Southeast Denver school board candidate favors class size caps, ‘community schools’

A Denver mother who said she was surprised to find the city’s public schools under-resourced and its classrooms overcrowded is running for school board in southeast Denver.

“The first day of kindergarten with my son, I looked at my school and said, ‘There’s one teacher faced with 30 kindergarteners,’” said Radhika Nath.

Nath has two sons who will be in second and third grade this fall at their neighborhood school. An immigrant from India who came to the United States to pursue higher education, Nath said Denver’s public schools don’t reflect the economic prosperity of Colorado. While she understands that statewide factors restrict the amount of school funding, Nath said she believes Denver Public Schools could better distribute its dollars.

She used an example from her own life to illustrate the problem. Last August, there were three children getting on the bus at her sons’ bus stop to go to Samuels Elementary. By December, there were seven children. But because the school’s budget was based on a student count from October, she questioned whether it was getting funding for those four additional students.

If elected, Nath said she’d like to revisit the enrollment-based funding model.

“I believe public education is the basis of American democracy and the American dream,” she said. “We need to support public education so children have the opportunity they deserve.”

Nath is running for the school board seat held by President Anne Rowe, who is barred by term limits from running again. Nath was the fourth candidate to enter the race in southeast Denver.

Her opponents include Scott Baldermann, who previously served as president of the parent-teacher organization at his children’s school, and Diana Romero Campbell, a parent who has served on several district committees and is head of a nonprofit that serves Denver students. Candidate Kristi Leech dropped out of the race in July.

Nath strongly aligns herself with a movement to “flip the board” in November and change the direction of Denver Public Schools. She is calling for a moratorium on new charter schools, citing a concern that while charters receive public money, they are run independently and answer to their own boards of directors instead of elected representatives.

Nath also opposes closing low-performing schools, a strategy the Denver school board embraced until recently. Many struggling schools serve high percentages of students living in poverty who have faced trauma. Instead of holding high-poverty schools accountable based on student test scores, Nath said she favors adopting a “community schools” model that pairs academics with services such as food pantries and health clinics.

“Schools that are struggling happen to be in communities that are struggling,” she said. “Closing a school down creates a wound in that community.”

Nath has a doctorate in public policy and works in health care. She is currently a grant-funded contractor for the state, working on developing new models of delivering services to patients. She describes herself as an activist, though much of her experience has been in the health care field. She has not previously served on any Denver Public Schools committees.

Nath said she believes the district needs to do more to empower teachers. Standardized testing has restricted the number of subjects teachers can explore, she said, and she’d like schools to offer more music and art. She’s skeptical that the tax increase Denver voters approved in 2012 to enhance arts programming in schools was spent wisely. A 2016 report by a local advocacy organization also raised questions about the arts funding.

“Parents will dig into their pockets and pay for it,” Nath said, but “the DPS board and administration need to be in sync and make sure that money doesn’t flow into a black hole.”

If elected, Nath said she’d advocate for smaller class sizes: no more than 15 students per class in elementary schools, no more than 18 in middle schools, and no more than 20 in high schools. She said the cost of hiring more teachers shouldn’t be a barrier. If Denver had more teachers and paid them better, she said, those teachers would invest that money back into the local economy, acting as an “economic engine” that would be better for schools in the long run.

Nath also doubted projections by third-party demographers that show enrollment in Denver Public Schools is expected to decline. Demographers say rising housing prices are pushing families out of the city, even as Denver’s overall population grows.

“I don’t necessarily buy into this idea that in a city which is seeing growth year-over-year with a positive influx of people moving into Denver, we’re talking about dropping enrollments,” Nath said. If there are declines, she said the cause is more likely bad district policies.

“It seems to me that creating a loving school environment is priority one,” she said.

Three of the seven school board seats are up for grabs in November. Candidates must file at least 67 days before the election. No incumbents are running.

Thus far, three candidates are vying for the at-large seat held by Happy Haynes, who is barred by term limits from running again. Three other candidates are competing for the seat to represent northwest Denver currently held by Lisa Flores, who is not running for re-election.