the privatization of public education under U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who is scheduled to give a speech in Denver Thursday.

With local school board elections looming in November, speakers at Wednesday’s rally sought to tie the policies championed by billionaire Republican DeVos to those enacted by Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg and Democrats on the nonpartisan school board.

“In November, we have the opportunity to take our school board back!” said Rachael Lehman, a parent of an East High graduate.

She called for “a school board revolution,” saying “DeVos-style policies” have harmed Denver’s traditional schools, three of which the school board recently voted unanimously to close after years of lagging test scores.

DeVos has become a national target of teachers unions and progressive Democrats. Before Trump appointed her education secretary, she used her personal wealth to push for the expansion of charter schools and private school vouchers, which unions staunchly oppose.

Unions in Colorado and across the country have already begun using DeVos’s image and unpopularity to push back against charter school-friendly legislation and policies. And more is expected during the fall school board elections.

Four seats on the seven-member Denver school board are up for grabs in this November’s election. All seven seats are currently held by members who support DPS’s brand of education reform, which embraces school choice, though not vouchers. Boasberg has repeatedly sought to differentiate DPS’s approach from DeVos’s.

“We believe that public dollars should be used for public schools that are open to all kids, whether they are district-run or charter,” he said earlier this year.

A sweep by candidates who oppose the district’s reforms could change its direction.

One of those candidates, recent Manual High graduate Tay Anderson, planned the rally, which drew teachers, parents, students and others from across the state. Toward the end, Anderson took the microphone to call out current Denver board members for attending.

“They want to show up when they need your vote!” he said.

“But we can tell them, ‘Screw you. You’re fired in November!’”

Board member Mike Johnson, who is running for re-election, was at the rally, holding a sign he made that said, “What is scarier? Grizzly? Or Betsy?” To compare DPS’s policies to those promoted by DeVos, who has criticized the district, “is just a mistake,” he said.

“I think that everybody there, including myself, believes the Trump agenda for public education is disastrous,” Johnson said of rally attendees, “and I think that we ought to be fighting this fight together instead of using it for our own local purposes.”

Johnson was the only DPS board member Chalkbeat saw at the rally. Board vice president Barbara O’Brien, who is also running for re-election, said she asked rally organizers if she could speak but “they made it clear that I wasn’t welcome.”

Some rally speakers appealed directly to DeVos. Denver teacher JoZi Martinez implored her to “leave public education to the experts: we the teachers and the administrators in the trenches.”

“This is not a monarchy and you are clearly not a queen, Ms. DeVos,” she said.

The crowd cheered when she urged DeVos to step down. Pleas to stop voucher programs, reduce standardized testing and provide free community college also got big applause.

Mentions of the group Democrats for Education Reform, which has been active in Denver school board elections, elicited loud boos. When state Sen. Michael Merrifield, a Colorado Springs Democrat and former public school music teacher, condemned members of his own party for supporting education reform, rally attendees began chanting “shame, shame!”

After the speeches, Anderson grabbed a bullhorn and led the protesters on a march to the downtown Hyatt Regency hotel. They snaked around the city-block-sized hotel, waving signs and shouting, “This is what democracy looks like!” among other chants.

The annual meeting of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, is taking place at the hotel Wednesday through Friday. On Thursday, DeVos is scheduled to address the lawmakers, lobbyists and business leaders from around the country in attendance.

Another target of teachers unions, ALEC is known for providing its members with model legislation and policies that promote free-market education reform principles.

slate politics

Debora Scheffel, former state board of education member, announces bid for Douglas County school board

Former State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A conservative Republican former member of Colorado’s State Board of Education is part of a slate of four candidates running for the Douglas County school board.

Debora Scheffel, who narrowly lost her re-election bid to the state board last fall, announced her candidacy in a joint release with the other candidates.

The Douglas County school board race will be one of the most closely watched in the state this year. With four of the board’s seven seats up, the direction of Colorado’s third largest school district is on the line.

All four seats in play this year are held by members of the board’s conservative faction. So far, none of the incumbents has filed paperwork indicating an intent to run.

In 2015, three insurgent candidates running against the conservative board’s reform efforts — including a controversial private-school voucher program — won seats.

Other conservative reform school board candidates lost elections elsewhere in Colorado that year, including three Jefferson County school board members who were recalled.

Since the Douglas County school board’s ideology split in 2015, the district has been in a constant state of conflict. Scheffel’s slate, in its release, said it hopes to calm the acrimony.

“Students are impacted for life by what happens in school,” Scheffel said in the release. “I am running to ensure that Douglas County can return its focus to providing an excellent education for students of all levels throughout our district.”

Scheffel’s three running mates are Randy Mills, an electrician; Grant Nelson, a commercial real estate developer; and Ryan Abresch, a legal analyst. All three men either had or have students enrolled in Douglas County schools.

Two other Douglas County residents have filed paperwork to run for school board: Krista Holtzmann and Kevin Leung. Neither was immediately available for comment Friday.

Leung is a Republican who ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the board before. He declined an endorsement from the Douglas County Republican Party, saying that he believed school board elections should be nonpartisan and “not be drawn into party politics.”