In Denver’s at-large school board race, a familiar face and two challengers who want change

The Denver school board’s highest-profile member, former Colorado lieutenant governor Barbara O’Brien, has two challengers fighting to unseat her as she runs for re-election to the board.

Julie Bañuelos, a former Denver Public Schools teacher, and Robert Speth, who narrowly lost a bid for a different school board seat in 2015 and is the father of two students, are facing off against O’Brien for an at-large seat representing the entire city.

Bañuelos and Speth disagree with the direction of Denver Public Schools, which is known nationally for embracing school choice and collaborating with charter schools. O’Brien vehemently supports it. But as vice president of a board that unanimously backs the superintendent’s vision and is seen by opponents as a rubber stamp, she has at times publicly criticized the district for how certain policies were carried out.

One example: At a rancorous January board meeting, she said before a crowd of parents and community members that she was “really disappointed in how the district has worked to implement what’s a tough policy” to close or replace persistently low-performing schools, adding that DPS “didn’t give this community the very best the district has to offer.”

The at-large seat is one of four on the seven-member board up for election Tuesday. Voters have a choice between electing candidates who will stay the district’s course or change the dynamic.

O’Brien, 67, has emphasized on the campaign trail her commitment to young learners. Before serving as the state’s lieutenant governor from 2007 to 2011, she was president of the Colorado Children’s Campaign and helped create the Colorado Preschool Program for at-risk kids.

She has said the importance of early literacy is personal for her. Growing up, O’Brien said, her mother was sick and she spent many hours reading novels with her to pass the time.

“I have been on a mission to make sure that kids in Denver and all of Colorado have the ability to learn to read and develop a passion for learning the way that I feel, in a way, saved my life,” she said at a recent candidate debate. “Maybe not really, but in terms of my imagination and my ability to feel like I could handle anything that comes along.”

O’Brien has pushed the district to intensify its focus on making sure more students can read by third grade. In the past several years, DPS has devoted more resources to that end, including $6.8 million of a $56.6 million tax increase approved by voters last year.

State literacy tests last year showed 38 percent of third-graders were reading and writing on grade-level, a 6 percentage-point increase from the year before, which was among the biggest year-to-year jumps in proficiency on any test in any grade districtwide.

O’Brien said she’s also proud of the board’s recent decision to limit suspensions and expulsions for students in preschool through third grade, the district’s expansion of a program that has teachers coach other teachers, and efforts to grant school leaders more autonomy over things like curriculum and teacher training. She said she also believes a program that offers apprenticeships to high school students holds a lot of promise.

O’Brien supports district policies that have come under attack from her opponents, including streamlining the school choice process so families fill out a single form to request entry into any school, and closing or replacing those that fail to meet certain academic benchmarks.

But asked recently what differentiates her from her challengers, O’Brien, whose two grown sons graduated from DPS, said she’d like instead to reinforce their similarities.

“All three of us are avid supporters of public schools,” she said. “It’s really disappointing to see committees behind some of the other campaigns going negative about me and trying to compare me to Betsy DeVos, which is absurd. I am nothing like her.”

Some independent political committees have sent mailers portraying O’Brien and other candidates who agree with the district’s direction as in line with Trump and his education secretary, who supports private school vouchers. Though O’Brien once supported vouchers for low-income students, she has said she no longer supports vouchers of any kind.

For his part, Speth has repeatedly accused the district and the current board of “privatizing” public education by approving more charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run in Denver by nonprofit boards. There are currently 59 charter schools in DPS.

Speth said in an interview that while he’s not anti-charter, he thinks there are too many.

“I’m not in the camp of ‘never say never,’” he said. “But what I would say is we certainly have a lot of these out there at this point in time and we don’t have the results overwhelmingly” to say they’re significantly outperforming traditional district-run schools.

While Denver has some high-performing charters — eight of the 20 schools that earned the district’s top rating this year were charters — it also has some on the opposite end. The only school to qualify for closure due to persistent low performance this year was a charter.

Speth, 45, ran for an at-large seat on the board two years ago against incumbent Happy Haynes. A late entrant to that race, Speth lost on Election Day by just 913 votes.

Speth entered the race earlier this time, explaining that he’d “been getting a lot of calls from folks across the city saying, ‘Hey, you came so close last time and we need you to get back in.’”

