Former Denver teacher joins race that could shift school board majority

This year’s Denver school board race is shaping up to be full of familiar faces — and another one has entered the race. Julie Bañuelos, who ran unsuccessfully for an at-large seat in 2017, has declared her candidacy to represent her home region of northwest Denver.

Bañuelos is a former Denver Public Schools teacher who disagrees with the direction of the district, opposes school closures, and supports a moratorium on new charter schools. Her policy stances put her firmly in the camp of those who want to “flip the board,” and either halt or reverse the reforms supported by the board majority over the past 15 years.

“I bring the perspective of a former teacher,” Bañuelos said. The district’s educators and students, she said, “need an ally and someone they can trust who represents them fully.”

The seat representing northwest Denver is currently held by board member Lisa Flores, who is not running for re-election. Flores has supported the district’s reform efforts, including closing or replacing low-performing schools, though she also led a charge to re-examine the criteria used to make those decisions. Her seat is one of three on the seven-member board that are up for election in November.

The board members who hold the other two seats, Anne Rowe and Happy Haynes, are barred by term limits from running again, leaving the fields for their races wide open, as well.

Bañuelos said the recent Denver teacher strike is part of what inspired her to run again. Before that, she said she wasn’t thinking much about resurrecting her own political ambitions and was instead focusing her energy on efforts outside of Denver Public Schools.

For nearly a year, Bañuelos has worked for a Catholic Charities program that serves mothers and children experiencing homelessness. In August, she was one of eight protesters who blocked the parking lot of a U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement building in Centennial to protest the treatment of undocumented immigrants.

Bañuelos was handcuffed by police and cited along with other protesters in the incident.

“When they asked for volunteers and who would be willing to get arrested, it wasn’t an easy decision,” Bañuelos said. But she said she ultimately decided that as a college-educated citizen with a clean criminal record, she had the privilege that would allow her to make such a stand.

“This is a dark time in our country,” Bañuelos said, “and you have a chance to decide: Do I just stand and watch? Or do I do something about it?”

She said she saw the same sort of determination in the Denver teachers who chose to go on strike. Bañuelos was active in the Denver Classroom Teachers Association during her 16 years as a teacher, first at the now-closed Ebert Elementary, where she’d attended as a child, then at Academia Ana Marie Sandoval, and finally at Centennial School in northwest Denver.

Bilingual in English and Spanish, Bañuelos said she spent most of her career delivering instruction in Spanish. She said she ultimately left Centennial in 2016 after a disagreement over the school’s “innovation plan.” Such plans give district-run schools more autonomy by allowing them to waive certain rules, including those that provide job protections for teachers.

If elected, Bañuelos said she’d push to increase mental health support for students, with those professionals largely replacing the use of police officers in schools, and expand the use of restorative practices, which focus on repairing harm, in lieu of more punitive student discipline. She also continues to oppose school closures and new charter schools.

She said she’d also work to decrease the emphasis on test scores by “making sure people know our students and our teachers are worth more than what a Scantron says they’re worth.” The district uses test scores to rate schools, and in a district that prizes school choice, many families use those ratings to determine where to send their children.

In 2017, Bañuelos raised the least money of any candidate in the race. She failed to win the endorsement of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, which supported Robert Speth, another candidate critical of the district’s direction. Bañuelos won 24 percent of the vote, Speth won 35 percent, and incumbent Barbara O’Brien won 40 percent, making her the victor.

Members of a coalition who want to “flip the board” have said they want to prevent a similar splitting of the vote this year by coalescing support and funding behind a slate of three candidates.

School board candidates must file at least 67 days before the election in November, which means new candidates could join the race as late as August.

Thus far, three candidates are vying for the at-large seat held by Haynes. Four candidates are competing for the seat to represent southeast Denver currently held by Rowe.