Denver board candidate Michael Kiley: DPS should support neighborhood schools

Since 2013, Denver school board member Arturo Jimenez, who represents District 5, has been the only board member to regularly vote against DPS administration proposals. Now, Jimenez’s seat representing fast-changing northwest Denver is up for grabs.

Michael Kiley, a project manager at workforce management software company Kronos, and Lisa Flores, a former senior program officer at the Denver-based Gates Family Foundation and former policy analyst for then-Mayor John Hickenlooper, have both declared that they are running for the seat. Kiley ran for the at-large board seat now held by Barbara O’Brien in 2013.

Both candidates say they are focused on creating quality schools, but they differ on the details.

In the third in a series of interviews with the candidates for Denver board, Chalkbeat spoke with Kiley about his take on neighborhood schools and making sure that all constituents, not just the most vocal, are represented. Earlier this week, Chalkbeat shared interviews with District 1 candidates Anne Rowe
and Kristi Butkovich; check back later this week for an interview with Flores.

Kiley says that his experience as a parent interested in improving Skinner Middle School led him to run for school board. This is how he tells the story:

Michael Kiley, a candidate for DPS’s District 5 board seat.

Kiley: I didn’t originally set out to run. I found myself in a situation with some other parents when we were going to have our middle school closed. This was Skinner Middle School, in 2009. We met with the principal, and she laid it out that if enrollment didn’t go up, they were likely going to close.

We made a laundry list of the attributes Skinner needs to have: honors programs, music. And we said, we think we can attract the proficient and above kids into Skinner. [The principal at the time] looked at us like we were from Mars. She said, you’re talking about honors, music — I don’t have the head count. So we sat down with Superintendent [Tom] Boasberg and laid it out and said, we’ll send our kids, we’ll get you other kids. He looked at us like we were crazy…but eventually, we compelled the board to give us a half million in school improvement grants. We got Spanish, got music, got honors, and we marketed the heck out of it.

It was all grassroots, at coffee shops and barbecues. Time and time again we said, yeah, we’re sending our kids.

Now Skinner’s got a waitlist. And we kind of felt like, hey, we’re onto something…

So what we realized was a couple things. One is if you have the right principal, they’ll get you the right teachers. The right principal’s going to partner with the community, and then the magic happens. It sounds elementary, but if you take similar magic, a core group of parents who believe in the school, they make it happen, they recruit others.

While this was going on, I realized that the board was a real challenge in terms of being a community member and coming to them and asking them to respect us as partners, to work with us, to give us the resources we need. The administration, too. They’re all good people, it’s not ill-intended. But the board needed a community voice, to take a step back.

It’s a large institution and it behaves like that. The board’s there to remind DPS of what the community’s wants and needs are. That’s what really excited me about this. I’m not a teacher but I’m a parent and I know what other parents are looking for. You can’t tell me neighborhood schools don’t work.

Kiley thinks the district should focus culling or improving its central office staff.

Chalkbeat: Can you talk about issues you think affect DPS as a whole?

Kiley: There are no lost neighborhoods in Denver. There’s no reason we can’t have a quality neighborhood option in every neighborhood. That is premise No. 1 to me. There are no failing schools, there are schools that we have failed.

Skinner is an integration success story. It’s really easy, it just takes hard work.

You have to recognize the choice process. It’s district’s responsibility to give parents what they’re asking for. And for schools that are struggling, we have to look at choice, look at data and fix what’s broken.

But I don’t accept that all we can do is put in charter schools … I long for the days when a charter was a group of teachers and parents who said, we can do this.

The second is, we’ve got to get as much resource into buildings as possible. I’m very concerned about how – first the new administration’s purchased this central office, and we seem to be filling it with administrators. As I look down the list of Instructional Superintendents, there are names that jump out, and they jump out not for their successes.

I come from the private sector, and you don’t get promotions for flying a school into the hillside.

You should have a rock star group of administrators. You should look at all the Instructional Superintendents and hear about the school they turned around, the community they brought together, that they are a master teacher themselves.

Chalkbeat: The current board just set a plan to move more decision-making to schools in action last May. What do you think about that?

Kiley: I’m relying on staff and principals and teachers to tell me their take. I’m cautiously optimistic. I want to see more money get to the school level.

Kiley says his style as a public commenter doesn’t necessarily reflect his style as a board member.

Chalkbeat: You’ve been a vocal critic of the district and have different stances on some issues than many of the current members. How do you see those dynamics playing out?

Kiley: Perhaps we’re not as far apart as we seem. When I go to public comment, it’s a final step in a 20-step journey, where the community didn’t get what they wanted after numerous meetings and phone calls.

It’s never personal. I don’t have a personal issue with anyone on the board. Any time I see them publicly, I say hello and chat. As a board member, I look forward to working behind the scenes.

I may go 1-6 on some things, but I do see those opportunities where we can reach compromise.

I’d like public comment to be 15 minutes long because there’s been such good community engagement that public comment’s about commendations, as opposed to one combative issue after another.

I’m not coming into this to fix DPS — I can’t do that. But for District 5, I can increase parent engagement.

Chalkbeat: District 5 has some very vocal community groups and constituents. How do you make sure that all of your constituents — not just the noisy ones or those who already have power — are represented?

Kiley: I’ve put great effort into outreach to families of every walk of life. I’ve walked Quigg Newton [a public housing project in northwest Denver], I’ve sat in the living rooms of people who have much nicer living rooms than I do. What I find is remarkable consistency in what they say they want. They want a quality neighborhood option. They like choice and I do, too.

Chalkbeat: What are some other issues on your mind in northwest Denver?

Kiley: We’ve got a lot of success stories, and we need to bring that to other programs. I visited Colfax Elementary. I really like the culture there and wonder, how can we help them? There are great things going on at West Leadership. There’s also Bryant Webster. People talk about dual language programs and all they think about is Valdez and Sandoval. I ask, did you take a tour of Bryant Webster?

It’s easier to talk about what doesn’t work. This town has experience with what doesn’t work. You tell families with resources to go to a school they don’t want to go to and they’re going to move, they’re going to go to private school, and then they’re out of the system. That tears at the fabric of the community. When you take out that ownership from community, it damages them. Trying to force someone to go to a school in the name of equity that doesn’t work.

So how do we fix it? Skinner, I think, is a good story to tell around that. It’s more diverse than the community it’s in. Make a compelling neighborhood school, and the majority of kids will choose it.

Chalkbeat: What about Trevista? Do you think that program should remain in that school?

Kiley: I’m impressed by the new principal and I want to see him be successful. Where there’s a challenge: Sunnyside needs a new middle school and it’s going to need it in the not-so-distant future.

Chalkbeat: What are your thoughts on standardized testing and opting out?

Kiley: Parents have the right to do what’s best for their child. It’s pointless to try to make them do otherwise. When I hear Arne [Duncan, the federal education secretary] posturing like he can somehow make somebody’s child take a test, I think, so why don’t we demonstrate the value of the test and people will gladly take it. I hear students either getting unduly stressed or just not caring. Both of those are bad outcomes. I’m also skeptical of a billion dollar testing industry having an economic stake.

(Chalkbeat Colorado is a grantee of the Gates Family Foundation.)
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described Kiley’s employer, Kronos. Kronos is a workforce management company.