He has said his experience as a current DPS parent sets him apart from his opponents. He and his wife have a son at Escuela Valdez, a dual-language elementary school, and a daughter at Lake International School, a middle school co-located with a charter. Lake is not his daughter’s assigned school, but Speth said they choiced her in partly because of the curriculum.

The district spends “an inordinate amount of time forcing our children to take standardized tests,” Speth said. He criticized how DPS uses those test scores to rate schools and then uses those ratings to determine which schools should be closed. Closing a school should be “an absolute last resort,” he said, to be used in situations where, for example, the demographics of a neighborhood “shifted so rapidly that there are no students in that location.”

“Right now in Denver, we don’t have any areas that fit that bill,” he said. “These schools are not being closed for those types of reasons. They’re being closed because they’re not getting the support they need. … There’s no doubt in my mind we could be doing much more.”

Speth is an engineer who formerly worked for technology companies including Sprint. He said he has now gone into business with two friends to start a small construction firm called New Century Highlands. So far, he said, they’ve worked on two single-family homes “appropriate to the neighborhood;” one has already been sold and the other is nearing completion, he said.

Bañuelos, 45, is the newcomer in the race. But she’s not a new to DPS, having gone to Denver elementary schools as a child and taught in several as an adult.

On the campaign trail, she’s talked about how her experiences as a student from a low-income family and later a teacher of Spanish-speaking students give her a unique perspective on what the community wants from the district. About two-thirds of DPS students qualify for subsidized lunches, a proxy for poverty, and 37 percent are English language learners.

Bañuelos worked at an investment firm after college, she said, but volunteering as a reading buddy at her former elementary school in northeast Denver led her to become a teacher. She worked at that school, Ebert Elementary, until it was turned into a program for highly gifted students. She then got a job at Academia Ana Marie Sandoval, a dual-language Montessori program. Her last position was at Centennial, an expeditionary learning school.

She left Centennial in October 2016 to take a job as a family service worker for a Head Start preschool program run by Catholic Charities. An active member of the teachers union who served as the union representative for her school, Bañuelos said she was was vocal about standing up for teachers’ rights, which sometimes put her at odds with her supervisors.

Rather than find herself “blacklisted” by the district, Bañuelos said, she decided to look for another job where she could positively impact low-income children and families.

Bañuelos has called for a moratorium on new charter schools, saying that a majority of them enforce strict behavior policies and testing regimens that “promote values that don’t reflect our community.” She has also criticized the district’s universal school choice policy.

“Right now, choice benefits a few,” Bañuelos said. “Those people who are happy with choice, that’s great. … But the majority — families of color, working-class families — who have no option close to them, I don’t think that’s something they should have to endure.”

She also has called the criteria the board uses to judge low-performing schools “flimsy” and said the district is using English language learners as “scapegoats” for closing schools. If students at a school are struggling to learn English, she said, the district should examine whether it’s providing that school with the resources it needs rather than declare it failing and shut it down.

“There should never be a decision to close a school,” Bañuelos said at a recent candidate forum. “That is so demoralizing to our students, to our teachers, to our communities.”

The teachers union has endorsed Speth, while a progressive caucus is backing Bañuelos.

As of Oct. 12, when the first campaign filing period ended, O’Brien was leading the pack in terms of fundraising. She’d raised the most of any candidate in any race: $101,291. Her major donors included philanthropists who regularly give large sums to pro-reform school board candidates.

Speth had raised $21,615, including $1,500 from a union small donor committee. Since then, he has loaned himself more than $18,000 and gotten $5,000 from such committees.

Bañuelos as of Oct. 12 had raised the least of any candidate: $7,737. She was also the only candidate in any Denver race who’d spent more than she’d raised. The next round of campaign finance reports from the candidates are due at midnight Friday.

O’Brien has benefitted from the support of two independent expenditure committees. As of Oct. 30, Raising Colorado, a group affiliated with Democrats for Education Reform, had spent $100,225 in support of her campaign. Better Schools for a Stronger Colorado, a committee affiliated with the pro-reform Stand for Children organization, had spent $156,145 on her.

An independent expenditure committee connected with the anti-reform group Our Denver, Our Schools, in which Speth has played an active role, spent $6,080 in support of his campaign.