An end to Denver’s reform era? Teachers union-backed school board candidates win big

The Denver school board is on the verge of a historic shift, with three candidates backed by the teachers union scoring decisive wins.

This marks the first time in a decade that candidates supported by proponents of education reform won’t have the majority on the Denver school board. For years, Denver has been a national model for a certain brand of education reform. Tuesday’s election results could mean a departure from long-standing reform policies opposed by the union, including approving new independent charter schools and closing low-performing schools.

In a three-way race for an at-large seat representing the entire city, candidate Tay Anderson had 51% of the vote followed by 37% for Alexis Menocal Harrigan and just 12% for Natela Manuntseva, according to final unofficial results released Thursday afternoon.

This was Anderson’s second attempt at winning a board seat. Just 21 years old, he’s a recent graduate of Denver Public Schools who now works at a Denver high school as a restorative justice coordinator, helping students resolve conflicts. He’ll have to leave that job because district policy bars employees from serving on the school board.

After the first results came in at 7 p.m. Tuesday, an emotional Anderson called his mother on speaker phone and told her he was a school board member. About three hours later, with Anderson’s lead holding steady, Menocal Harrigan conceded the race.

“We have made history here today, not by just flipping the board,” said Anderson, who said he was told a young black man could not win a citywide race.

In a three-way race for the District 1 seat representing southeast Denver, candidate Scott Baldermann, a father of two Denver students and past PTA president of his children’s school, won with 47% of the vote. Candidate Diana Romero Campbell earned 31% of the vote, while candidate Radhika Nath earned 22%.

The three way-race for the District 5 seat representing northwest Denver was closer. Candidate Brad Laurvick, a Methodist pastor who played a prominent role in supporting teachers during a strike earlier this year, won with 35% of the vote. Former teacher Julie Bañuelos had 34% of the vote, while longtime district volunteer Tony Curcio, who had the endorsement of incumbent board member Lisa Flores, came in third place with 30%.

Tiffany Choi, the new president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, was at Anderson’s buoyant party at a northeast Denver co-working space for the initial returns before heading to Laurvick’s more low-key gathering at a northwest Denver restaurant.

She called the results “incredible.”

“This is amazing because it allows us to change the conversation in Denver about what our public schools should look like,” Choi said.

In practical terms, Choi said she hopes a union-backed majority on the Denver school board would mean the board spends less time talking about closing or “turning around” failing schools, and more time talking about the resources schools need to help students succeed.

“I’m hoping we’re going to value the teaching profession in a way we haven’t seen for a long time where instead of blaming teachers for test scores or for failing schools, we’re trusting teachers that they’re doing the work they need to be doing,” Choi said.

There are currently two union-backed members on the Denver school board, and five members backed by groups that support the district’s reform policies. If Laurvick holds his lead, that ratio will flip. Even if he doesn’t, union-backed members will hold four of the seven board seats.

“Flip the board” became a rallying cry among some parents and activists following February’s Denver teacher strike. Although primarily a fight about teacher pay, the strike highlighted discontent with reform policies championed by previous school boards.

Whether the reforms have been successful is hotly debated. While student test scores have risen, big gaps remain between the scores of white students and students of color.

Even before the election, the board had backed away from aggressive school closure policies and approved fewer new schools, partly due to expected declining enrollment in the district.

Ann Schimke contributed to this report.