Schools the focus in last mayoral debate

The two candidates for mayor of Denver pitched their education credentials during their final debate Tuesday night, but the event served mostly to highlight the views they share.

With the campaign pitting Michael Hancock against Chris Romer now down to its final week, the 256-seat auditorium at Teller Elementary School in east Denver was filled with a standing-room only crowd for the one-hour evening event hosted by 10 education advocacy groups.

One of the few moments of contrast came when Hancock called attention to the fact that he has been endorsed by what he identified as the four “progressive” members of the Denver Public Schools Board of Education.

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He didn’t name them but Hancock was referring to board president Nate Easley, Mary Seawell, Theresa Pena and Bruce Hoyt, who have consistently backed the reform agenda of Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

Romer quickly followed by saying it is time to stop identifying “groups within school boards by labels and adjectives.”

He cited a recent conversation with board member Andrea Merida, a frequent Boasberg critic who has endorsed Romer, along with board member Jeannie Kaplan.

After telling Merida “We agree on nothing related to reform,” Romer said that Merida proceeded to cite several areas on which they actually do see eye to eye.

“Let’s focus on what we agree on, and not focus on the adjectives and labels,” Romer said.  “If you take a divided board to the public, you’re going to get a divided result.”

Both candidates said they would support specific candidates in November’s DPS elections but declined to name names. Three seats are on the ballot, and Hancock said “there’s no election more important” in Denver this year than those contests.

A Denver Post/9News poll released Sunday found education the most important issue for 22 percent of the voters surveyed, second only to economic development, which was cited by 30 percent of those contacted.

Both candidates have aired television ads focusing on education. In a spot titled “18 Miles,” which first aired in April, Hancock drew attention to the fact that his son faces an 18-mile trip each day from the family’s home in Green Valley Ranch to East High School “because our neighborhood school is one of many across Denver that is failing.”

Hancock hit on that theme from the stage Tuesday.

“As mayor, my vision is that every child, no matter where they live in Denver, will have access to quality schools in their neighborhood.

“Today there are too many zip codes in Denver, neighborhoods where families are having to move along or opt out, to find quality schools … we can do better than that,” Hancock said.

Romer’s most recent television ad, titled “Dream,” promotes his background as founder of the Colorado I Have a Dream Foundation, a non-profit program that helps disadvantaged Denver students graduate from high school, and his having served as a superintendent of New America Schools.

Romer also helped craft Amendment 23, the 2000 ballot measure that established a funding formula for the state’s public schools.

He used every opportunity to hit those highlights of his resume – and to mention by name public officials he’s worked with – in Tuesday night’s debate.

The two repeatedly characterized funding of public education as inadequate.

“We need to fund schools at least equal to the national average,” said Romer. “Between city hall and schools, I’ll take schools every day of the week. And that’s one of the reasons that I’m running for mayor.”

The two candidates are widely seen as not having a tremendous amount of daylight between them on the subject of education, something which was repeatedly shown in their remarks Tuesday night.

One example came when moderator Alexander Ooms asked the candidates whether they support public access to data linking teachers to the academic growth of their students.

“Sharing it publicly, putting it on the Web, I’m going to have to think a little bit more about that. I’d like to make sure that people aren’t gaming the system, and they’re sharing it within the organization,” said Romer.

Hancock said, “Having managed people, making any kind of evaluation or assessment public that could be construed as personnel information, would concern me a great deal. It’s a slippery slope that we’ve got to be very careful of.

“We never want to, I think, create a situation where teachers are being targeted by the public outside of that school building.”

Candidates offer mild criticism of DPS

Both candidates have been generally supportive of DPS’ Denver Plan, and of the contentious Far Northeast Denver schools turnaround proposal approved last November. Ooms asked where they would differ with DPS leadership.

“I was not a fan of some of the decisions on expanding certain charters, which I felt weren’t ready to do it,” said Romer, who touted his past involvement with three charter schools, including KIPP Denver and the Denver School of Science and Technology.

“I have my questions about the stresses of and strains of expanding some of the charters that weren’t quite ready to do it,” he added, cautioning that  expanding too quickly results in “robbing the mother ship to pay for the satellite. You’ve got to be very careful of that.”

Hancock referred to the wave of DPS schools that have been approved, or are pending approval, for innovation status. Such designation has been approved for 13 schools – with more coming.

“I know many principals and teachers have been frustrated by not receiving, I think, the money and autonomy that’s tied to their innovation status,” said Hancock.

“Give them their innovation status. Give them the ability to control their own destiny. If it means releasing them from the bureaucratic reins, then release them. Allow the teachers and schools … the ability to control their destiny. And I think DPS is like a parent who can’t let go. And so we’ve got to push them a little bit. We’re going to have to nudge them a little bit, to begin to release these schools and give them the real innovation status that they deserve, and that they’ve approved.”

Both were asked how they would work with DPS as mayor but suggested little beyond communication with the school board and superintendent.

Romer and Hancock were invited to speculate on what they would tell the other after the election, if their opponent won.

“I hope that Chris knows that he can call me particularly with regards to community engagement,” said Hancock.

Said Romer, “We do need to do this Northeast thing right. We are a trajectory to do something really important. We need to do it right. Michael’s leadership and his willingness to stand up was really important. … I would reach out to him immediately to make sure we did this correctly and we thought it through.”

Poll shows Hancock with edge

Although it was the final debate of the campaign, Tuesday’s event was the first head-to-head confrontation between the two since publication of the Post/9News poll, which showed Hancock with a 10-point lead over Romer.

That poll, conducted by SurveyUSA, put Hancock at 49 percent, Romer at 39 percent, 11 percent undecided and a plus-or-minus 4.3 percent margin of error.  The automated telephone survey was conducted May 23-May 27 with 548 likely and actual voters.

For the first time, the Denver mayoral runoff is being conducted by all-mail ballot. Through last Friday, 29,925 – or just under 10 percent – of the issued ballots have been returned and verified. June 7 is the deadline for ballots to be turned in.

Prior to the mayoral primary on May 3, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association endorsed James Mejia, who finished third. Meija has endorsed Romer, but the DCTA didn’t endorse anyone in the runoff.

Video highlights from Tuesday’s mayoral debate – opening statements

Q & A on education funding, school board endorsements, sharing teacher data